The hate crime you've never heard of

Twenty years after the Beijing Platform for Action set out its agenda to prevent and eliminate global violence against women, such violence is still ubiquitous. Even in the U.S., four women each day die at the hands of a past or current intimate partner. Femicide, the killing of women because of their gender, is the most extreme form of violence against women. Current U.S. law doesn’t pay adequate attention to the role of gender dynamics in violent interpersonal relations. In order to more effectively protect the lives of American women, the US needs federal law prohibiting femicide.

The prevalence of violence against women is startling. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 35.6 percent of American women have experienced rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner. The impact of that violence can include physical injury, psychological distress, loss of work and the need for legal services. Women need legal protection from violence and its consequences. The laws we currently have on the books aren’t enough.

The Violence Against Women Act and its hotly contested 2013 reauthorization do not even scratch the surface of femicide. The law focuses mainly on much needed support services for survivors but does nothing to document or punish femicide. Meanwhile, some states have tried to respond to femicide by enacting their own legislation on violence against women.

Take the case of Gwen Salley, who was kidnapped and later shot in May 2014 by her husband in Caddo Parish, La., shortly following his release from jail on a domestic violence arrest. “Gwen’s Law” passed the Louisiana legislature with unanimous approval and was signed into law less than month after Gwen Salley’s death. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle coalesced around the egregious case of violence.

“Gwen’s law requires a cooling off period and a fatality risk assessment for offenders of domestic violence statutes in an effort to save lives” said Patricia E. Koch, 9th Judicial District Court Judge. It is a major step toward protecting victims, but it doesn’t provide for the criminalization of femicide. Existing Louisiana statues for first-degree murder provide protections for specific groups like police officers, youths and the elderly as well as individuals who have existing protection or restraining orders. Yet there is no specific mention of murder prosecution for intimate partners or the role of gender in the crime of murder.

Over half (51.8 percent) of women killed in the U.S. are murdered by an intimate partner or family member. By its nature as a crime committed on the basis of gender, femicide is inherently discriminatory. While hate crimes legislation does include gender-based violence, there’s evidence that federal hate crimes statistics drastically underestimate the prevalence of femicide.  

Twenty-eight states have hate crimes legislation including gender and national hate crime legislation includes gender among the categories of crimes motivated by biases. The FBI reported only 25 anti-female gender-based hate crimes in 2013. Those numbers are in stark contrast to what we know about the murder of women.

Nearly 3,000 women are murdered in the US each year and just over half of those crimes are committed by women’s partners. That means that roughly 1,400 women a year are being killed by past or current intimate partners. Even if only a small portion of these murders are femicide, these numbers don’t align with the low number of gender-based hate crimes reported. Women and girls have even been targeted in some of the mass violence that unfortunately has become all too familiar with in our country. Current federal data can’t adequately capture or reflect the true frequency of femicide in the US.

Certainly, a federal law against femicide won’t prevent violence. However, the law would be an important piece of the puzzle in addressing violence that many women face. A well-conceived femicide law will define the crime of femicide at the national level and create mechanisms for more accurate accounting.    

Federal legislation on femicide would affirm our belief in the value of women’s lives for the women at risk today and in the future.


Evans is assistant professor at Emory University.