Femicide Causes and Risk Factors

last updated September 10, 2008

There are a number of factors that contribute to the prevalence of femicide, including discrimination, the presence of a culture of violence, impunity, and poverty, among other factors. Discrimination and violence against women are interlinked. According to Amnesty International’s 2004 report on Turkey, discrimination manifests itself in the way boys and girls are treated from birth, the level of education that girls can achieve and the treatment they receive as women in their work, home and community. Discrimination may be manifested in a widespread machismo culture, as in Mexico according to the Special Rapporteur’s 2005 report on Mexico, which downgrades women to a subordinate role in their family and in the community. Women are defined through their relationships with the men in their life – a woman is always someone’s daughter, wife or mother. This is also true for Afghanistan, where women are subjected to the authority of a male figure from birth, and have restricted freedom of movement and very little opportunity for economic or social independence, according to a 2005 report by Amnesty International.

Femicide is also more likely to occur in countries where there is a culture of violence; for example, after a civil war or an armed conflict, or where everyday acts of violence are accepted as normal. The 36-year internal conflict in Guatemala, for example, led to women’s disappearance, torture, rape, murder, and widowhood; and according to a 2007 report by Washington Office on Latin America, served to highlight the violence against women that has existed and continues to exist today. Amnesty International reported in 2005 that in Afghanistan, the culture of violence against women was inherited from the violent practices of the Taliban regime. In fact, even after the regime was removed, women continued to be brutally murdered by stoning, rape and strangulation according to Amnesty International.

Impunity, or the failure to bring human rights violators to justice, perpetuates the cycle of violence and discrimination which leads to femicide. The general underreporting of crimes of femicide also further facilitates impunity. In Afghanistan, for example, women are unwilling to report the crimes committed against them, as they have no faith in the authorities, according to a 2005 Amnesty International report. In fact, the report stated that the Afghan police are reluctant to investigate crimes committed in the family, including women’s violent deaths. In addition, there is unwillingness by the authorities to prosecute the killings of women. In Guatemala, there have been only 20 sentences for the more than 2,500 murders committed in the past six years according to the Washington Office on Latin America’s 2007 report. As a result of these failures, women continue to be brutally killed and their lives are regarded as expendable. In Mexico, the majority of murder cases continue to be unsolved according to the Special Rapporteur’s 2005 report on Mexico.

Although the crime of femicide can take many different forms and affect different kinds of victims, there are some characteristics that most victims share including: poverty, youth, and/or not being dependent upon a man economically. Poor women and women that live in densely populated areas are at a greater risk of being killed as a result of femicide. A 10-year study of intimate partner homicide in New York City (1990-1999) revealed that most femicide victims lived in poor neighborhoods. From: Frye, Victoria et. al., Femicide in New York City: 1990 to 1999, Homicide Studies; Aug 2005, Vol. 9 Issue 3.

In Mexico, most victims are described as coming from “poor, underprivileged families and often worked in the maquiladoras, local bars or nightclubs,” according to the Special Rapporteur’s 2005 report on Mexico. Amnesty International reported that most of the women reported killed in Guatemala lived in urban areas, came from poor sectors of society and had low paying jobs.

Teenagers and young women have been singled out as a group that is more likely to be victimized. In a 2005 report, Amnesty International stated that most women abducted and killed in Mexico were between 13 and 22 years of age. In New York City a quarter of the victims killed in the nineties were below 24 years old and another third were between 25 and 34. From: Frye, Victoria et. al., Femicide in New York City: 1990 to 1999, Homicide Studies; Aug 2005, Vol. 9 Issue 3. The Special Rapporteur reported that in Turkey, “62% of female suicide victims in 2002 were younger than 30 years old, and 37% were in the 15 to 25 age group.”

Another high-risk group are women who are economically independent or heads of household. According to the Special Rapporteur’s 2005 report on Mexico, victims may sometimes have several children to support and be single mother heads of household. The Special Rapporteur also noted that economically independent women, some of whom may be labeled by their communities as “witches,” are at risk of being victims of femicide. Violence and murder in these cases have been regarded as a backlash against women’s empowerment, with the violence serving as a warning against women who have stepped outside the "safe" domestic sphere. From: Prieto-Carron, Marina et al., No More Killings! Women Respond to Femicides in Central America, Gender and Development, Vol. 15, No. 1, March 2007.

Migrant women face a greater risk of becoming victimized. Femicide in Mexico rose sharply in 1993, which also coincided with the movement of large groups of migrant workers to newly opened factories in the north according to the Special Rapporteur’s 2005 report on Mexico. In fact, according to the report, the border between Mexico and Guatemala is a particularly dangerous place for undocumented migrant women from other Latin American countries on their way to the United States. A study in New York City found that more than 50% of intimate-partner femicides were of migrant foreign-born women. From: Frye, Victoria et. al., Femicide in New York City: 1990 to 1999, Homicide Studies; Aug 2005, Vol. 9 Issue 3.

Studies in Canada and the United States also report that women from ethnic minorities are more often victims of femicide. In a New York City study of femicides from 1990 to 1999, more than half of all femicide victims were African-American and a quarter were Latina. From: Frye, Victoria et. al., Femicide in New York City: 1990 to 1999, Homicide Studies; Aug 2005, Vol. 9 Issue 3. A study in Ontario, Canada, concluded that the rate for femicide of Aboriginal women was five to ten times higher than that for non-Aboriginal women. From: Gartner, Rosemary et. al., Woman killing: intimate femicide in Ontario, 1974-1994, Resources for Feminist Research. 1998. Vol. 26, Issue 3/4.