Canada's shadow pandemic: Femicide

·5 min read
A recent inquest examined the deaths of Carol Culleton, Nathalie Warmerdam and Anastasia Kuzyk, and focused on the dynamics of gender-based violence. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
A recent inquest examined the deaths of Carol Culleton, Nathalie Warmerdam and Anastasia Kuzyk, and focused on the dynamics of gender-based violence. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

The London Police Services Board in Ontario is preparing a request urging the federal government to add femicide and its definition to the Criminal Code of Canada.

Joined by several other organizations and individuals, they are calling on the federal government to recognize femicide as a distinct crime in which women and girls are killed because they are women and girls.

These calls align with the larger global movement seen in numerous countries, especially in Latin America, to amend criminal codes or implement special legislation to deal with femicide and its prevention. These efforts and work by the United Nations have led to increased use of and understanding of femicide in the public realm.

Femicide-specific legislation would help to raise awareness of this violent crisis: it’s a crucial first step to reducing femicide.

Identifying femicide

How does one determine if a woman was killed because she was a woman?

Currently, the basic definition of femicide is that it occurs when a woman or girl is killed because of their sex or gender.

But this definition doesn’t capture decades of research by feminist social science and legal scholars in Canada and globally.

Red crosses with the Spanish word ‘Justice’ hang on the fence of the National Palace in Mexico, where they were placed by demonstrators holding an event coined a national mourning against femicides. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
Red crosses with the Spanish word ‘Justice’ hang on the fence of the National Palace in Mexico, where they were placed by demonstrators holding an event coined a national mourning against femicides. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

Two key pieces of legislation include the Latin American Model Protocol and the Inter-American Model Law, which address the investigation, prevention, punishment and eradication of femicide. Along with country-specific legislation, these models identify contexts and circumstances in which femicide occurs.

The acts are typically rooted in sex discrimination and often overlap with other identities like race, religion, sexuality and ability. Femicide also usually includes patriarchal notions of women as property or objects of men.

Understanding and identifying femicide is a complex process and important to public awareness and the prevention of violence against women and girls.

The ‘intimacy discount’

One of the most common contexts identified is women who are killed by current or former male partners. This is a narrow approach to defining femicide, but it is the easiest to identify and globally it reflects the most common type of femicide. But emphasizing this context means that femicides are often downplayed in the courts and explained away as crimes of passion, which leads to an “intimacy discount” in law.

Another common circumstance is previous violence like physical, psychological, sexual or economic violence perpetrated against the victim or other girls or women in the past, or repeated prior violence against women.

Some countries are moving beyond these ideas to capture other manifestations of unequal power relations or inequalities that contribute to femicide. These include: the victim declined to establish a relationship; the victim was involved in human trafficking; evidence of hatred of women; sexual coercion or harassment; the victim was pregnant; humiliating, degrading injuries or mutilation.

Recently, the UN Office of Drugs and Crime and the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women released a statistical framework to guide more accurate tracking of femicide.

The framework identifies eight standard characteristics considered indicative of femicide, including but not exclusively the hatred of women and girls.

Read more: Toronto woman set on fire: Violence against women and girls should be treated as a hate crime

The shadow pandemic

For decades, progress against femicide was slow. Over 30 years ago, the largest mass femicide in Canada occurred in Montréal at École Polytechnique. After that, in the mid-1990s, a ground-breaking study on intimate femicide in Ontario helped raise awareness about violence against women and girls.

Since then, there has been limited progress on public knowledge about femicide.

So why now?

The official recognition of femicide in any country often follows concerted national and local efforts to build an understanding of femicide as a social problem.

After COVID-19 exposed existing inequalities and lockdowns and restrictions exacerbated violence against women and children, a “shadow pandemic” of violence against women and girls was made more evident than before.

This situation followed the 2019 National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls report that issued Calls for Justice to address a decades-long travesty that have yet to be adequately addressed.

The opening procession is shown at the closing ceremony for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Gatineau, Que., on June 3, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
The opening procession is shown at the closing ceremony for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Gatineau, Que., on June 3, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

And, in 2018, the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability asked Canadians to #CallItFemicide – to recognize how and why women and girls are killed, primarily by men, distinct from the way men and boys are killed, albeit both are killed primarily by men.

During this period, high-profile cases of femicide occurred across Canada, making it difficult for the news cycle to avoid the topic of violence against women and girls. These cases are on top of the almost daily killing of women and girls that has changed little in 40 years.

Read more: Everyday terrorism: A woman or girl is killed every other day in Canada

Femicide-specific legislation

Social and legal transformations to address violence against women and girls have more often than not fallen far short of their mark.

Official recognition of femicide as a distinct type of violence, would help to make femicide visible: it would help to develop appropriate prevention efforts including increasing public awareness and education.

Public knowledge is the key to violence prevention.

There is an increasing trend to focus, not just on punishment, but also on prevention in existing country legislation and protocols.

Also, so far, it appears no country has specifically identified Indigenous women and girls in its legislation. These would both be crucial steps for Canada.

The official recognition of femicide would be a small, but important, step in what must be larger, more substantive, structural and adequately resourced changes.

If we #CallItFemicide, we can eliminate the artificial dichotomy between public and private violence because all violence against women has public impacts and, thus, is public violence.

If we #CallItFemicide, we continue to challenge the problematic attitudes, beliefs and stereotypes, and rampant societal victim-blaming that continues to downplay this violence.

Putting the contexts and circumstances that contribute to this violence front and centre will help to make room for more nuanced approaches to femicide prevention.

There is still much work to be done, but the time to #CallItFemicide is now.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Myrna Dawson, University of Guelph.

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Myrna Dawson has received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. She is Director of the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability.

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