(This article has been translated into French)

Policy Options Podcast · Data is a defence against femicide – In Their Words 07

Data on femicide, the killing of women and girls because of their sex or gender, remain difficult to access and collect, particularly in some world regions and for some groups of women and girls. These data gaps are putting the lives of women and girls at risk, underscoring the urgent need to emphasize prevention as the priority for data collection, rather than simply fulfilling the administrative needs of governments.

Like other countries, Canada faces challenges in documenting femicide accurately, forcing us to face two crucial questions: If we cannot document femicide in a reliable and valid manner, what is the hope of ever documenting other forms of violence against women and girls consistently and accurately? And if we are not emphasizing prevention as a core goal of data collection, why collect data at all?

Statistics Canada’s Homicide Survey collects relatively comprehensive information on all homicides that occur; however, these police-reported data are limited for determining whether the case was a sex-related or gender-related killing. In part this is because data-collection instruments were historically designed to capture male-on-male homicides and, despite modifications over time, this remains true today.

Canada is not unique in this regard. Most countries around the world collect and report only the most basic of data on homicide (compiled globally by the United Nations). Given that the data are usually collected by official government agencies, they are not easily accessible to researchers, advocates, service providers or violence-prevention organizations.

This situation also reflects the troubling data biases identified by Caroline Criado Perez in her 2019 book, Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. Perez argues that whether the biases are intended or not does not really matter, because the result is that girls’ and women’s lives are being put at risk ─ “[F]rom smartphone design to medical trials,” data are based on or generated for men. As is evident from the lack of variables and measures in official data-collection instruments that could assist with the prevention of femicide, the lives of women and girls are at risk because we are not collecting and making accessible the right information.

For example, female victims are most often killed by men they know – their male partners and family members (this is not true for male victims, who are more often killed by acquaintances and strangers). However, there are only a few variables in the Canadian homicide survey that capture the crucial information on risk factors for femicide such as prior violence, prior police contacts, role of separation, custody/access disputes, sexual violence, and excessive violence.

In 1991, the variable “history of family violence,” which focuses on family violence broadly (for example, spousal abuse, child, or parent battering), was added. Recently, this variable was updated to capture a “history of family or intimate partner violence” to allow for dating partners, which had previously been excluded. However, the variable still does not capture the direction of violence, the extent/escalation of violence, or the type of violence, which are crucial for understanding and identifying femicide.

Also added recently was a variable to capture the existence of an “order preventing contact” (for example, a peace bond or protection order) between suspects and victims, but there is no way to capture the type of order or its context (who it pertained to or what the impetus was).

Finally, while information on prior criminal convictions is collected in Canada for victims and accused, there is no easy way to determine if they were domestic-violence-related convictions, because no such offence exists in the Canadian Criminal Code. Therefore, despite prior violence being one of the most common sex/gender-related factors contributing to femicide, the homicide survey is not able to consistently document this valuable information, even with the recent modifications.

Focusing more specifically on the killings of women by male partners are domestic violence death review committees, which now exist in six countries, including Canada. Depending on time and resources, some of these reviews access several data sources, potentially producing a more complete picture of femicide, at least as it occurs between intimate partners. These initiatives may also be the only mechanism that comprehensively investigates femicides followed by a perpetrator’s suicide, which account for a significant proportion of femicide cases but are not always subject to detailed investigations, because no criminal proceedings follow.

Pursuing the career the women of Polytechnique could not

The pandemic is “undoing” women’s physical and financial security

While several Canadian provinces currently have these review committees, not all do, creating an inequity in data availability. Where they exist, the goal is primarily to examine intimate partner homicides and, while some do include children and third-party victims, many femicides are still not captured.

Unless somehow linked to domestic violence, there would be no in-depth examinations of women killed by non-intimates (strangers, acquaintances) or in other contexts (gang involvement, human trafficking, organized crime). In addition, the number of cases and materials reviewed, voices heard and stakeholders/experts at the table are also variable across jurisdictions, again producing data inequities.

Therefore, while the focus on prevention in death reviews is crucial and can enhance the safety of those experiencing this type of violence, the quality of the reviews varies significantly and, like the homicide survey, they do not address justice and accountability, which are core components of violence prevention. The absence of death review mechanisms that capture femicide more broadly is particularly concerning. Research has shown that Indigenous women and girls are often killed by male acquaintances and strangers, and they are more likely to be killed by strangers than are non-Indigenous women. These femicides would fall outside the mandate of most, if not all, domestic-violence-death review initiatives.

Reconceptualizing data collection as a prevention tool rather than an administrative exercise could begin to address these data gaps, but this must begin at the point of a police investigation that feeds into aggregate-level data. Law and governing bodies are not in the business of conducting research, but they can learn from those who are and facilitate evidence-based data. First, they can collect more appropriate information, and second, they can make data accessible to those who play a crucial role in preventing and responding to male violence against women and girls. This would require strong and sustainable collaboration among researchers, communities and governments. Such efforts are supported globally by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, who has consistently called on countries, including Canada, to improve data collection on femicide.

Given the persistent gaps in the data ─ especially around the killings of Indigenous, Black, racialized, poor and/or immigrant/refugee women and girls – we also need to begin to ask why data that are important to prevention of femicide and male violence against women and girls are not systematically and routinely collected now.

One key contributor is the historical and ongoing effects of racist and/or patriarchal social structures, including historical and contemporary decision-makers, for whom the collection of these data was and is not seen as a priority. These decision-makers continue to act as gatekeepers, deciding for whom and how the data will be used. For example, as the criminal justice system is a patriarchal institution with recognized and inherent systemic racism, the recording of data for police investigations and court proceedings will reflect this fact, as will the policies that rely on these data.

These ongoing impacts of “public patriarchy” will continue to put the lives of women and girls at risk until there is state and public recognition of femicide as a phenomenon worthy of examination. This commitment would require challenging entrenched hierarchies of “worthy subjects,” which often leaves the victimization of women and girls invisible and outside the boundaries of people who deserve protection. The paucity of data that captures the combined social identities of women and girls, specifically those considered on the margins, suggests their worthiness is invisible, and their lives – and deaths – are discounted. When collecting data, governments do not view the killings of women and girls as having importance outside the fact that they contribute to national homicide statistics. This is where the problem lies – the focus is on administrative data that are limited and largely inaccessible to those who could use it effectively, so the data are significantly underused.

We need to refocus data collection efforts on producing accessible prevention data that can be used to inform more nuanced responses to the prevention of violence against women and girls, specifically those at highest risk of femicide. Like all forms of violence against women and girls, femicide is a specific problem and requires specific data, research and solutions.

Do you have something to say about the article you just read? Be part of the Policy Options discussion, and send in your own submission, or a letter to the editor. 
Myrna Dawson
Myrna Dawson is a professor and research leadership chair, University of Guelph, and director of the Centre for the Study of Social & Legal Responses to Violence and the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice & Accountability. Twitter @DawsonMyrna

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License