Today the subject of violence against women by men is no longer the ‘silent elephant in the room’ that no one talks about. Whether it be Canada or India, violence against women has and continues to receive increased attention. However, it is ironic that it was not until after the signing of the United Nations (UN) Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women in December 1993 that attention to femicide began to capture the attention of scholars and lawmakers. (1) The additional impetus towards raising the awareness of femicide came in 2017 when the UN Crime Commission launched the Femicide Watch Platform prototype (see http://femicidewatch.org/ ). Finally, this journal marks one of the first dedicated publications to focus exclusively on femicide.
Femicide in Canada
In Canada, there is no shortage of reports, academic studies, or vested interest groups (e.g., Canadian Women’s Foundation (CWF); YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association); Canadian Council for Refugees, etc.) who provide varying data on violence against women. For example, on their 2019 website, the CWF reports that:
- Approximately every six days, a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate (male) partner.
- There is no province or territory where a case of femicide has not been officially recorded.
- 67% of Canadians know a woman who has experienced physical or sexual abuse.
- Indigenous women are killed at six times the rate of non-Indigenous women.
- Only 5% of sexual assaults were reported to police in 2014. • 82% of those under 18 who experience sexual assault are girls.
- Canadians collectively spend $7.4 billion (approx. $3.55 billion US) to deal with the aftermath of spousal violence alone.
Despite what appears to be an abundance of data on violence against women and girls in Canada, until 2018, the only other national survey (i.e., Violence Against Women Survey - VAWS) on violence against women was conducted in 1993. The study found that almost half of the 12,000 female respondents (18 years of age or older) reported having experienced at least one incident of violence since the age of 16. In most of the cases, the perpetrators of the violence were males who were known to them. Despite this alarming finding, the only other national survey of violence against women occurred during the 1999 General Social Survey, which asked respondents about such related issues as fear of victimization, stalking, sexual assault, and spousal violence (see Sinha, 2013). However, since 2001-2002, the federal government has conducted annual surveys on family violence. Although the surveys represent a step in the right direction, the range of the reviews does not capture the full spectrum of the scale and scope of femicide.
In 2018, replying to police-reported data, Conroy (2018) found that while physical assaults against girls and women declined between 2009 and 2017, sexual violence increased. However, as noted by the CWF and several other studies, despite the increasing openness and awareness towards gender-based violence, the ‘dark figure’ (i.e., unreported rate) is still significant. It remains one of the biggest challenges to collecting data on femicide (see Smith, 1994; Sinha, 2013).
Nevertheless, Canadian-based data on femicide can provide various insights, primarily through high-profile cases, data on its nature and prevalence remain scarce. Part of the challenge lies in the fact that femicide has, and is, addressed in a variety of contexts. For example, femicide is categorized as intimate partner violence, stranger violence, rape and other sexual violence, and honor and dowry practices (see India below). In Canada, for example, in 1983 (under Bill C-127), sexual assault and rape were reclassified in the Criminal Code (sections 271-272) into three levels of sexual assault (i.e., sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault, and sexual assault with a weapon). Several other sections in the Criminal Code also cover other forms of sexual assault, but none of the Criminal Code offences speaks directing to femicide. For example, it is virtually impossible to find any use or reference to such offences as uxoricide, sororicide, prolicide, among other forms of (gender) relational killings. Therefore, trying to collect any official data on femicide in Canada is very difficult. (2)
Additionally, there are some of the more nuanced incidents of violence against Canadian women, which pose additional hurdles in the data collection, interpretation, and accuracy of the data. For example, there are cases of women who are murdered as a result of their association with gang activity. For example, a recent news story revealed that in British Columbia alone (a province on the west coast of Canada), between 2016 and 2017, seventeen females had been killed in gang-related violence (Kane and Smart, 2019). What is not known is how many, if any, of the killings were gender-motivated. Similarly, some women are murdered or assaulted during political violence. Sharlach (2000), in her study of genocide in Bangladesh, the Former Yugoslavia, and Rwanda, reports rape was widely used as political ‘weapons’ to not only cause physical harm but to crush the morale of the country. However, as Sharlach goes on to observe, the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide does not explicitly state that sexual violence is a crime of genocide. Consequently, these crimes go mostly unrecorded and, aside from several scholarly reports, go unnoticed.
Femicide in India
Femicide is deeply rooted in Indian society. Femicide is attributed to illiteracy, poverty, patriarchy, and misogyny. In fact, on January 22nd, 2015, Indian Prime Minister N. Modi called upon the Indian people to celebrate “the life of a girl child.” Included in his vision of ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ (caring for the girl child), Modi supported and urged all Indian fathers to take “Selfie with daughter” (Beti Bachao…, 2015). The call went viral not only in India but around the world.
In India, femicide is mostly about attempts to gain the patriarchal politics of wealth and its ownership. Throughout most of India, there are varied forms of discrimination against women based on culture and tradition, which are exacerbated when mixed with superstitious beliefs. According to various UN reports, India has the world’s highest incident rate of female infanticide. The problems were first documented during the 18th century British census when a considerable discrepancy between girls and boys was recorded. The difference was attributed to certain Hindu practices, such as Sati Pratha, the use of a dowry, and the Vedic importance of having a son over a daughter.
Since India’s mainstream patriarchal society has long favoured the protection of a male child over a female child, the issue of female infanticide remains a largely neglected issue. The gender ratio discrepancy was further confirmed by the fact that today India is the global epicentre for female infanticide. According to the 2019 UN Statistics in World Population Prospectus report, India has only 930 females per thousand males. Furthermore, based on a government report on sex ratio at birth by Niti Aayog (2013-2015), the information is even more astonishing. The report shows that there were only 900 females per 1000 males in the country. This represents a ratio that has dropped even further from the previous iteration of the population census report of 2011, which showed 943 females per thousand males.
Given the unique plight of women in India, the study of femicide needs to be examined within the context of all crimes against women. This includes crimes against women in the family, crimes against women in the community, crimes against women perpetrated by the state, and a crime against women in transnational spaces. As per government regulations, the National Crime Reports Bureau (NCRB) maintains records of all formally recognized crimes against women/girls. There have been, for example, 3.59 lakh cases of crime against women in 2017 (most recent statistics) compared to 3.38 lakh in 2016. Cruelty by husband heir relatives accounts for 27.0 percent of the crimes against women. Assault of women with intent to outrage her modesty comprise 21.7 percent, followed by kidnapping and abduction of women with 20.5 percent, while rape was 7 percent of the officially reported cases.Not only for femicide cases, but all crimes against women in India are on the rise. According to the 2017 NCRB Report on Crime Statistics, there has been an increase of about 16 percent in crime against women in India since 2012. The range of crimes is broad. The crimes include such crimes as rape, sexual harassment, acid attacks, domestic violence, femicides and other barbaric customary practices such as honour killings. In 2018, a Thomson Reuters Foundation survey of 550 experts on women issues found that India was ranked as the most dangerous nation for sexual violence against women, as well as human trafficking for domestic work, forced labour, forced marriage, sexual slavery, amongst other reasons. India was also declared as the most dangerous country in the world where cultural traditions place women as risk of gender-motivated crimes such as acid attacks, female genital mutilation, child marriage and physical abuse.
The Indian government has recently undertaken several initiatives to curb the incident rate of femicide and crimes against women, in general. For example, the government has introduced new legislation to prevent crimes against women, such as the Domestic Violence Act, the Dowry Prohibition Act, etc. United Nation Population Fund Report (2011) suggest that the gender-based termination of pregnancy has surged after the inception of scientific techniques to determine the gender of a child. According to the later report, there have been 10 million sex-selective abortion from 1980 to 2010. Although originally intended to help detect if the fetus had any genetic disorders or chromosomal abnormalities and the fact that the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act (2003)) was introduced to prevent the misuse the diagnostic techniques, the techniques is being used as an instrument of femicide. Unfortunately, there is no reliable statistics available on true nature and extent to which the technique is used to commit femicide. This is seen as a significant gap in the official data that needs to be addressed if India is going to effectively combat femicide.
At this point, it is unclear how India might be able to collect reliable and valid data on femicide. Despite the various measures taken to improve data collection and ensure the safety of women and girls, it is reasonable to assume that the ‘dark figure’ is far more significant than what is officially reported. Notwithstanding the previous comment, there have been several attempts to improve the quality of data collection. Still, such efforts have proven to be mostly futile as there appears to be a lack of (collective) political will. This has been reflected in several in the fact that the NCRB report on crimes against women for 2017 was not released until 2019. Furthermore, there are very few nationally or regionally funded studies on the issue of femicide, further suggesting a bias by official government funding agencies.
The availability of reliable and valid data on femicide (let alone crimes against women) remains a complex, a controversial, and sensitive issue in India. As a result, India has a significant challenge on its hand concerning the implementation of the existing legislative framework to uproot such practices from the grass-root level. However efficient, the government alone cannot address the femicide issue. To bring about a change, all stakeholders must make efforts and that individual citizens understand the magnitude and effects of the problem. For this to work, there not only has to be a change in the public mindset, but it will also require a paradigm shift among politicians and perhaps increased international pressure on India to ensure that the appropriate and necessary data is collected. In so doing, such data can then be used to properly inform policies and actions can be taken to protect women and girls from acts of femicide.
Lessons learned from a ‘tale of two countries’
In addition to the various categories of femicide, the definitional challenges (see Weil, Corradi, & Naudi, 2018; DeKeseredy & Schwartz, 2011) pose a range of methodological variances in the collection and interpretation of data. For example, depending on the theoretical perspective used to explain violence against women, DeKeseredy and Schwartz (2011) question: “whether researchers’ definitions and theories are sensitive to their subjective experiences” (p. 16). In the social sciences, it is a well-established fact that unless you can collect reliable and valid data than any effort to explain, describe, understand, or predict how to respond to an issue such as femicide, then you risk making an ill-informed (policy) decision.
Accurate measurement of femicide is paramount to any ability to address the issue effectively. However, as most of the readers know, we are not saying anything new. For example, Schrottle and Meshkova (2018), in their review of European countries, found that data collection on femicide was typically reliant on national crime statistics which aside from being incomplete (i.e., dark figure), are also not comparable. Simple things, as noted above, such as the definition of the crime, the modes of data collection, and the recording of data are not comparable or consistent. Furthermore, as is the case in both Canada and India, official crime statistics do not record the motives underlying the gender-based crime, let alone the relationship between the victims and offenders.
Additionally, neither country has a standardized data collection system for recording incidents of femicide. There is high heterogeneity, although police and official crime statistics are the primary sources of femicide data. Other sources across both countries include informal population-based studies to incomplete (categorically) sex-crime related offences, review of media articles and postings, and in a few cases, studies that access hospital records. While some of the other data can be disaggregated by gender and examined qualitatively to discern the victim-perpetrator relationship such procedures are far from ideal, let alone reliable or generalizable to different settings.
Recommendations for improved data collection
It is clear from the two ‘case’ studies and other studies (see Strengthening understanding…, 2008) that there is a need for more accurate data and statistics on femicide if we are going to truly understand (i.e., documenting & exposing) the nature, pattern, and extent of femicide, and the evidence-informed knowledge necessary for prevention and intervention.
As it is beyond the scope of this article to provide a detailed list of suggestions, we offer several critical points for consideration. Most of these points also align with those put forth by COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology).
- International cooperation: As a global crime, the international community should collaborate “in a coalition to avoid doubling activities” (Weil et al., 2018, p. 49).
- Methodological consideration: There is an ongoing (urgent) need to collect data on femicide, including population-based studies; analysis of service records; homicide, police, hospital, court, and mortuary statistics; domestic fatality reviews; verbal autopsies; and evaluation of newspaper articles.
- Improve definition: If a universal definition of femicide can be agreed upon, then it will be easier to not only collect data but also engage in national and international comparisons.
- Data sources: Explore the use of qualitative and quantitative data sources in femicide. Such data can/should be collected on all regional national and international levels and across a range of primary and secondary sources. In addition to improving and standardizing any data collection strategies regarding femicide, it is necessary to address gender inequalities and the entrenched negative attitudes and stereotypes that continue to exist towards girls and women in both countries. Further research is needed to (better) understand the underlying factors that contribute to female victimization – femicide.
An article by John Winterdyk, Department of Economics, Justice, and Policy Studies; Mount Royal University, Calgary, Canada and Purvi Pokhariyal, Dean, Institute of Law, Nirma University, Ahmedabad, India.
Professor John Winterdyk is recognized as one of the leading criminologists in Canada. He has published over 35 academic books and is credited with dozens of peer reviewed journal articles that have been published in a wide array of national and international journals. In addition to serving on numerous editorial boards, John is the Book Review Editor for the Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice and the Journal of Human Trafficking. He holds several international adjunct positions (Namibia, India, and Canada). John is the recipient of the Distinguished Scholarship Award (2009), as well as the co-recipient of the Distinguished Team Research Award (2010). In 2019, he was the recipient of the Outstanding Scholar Award in the Arts Faculty, as well as the recipient of the national Public Education Award from the Canadian Criminal Justice Association. John’s current research interests include human trafficking, adult corrections, comparative criminology and criminal justice, and crime prevention.
Prof. (Dr.) Purvi Pokhariyal is presently Director and Dean of the Institute of Law, Nirma University in Ahmedabad, India. She specializes in the area of criminal justice studies and justice education. She has been a consultant and resource person on various aspects of legal studies for government and non-government organizations. Her recent areas of interests include higher education, pedagogy and assessment for teaching.
Prof. Purvi Pokhariyal, was conferred with the Senior Social Scientist Award by the Indian Society of Criminology for her significant contribution to the field of Criminology. She has presented extensively at various training programmes, national and international conferences. Prof. Pokhariyal has been actively engaged in the institution building and clinical legal education process.
- The Declaration is seen to be complementary and to strengthen the 1979 UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
- For additional information on femicide in Canada see the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability at https://femicideincanada.ca/welcome
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