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Were the Atlanta shootings a case of femicide?

Having a single term to talk about killing women for being women would be useful.
Image: Demonstrators with signs and crosses for the victims of femicide attend a national strike on International Women's Day in Mexico City on March 8, 2018.
"Femicide" is a crime in 18 Latin American countries. Is it time the U.S. joins them? Alicia Vera / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

The Atlanta shootings appear to have had misogyny at their root along with the apparent racism. A man is accused of going out of his way to kill seven women — six of whom were Asian — and one man at places he told police provided a “temptation” for him. Even in cases where race is a factor, violence in this country is often disproportionately committed against women, as recent statistics from the forum Stop AAPI Hate make all too clear.

The reported behavior of the alleged gunman is a type of dehumanization that we see all too often in the context of people — disproportionately men — killing women for being women. So isn’t it time to change the way Americans talk about this particular category of crime?

I say “Americans” because this problem of context is particularly prevalent and timely in the United States in comparison to many other countries. I spent years working with BuzzFeed News’ Karla Zabludovsky, a Mexico City-based reporter who has produced in-depth, award-winning coverage of misogyny and gender-based violence in Latin America. It was in editing her pieces that I first came across the term “femicide,” which U.N. Women loosely defines as the “intentional murder of women because they are women, but may be defined more broadly to include any killings of women or girls.” It’s a succinct, unfortunately useful term. So why, I wondered Wednesday night, wasn’t it a term that was being used in the U.S.? I asked as much on Twitter; I was still getting responses as of Thursday afternoon.

The short version: “Femicide” only became part of the political lexicon in Latin America because women there made it part of the discussion in ways that haven't happened in the U.S. Catesby Holmes, international editor at The Conversation, pointed me to an article at her outlet by Ariadna Estévez that dove deep into the origins of the term and how it was expanded in Latin America:

The term “femicide” was coined by American feminists Jill Radford, Diana E. Russell and Jane Caputi to mean the misogynistic murder of women by men. Femicide is the politics of killing women, the extreme-most action of a terror continuum against women.

For American feminist thinkers, then, femicide includes a wide range of physical, discursive and sexual abuse against women and girls: rape, slavery, torture, incest, harassment, mutilation, forced heterosexuality, criminalization of abortion and contraception.

Mexican feminists have modified this framework using our specific experience. Looking at the systemic killing of women in Ciudad Juarez in the 1990s, Julia Monárrez and Marcela Lagarde suggested the more accurate concept “feminicide”, based on the notion that femicide is just a gender-specific word for homicide while feminicide refers to the killing of women based on their social or biological gender, and the characteristics attributed to that gender.

Thanks to women’s rights groups across Latin America organizing against these targeted murders, 18 countries in the region had passed laws specifically codifying “feminicide, femicide or aggravated homicide due to gender” as a discrete criminal activity as of 2017. With those changes came the ability to track cases. The latest data, from 2019, showed that Honduras led the region in femicides: 6.2 out of every 100,000 women in the country were killed for being a woman.

The closest the U.S. has come to enacting a federal law against femicide is the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which the House voted to reauthorize on Wednesday. When first passed, VAWA included a section that affirmed the ability of women to sue anyone who “commits a crime of violence motivated by gender” against them in federal civil court.

I use the past tense because, as one Twitter user informed me, the Supreme Court struck down the “civil remedy” section of the law in 2000 as being an unconstitutional federal overreach. (A federal hate crimes statute signed into law in 2009 is likewise limited in scope — federal prosecutors can only go after gender-based violence if the crime somehow affected interstate or foreign commerce.)

Instead, states have had the lead on outlawing gender-based violence, resulting in uneven standards across the country. As of 2019, 38 states have definitions and penalties for “domestic violence” in their criminal code, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That patchwork, as freelance journalist Melissa Jeltsen tweeted to me, creates a system where since “most fatal violence against women is perpetrated by intimate partners, it’s more common to hear domestic homicide.” So, it’s only through individual cases or studies that we can pull out data on femicide in the U.S.

This brings us back to Atlanta. As fellow MSNBC columnist Katie S. Phang recently wrote, sex and gender are both considered protected categories under Georgia’s recently passed hate crimes statute. But the Georgia law only enables potential additional punishment at sentencing once a defendant is convicted of a felony or misdemeanor.

And while the version of VAWA that the House approved is newly updated — including the addition of protections for LGBTQ survivors of domestic abuse and closing a loophole that let dating partners convicted of domestic violence still acquire firearms — as far as we know, none of the measures would have covered the suspect’s actions.

So, should the U.S. follow in Latin America’s footsteps and criminalize femicide specifically? There are definitely arguments to be made against that move. For one, as many opponents of hate crime legislation would argue, there are already laws against homicide and attempted homicide — why add another just for women? Whether it would have any deterrent effect on those who inevitably eventually kill women is debatable, too. There are also fair questions to be asked about whether, in a country as overly reliant on incarceration as the United States, we need another law on the books designed to lock people up.

When sex and gender play a large part in the motivation of a woman’s murder, we should have a common way to refer to it.

But at a bare minimum, I think that in the process of finalizing the VAWA reauthorization, Congress should add a clause that requires states to provide statistics on women’s deaths at the hands of men to the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women. Before we can address the issue, we need to know the scope of the problem. As it stands, we’re flying blind in the U.S., depending on the work of volunteers and nonprofits to give their best guesses.

And whether American lawmakers take up the cause or not, I believe it’s worth adding “femicide” to the way we address men targeting women for death here in the U.S. When sex and gender play a large part in the motivation of a woman’s murder, we should have a common way to refer to it.

It’s a shift that’s begun to take hold in France, as journalist Jess McHugh wrote from Paris for The Washington Post last year. “The leaders of these worldwide uprisings were often regular people who lost sisters, mothers, daughters or best friends,” McHugh wrote. “They have now transformed their lives to fight femicide. It’s time for the United States to do the same.”

I couldn’t agree more.