Femicide is the murder of women. It is one of the top five causes of premature death in the United States for young women from 20 to 49 years old.
Intimate Partner Femicide
U.S. women are murdered by an intimate partner (IP) (husband, boyfriend) or former partner approximately nine times more often than by strangers. According to recent research, between 40% and 50% of women killed by a known perpetrator are killed by an IP, compared to 5.5% of men killed by an intimate partner. African American women die at the hands of men almost three times as often as do White women, with Native American and Hispanic women also having higher rates of IP femicide. In New York City, immigrant women were found to be more at risk for IP femicide than those born in the United States. Also important are IP attempted femicides, with approximately eight such near fatal incidents occurring for every actual femicide.
The vast majority (67% to 80%) of IP homicides involve physical abuse of the female by the male partner or ex-partner before the murder, no matter which partner is killed. Thus, prior domestic violence against the female partner is the number one risk factor for IP homicide. During the last 20 years of the 20th century, IP homicides decreased by almost 50% in the United States, with rates decreasing far more for male victims (67.8%) than female victims (30.1%). The rates have since stabilized. The decreases in IP homicides occurred during the same time period as national social programs and legal interventions to reduce intimate partner violence, and in states where the laws and resources (shelters and crisis hotlines) were the most available, there were the greatest decreases in women killing male intimate partners. Increases in women’s resources, decreases in marriage rates, domestic violence policies such as pro-arrest mandates, as well as decreases in gun accessibility are all associated with the decreases in IP homicides.
A recent national case control study found the following factors most strongly associated with increased IP femicide risks over and above prior domestic violence: perpetrator access to a gun, estrangement, perpetrator unemployment, perpetrator highly controlling, perpetrator threatens to kill partners, prior threats or use of weapons against their partners, biological child of female partner not the perpetrator’s, and forced sex.
Protective factors were the victim and perpetrator never living together and prior arrest for domestic violence.
Recent research has found that in about a third of the cases of IP femicide, or about 400 cases per year, the male partner kills himself (and sometimes his children) after killing his partner. Only about 1 case of IP homicide-suicide per year involves a female killing a male partner. The major risk factors, including prior domestic violence, are the same as for IP femicide cases without suicide, with an additional factor of prior threats or attempted suicide by the perpetrator. Suicidal perpetrators are more likely to be married and employed and less likely to use illicit drugs than those perpetrators who do not kill themselves. These differences suggest that men who kill their partners and then kill themselves may appear to be somewhat less dangerous than other batterers seen in domestic violence systems. Even so, the femicide-suicide perpetrators and the perpetrators who do not commit suicide engendered a similar amount of fear in their partners (with 53% and 49%, respectively, thinking their partner was capable of killing them).
Same-Sex Intimate Partner Homicide
According to the research, the proportion of IP homicide committed by same-sex partners is six times greater for gay men than lesbians. From the nine female perpetrated cases of IP femicide and attempted femicide in the large multicity study described above, prior physical violence, controlling behaviors, jealousy, alcohol and drugs, and ending the relationship were consistently reported antecedents to the murder. These findings support that power and control are central to models of IP femicide, whether it is perpetrated by a man or a woman.
Maternal Mortality and Intimate Partner Femicide
The national homicide database does not indicate whether a woman was pregnant or had recently had a baby when she was killed. However, a review of the national mortality surveillance system data by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has demonstrated that homicide is the second leading cause of injury-related maternal mortality and pregnancy associated death in the United States, causing 2 maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births. In several major urban areas, homicide is the leading cause of maternal mortality, causing as many as 20% of maternal deaths. Although the national data do not allow the identification of the perpetrator in these maternal mortality homicides, it may be that the majority of the homicides were committed by an IP and preceded by domestic violence against the woman. Abuse during pregnancy was associated with a threefold increase in risk of IP-completed or -attempted femicide in the multicity femicide study. These findings lend support to the proposal that health care settings, including prenatal care, need to assess for domestic violence and intervene to help those at risk.
Even though femicide has decreased, IP violence ends with femicide all too frequently. Many studies have identified characteristics of IP femicide that distinguish it from other forms of homicide, but there is still a lack of systematic research studies on several issues, especially femicide-suicides, maternal mortality femicide, and ethnic-specific issues. Although research to date suggests that the disproportionate risk related to ethnic/racial minority status is primarily a reflection of poverty, discrimination, and unemployment and their negative consequences, which result in a lack of access to resources that could prevent IP homicide, the research is not conclusive.
It is clear that the most important strategies to prevent IP femicide are the reduction of IP violence and the identification of cases at most risk for IP femicide, with interventions targeted especially to the immediate 3 months after an abused woman leaves her batterer. Addressing perpetrators’ access to guns is particularly important. Where shelters, legal advocates, health care professionals, and police are trained to intervene collaboratively in cases of domestic violence, and where communities are aware of IP violence and femicide, women and children are more likely to survive the violence in their lives.
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