Explainer: What is femicide and how bad is it globally?

Updated 10:42 AM ET, Thu September 30, 2021

This story is part of As Equals, CNN's ongoing series on gender inequality. For information about how the series is funded and more, check out our FAQs.

(CNN)Before the murder of Sabina Nessa, a 28-year-old primary school teacher killed in London, some were already speaking of a "femicide epidemic." But what is femicide?

Here's what you need to know about the term, how different parts of the world compare and what can be done to reduce femicides.

What is femicide?

Femicide, also known as feminicide, is the most extreme form of gender-based violence (GBV) and is defined as the "intentional murder of women because they are women." 
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO),"most cases of femicide are committed by partners or ex-partners, and involve ongoing abuse in the home, threats or intimidation, sexual violence or situations where women have less power or fewer resources than their partner."
Femicides fall into two categories: intimate and non-intimate femicide. The former refers to the killing of women by current or  ex-partners, while the latter encapsulates the killing of women by people with whom they had no intimate relationship. This includes women killed during armed conflict as a weapons of war; so-called "honor" killings, where a woman is killed for allegedly bringing shame to her family; the murder of women because of their race or sexuality; femicides perpetrated by other women, acting as "agent(s) of patriarchy;" and the killing of transgender women. 

How big is the problem?

There is no global, standardized or consistently recorded data on femicide.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime's (UNODC) most recent global report on homicide was published in July 2019, presenting data from 2017. That year, 87,000 women around the world were intentionally killed -- more than half of them (50,000) by intimate partners or family members. The total number is up from an estimated 48,000 in 2012.
But the problem is probably bigger. The "data gaps mask the true scale of violence" wrote the European Institute of Gender Equality, whose EU-wide survey results on GBV are expected in 2023.
Friends and relatives of Fernanda Olivares placed flowers, banners and candles in front of the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City, on July 4, 2021, demanding justice for her death. Diego Helguera, who ran her over on June 12, is on trial for femicide. (Photo by Gerardo Vieyra/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

How do regions of the world compare?

In the United Kingdom, between 2009 and 2018 "a woman is killed by a man every three days", according to the Femicide Census' 10-year report, published in November 2020. 
 In 2017 the largest recorded number of women were killed in Asia, followed by Africa, the Americas, Europe and Oceania. 
A 2016 study, "A Gendered Anaylysis of Violent Deaths", reported that although their overall homicide numbers were low, Slovenia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Austria were the top four "high-income countries in which the female homicide rate is greater than or equal to the male homicide rate." Germany and Hong Kong are tied in fifth place -- though Hong Kong is not a country but a territory.
Although the UNODC reports that overall femicides form a small percentage of all murders, the global trend is still disturbing. German broadcaster DW reported in November 2020 that "every day in Germany a man tries to kill his partner or ex-partner. Every third day an attempt is successful." 
There has been outcry across the globe at the numbers of women killed, from the US to Albania  and Mexico, South Africa to Australia.

Is femicide different from homicide in criminal law?

No, in most countries it is not. 
Only a handful of countries legally recognize femicide as distinctly different from homicide; most of them are in Latin America where 16 countries have included femicide as a specific crime.
No EU member states have defined femicide in their legislation. Nor has the US, though the Violence Against Women Act, which expired in 2018 and is awaiting reauthorisation by Congress, is considered "landmark legislation" because it makes it a responsibility of the federal government to prosecute domestic violence and support victims.                                              
The UK Parliament only recently rejected a petition calling for femicide to be made a crime stating: "It's not clear what the petition is asking the UK Government or Parliament to do. Murder is already a crime, so we're not sure what you'd like to happen by creating a new offence." 
However, Ivana Milovanović, a Serbian judge who is an expert in GBV, told UN Women, a UN organization that advocates for the empowerment of women and gender equality: "Femicide should be recognized as a specific criminal offense." 
"Femicide differs from other forms of murder because it is the gender-related killing of a woman only because she is a woman," she explained. "This indicates that the root causes of femicide differ from other types of murder and are related to the general position of women in the society, discrimination against women, gender roles, unequal distribution of power between men and women, habitual gender stereotypes, prejudices and violence against women."
Former US senator, Barbara Boxer, second from right, and then senator Joseph Biden, at a press conference on Capitol Hill, discuss the violence against women act on February 24, 1993. (AP Photo/Barry Thumma)

Does writing femicide into law help women get justice?

It has been argued that by writing femicide into criminal code, first there is an acknowledgment of the misogynistic nature of these crimes, but also that there will be more accurate data collection that can, in turn, lead to better policy and practices that protect women.  
In Mexico, for example, not only is femicide recognized in law, in 2020 the country's Congress approved tougher sentences for femicide -- 45 to 65 years in prison if convicted. 
Staying in Latin America, Guatemala has a similar system, with specialist judges and prosecutors trained in dealing with cases of femicide.
But these provisions and penalties have not resulted in higher conviction rates, or a decrease in these crimes. The UNODC writes: "Countries in Latin America have adopted legislation that criminalizes femicide as a specific offense in their criminal codes. Yet there are no signs of a decrease in the number of gender-related killings of women and girls."
Looking specifically at Mexico, Meghan Beatley reports: "Paradoxically, even when women's killers are caught and prosecuted, the category of femicide has made it harder to convict them." 
This is becaus