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Establishing a national femicide watch in the United States

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the first noticeable shifts in violence trends worldwide was the alarming spike in reports of cases of domestic violence — an uptick that was seen throughout the United States, China and many countries in Europe. In just the first three weeks of lockdown in the United Kingdom, activists recorded an over 50 percent increase in domestic violence killings. In April 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) warned of an increase in domestic violence due to an increase in gun sales, an alarming call in a country where 61 percent of mass shootings occur entirely in the home.

The gender-related killings of women and girls, coined “femicide” by the United Nations, regional human rights bodies and others in the international arena, is not tracked by the U.S. federal government. While the DOJ does track intimate partner homicides, there is no standardized definition for or federal tracking of femicide in the United States, putting it at odds with many countries in Central and Latin America, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, and the United Nations Human Rights Council. Under President Biden, the U.S. has an opportunity to act on the administration’s bold claims of striving for gender equality by establishing a national femicide watch.

Femicide watches have existed in different forms in countries for the past several decades, but not within the United States. Currently, the most comprehensive database for tracking these murders is a one-woman-run operation, Women Count USA: Femicide Accountability Project, which has tracked gender-related killings since 2017. Women Count USA’s work forms much of the knowledge base on femicide in the U.S., and the amount of effort involved makes it an unsustainable model. Prior to the pandemic, one in three women in the U.S. was projected to experience intimate partner violence in their lifetime. For too many, this ends in murder or lifelong injuries and trauma. These victims and survivors deserve a federal system that will honor their lives by ensuring this does not happen to other women and girls.

There are several international efforts in progress that the U.S. could begin to contribute to, which would bolster both U.S. engagement with international gender rights norms and domestic partners. In 2015, the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences (SRVAW), Dr. Dubravka Šimonović called on all U.N. member states to establish a femicide watch to monitor femicide practices across the globe in order to identify risk factors and opportunities for change in public policy. The UN SRVAW Femicide Watch Initiative was presented to the U.N. General Assembly in 2016 when the Special Rapporteur began the request for data and submissions from member states, independent human rights institutions, civil society organizations and academic institutions.

The call for inputs, which has been renewed every year since 2017, has never been answered by the United States. In contrast, Mexico, which has one of the few federal laws defining femicide, has produced a collaboration between the National Citizen Observatory of Femicide and government institutions for the past three years, making it one of the leading nations on data collection around femicides. Women’s Aid Ireland has been producing a femicide watch project for the past three decades, which can be used as an example for recommendations within the U.S. federal system. Reports have been included from countries such as Algeria, Canada and South Africa, among many others.

Now that Biden has announced the Gender Policy Council, the U.S. must seriously consider how to tackle femicide at home. The executive order forming the council specifically calls out the need to prevent and respond to all forms of gender-based violence, but you cannot begin to stop a problem if you don’t know the full scale of the issue. A federal initiative on femicide is absolutely necessary. The model for a project of this scale does exist, and the Biden administration should work with international and national experts to fill this data gap within the U.S. system.

While the need for a femicide watch is justified simply because it could prevent future violence against women, it could also provide wider societal benefits. Domestic violence is the number one indicator of whether or not someone will commit future mass violence. If we took it seriously and tracked it, we would likely have fewer instances of mass violence. A Boston University study indicates that “the failure to understand domestic violence as a precursor to public violence has led us to miss the warning signs about men who later committed public mass shootings.” The administration cannot earnestly claim to be advancing gender equality locally and globally if they are ignoring a glaring problem within our borders. 

According to Everytown for Gun Safety, on average, 57 American women every month are murdered with a gun by a current or former partner. The United States needs to take steps to prevent more loss of life and can begin by labeling this epidemic for what it is: a human rights crisis.

Julia Canney is a practitioner and an advocate with expertise in gender, violence prevention, and transitional justice. She currently serves as the Policy and Communications associate for the Impact: Peace initiative at the University of San Diego’s Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice.

Tags COVID-19 domestic abuse Domestic violence Femicide gender equity gun violence Joe Biden lockdowns Violence against women

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