Over 6,000 organizations in 185 countries have dedicated Dec. 6 as a day of remembrance, action and accountability to address femicide, as part of a 16-day global activism campaign to end gender-based violence. On this day in 1989, an armed gunman murdered 14 women in the Montreal Massacre as part of his fight against feminism. This year, the day holds a different meaning; it marks one month since the death of my friend and colleague Jennifer Schlecht, a champion of women’s rights.
In the week that Jenn and her daughter, Abay, were murdered in New York, two other women were also killed. All were victims of domestic or intimate partner violence. While the deaths of all four victims were covered in the media, the true cause of their deaths was omitted. Jenn, Abay, Janed and Donne all died because of their gender.
Femicide, the killing of women and girls because of their gender, is the most extreme form of intimate partner violence. Based on known femicide risk factors, some tools to mitigate risk are available. Yet reliable data about the incidence of femicide are scarce — murders of women are rarely identified as being related to their gender or sex.
And this is no surprise, given the frequency with which women experience violence. One in three women globally will experience physical, sexual or psychological violence during their lifetimes. While never acceptable, such violence may be inescapable, even for privileged women like Jenn: well-educated, well-employed, white, American.
Jenn was a woman willing to challenge traditional systems of power; the very nature of her work — advocating on behalf of marginalized women and girls globally — necessitated it. If she could not escape, how do any of the rest of us stand a chance?
The truth is that shame, stigma and structural barriers obstruct many women’s chances at a life free from violence. During the three years I worked closely with Jenn on the Inter-Agency Field Manual on Reproductive Health in Humanitarian Settings — including a chapter on gender-based violence — I had no idea what Jenn was going through; in 2016 at the same time we were working together, Jenn requested a restraining order against her partner. As her friend, I am left to reflect on what more, if anything, I could have done to prevent her death.
I, along with Jenn’s other colleagues, are tasked with carrying forward her important work. Jenn played a critical part in ensuring that the needs, demands and rights of women and girls in emergencies were front and center, particularly impacting the 2017 London Family Planning Summit. She helped to catalyze a sea change in how the broader sexual and reproductive health community views the importance of including women and girls affected by crises, something mostly recently reflected in the attention given to this topic at the recent Nairobi Summit. Her contributions to this work simply cannot be overstated.
Today I join thousands around the globe in mobilizing against femicide — drawing lessons about remembrance, action and accountability from Jenn and Abay’s story. As we call upon nations to address the problem of gender-based violence, Jenn’s memory implores us to speak truth to the cause of her death and work toward its end.
The death last week of Elitânia de Souza da Hora, a 25-year-old Afro-Brazilian killed last week allegedly by an ex-boyfriend, underscores this point; she had recently completed her senior thesis on femicide. Elitânia joins Jenn. In five hours, statistically, another woman will join them, and in five more hours another.
The policy actions and social norms change needed to end gender-based violence in this country and abroad are not simple, but they are necessary and doable. They begin with improving supports to survivors of intimate partner violence; they also include engaging men and boys in the prevention of gender-based violence. Without such efforts we lose 50,000 women a year to femicide — women like Jenn, girls like Abay.
Amidst the grief, one thing is clear: the importance of carrying forward Jenn's legacy, of ensuring that women and girls have access to health and rights, whether in the U.S., developing or humanitarian settings. We will miss Jenn dearly in this effort — and mourn the loss of Abay’s unrealized potential — but take guidance from the inspiration they have given us.
Dabney P. Evans, Ph.D., MPH, is an associate professor of global health at Emory University and co-chair of the Gender-Based Violence sub-working group of the Inter-Agency Working Group on Reproductive Health in Crises.