On January 1, three women were killed in France, each allegedly by a partner or ex-partner, in what feminist campaigners described as an “unbearable” start to another year’s tally of violence.
France is just one of many countries grappling with what the United Nations has called a global shadow pandemic of violence against women, exacerbated by Covid-19 lockdowns which saw women confined at home with their abusers, increased financial pressures for many and limited access to support.
It has seen people take to the streets over the past year in protest over the brutal deaths of women – and in some cases, their children – at the hands of their current or former partners.
The New Year’s Day killings in France shocked many and prompted a renewed call for tougher action against those who commit violence against women and girls. Speaking to CNN, Marylie Breuil, spokesperson for Nous Toutes, a French feminist campaign group, said that although the killings were “shocking,” campaigners in the country were sadly “not surprised” by the turn of events. “Violence doesn’t stop with the New Year,” she said.
According to police, a 56-year-old woman was found dead with a knife in her chest in Labry, in the country’s northeast, after officers were called to reports of a domestic disturbance on January 1. A man has been placed under formal investigation for the crime of “murder of a partner.”
In the second case, a 28-year-old female military recruit was found stabbed to death near Saumur in western France, according to the town’s prosecutor. A 21-year-old man, a soldier, was detained in relation to her death; investigators suspect a possible killing by her partner.
Then, the body of a 45-year-old woman was found in the trunk of a car in Nice. She had been strangled, according to Maud Marty, deputy prosecutor in the southern city. Prosecutors have launched formal investigations for manslaughter and intentional homicide against her ex-husband, 60.
Across Europe, cases of violence against women are stoking growing outrage. In Greece, where 17 femicides were recorded in 2021 according to public broadcaster ERT, the government was criticized for rejecting an opposition amendment that would have established institutional recognition of the term femicide. In November, after a 48-year-old woman was stabbed 23 times by her husband in Thessaloniki, opposition leader Alexis Tsipras posted on Facebook: “There should be no political disputes when we dramatically experience the effects of gender based violence on a daily basis.”
In the United Kingdom, following the March kidnap and murder of 33-year-old Sarah Everard by a serving male police officer, and a heavy-handed police crackdown on a vigil in her memory, activists criticized what they say is a culture of misogyny within policing.
Meanwhile, in comments broadcast in December, Pope Francis said that men who commit violence against women engage in something that is “almost satanic.” Police figures released in Italy in November showed that there were about 90 episodes of violence against women in the country every day and that 62% were cases of domestic violence.
Activist: Women must be heard
In France, after news of the first two deaths emerged on January 1, Nous Toutes called on French President Emmanuel Macron to act, tweeting that “to start this count again is unbearable.”
The killings are “indicative of the current climate in France and the impunity of aggressors,” Breuil said, highlighting the fact that one of the three women had complained to the police about her alleged aggressor. Statistics from a French Ministry of Justice report in 2019 showed that 65% of women killed made contact with the police before their murder.
“We realize that 65% of these women could have been saved if things had been handled correctly, if their complaints were taken up, if we had listened to these women,” Breuil stressed.
The French government was quick to condemn the January 1 killings, with Equality Minister Elisabeth Moreno tweeting that she lamented the violent deaths and felt for the victims’ children and other bereaved relatives. The police, magistrates, health services and other bodies are “constantly mobilized” to fight against “this scourge,” she said. The campaigners, however, remain unimpressed with the government’s response to the tragedies.
“Following the three femicides that took place within 24 hours in France the only thing that was done was the minister of equality went to discuss with the associations,” Breuil said.
This is not the first time the French government has come under fire for its handling of domestic violence.
Since 2019, when France saw widespread protests over violence against women, the government has announced a raft of reforms. These include more funding for emergency housing for those affected and specialized police officers to deal with complaints, as well as efforts to encourage the appointment of specialized courts and prosecutors to streamline prosecutions.
Addressing reporters in October, Interior Minister Gerald Darminin stressed that tackling domestic violence “must be a priority” for law enforcement bodies.
However, Nous Toutes maintains that Macron and his government are “completely out of step with what is taking place on the French territory,” according to Breuil. “For us Macron and the government are silent and that is shameful,” she added.
In May, the country was shocked by the case of a 31-year-old woman, Chahinez Daoud, who according to officials was shot and burned alive in the street by her estranged husband in Mérignac, near Bordeaux. Police arrested the estranged husband, identified as Mounir B., shortly after the incident. Bordeaux prosecutor Frédérique Porterie told reporters at the time that the man had seven previous convictions, including a charge in 2020 for spousal violence in the presence of a minor. Chahinez had filed a complaint of aggression against him only two months before her death.
This week, five officers were sanctioned in relation to Daoud’s killing, a spokesperson for the director of the national police confirmed to CNN.
Breuil is critical of the French police, whom she claims are “not trained properly at all” to handle these kinds of cases.
‘Tip of the iceberg’
Daoud was one of 113 women killed in 2021 in France by their current or former partners, according to French advocacy group Féminicides par compagnons ou ex (Femicides by partners or exes).
That represents an apparent increase on 2020, when 102 women were killed by their partner or ex-partner, according to an Interior Ministry body linked to the French national police. Another 146 women were killed by their current or former partner in 2019, and 121 women in 2018, the same body said. Government figures for 2021 have not yet been released.
Femicide, also known as feminicide, is widely defined as the “intentional murder of women because they are women.” However, there is no global, standardized or consistently recorded data on femicide.
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.”
French penal law recognizes “murder by a partner” but does not distinguish between male and female victims. The term “femicide” is thus not officially used.
And although they see the value of the statistics, Nous Toutes maintains that these figures are “only the visible part of abuses taking place within couples,” according to Breuil. “They are only the tip of the iceberg,” she said, emphasizing that before any murder there is usually a whole range of abuses taking place of which the public is unaware.
Counting the true cost of femicide
Meanwhile, on New Year’s Day in Spain, a new system was brought in that the government says will make it the first country in Europe to officially count all femicides – including cases where children are killed by men to hurt women.
The number of women killed in gender-based violence in Spain in 2021 reached 43 as of December 27, according to the Government Delegation for Gender Violence. Since 2003, it said, 1,125 women have been recorded as killed in gender-based violence in the country.
Spain has previously recorded as gender-based violence any killings of women where there’s evidence they were or had been in a relationship with the perpetrator.
But from the start of this year, official statistics on gender-based violence will be broadened to include the murder of any woman or child in which gender is deemed to have played a role.
The five categories range from the murders of women linked to sexual violence, including trafficking and prostitution, to murder by men in the woman’s family, as in so-called honor killings. They also include “vicarious femicide,” defined as the “murder of a woman or minor children, by a man as an instrument to cause injury or harm to another woman.”
Spain has been shaken by recent cases involving violence against women and their children.
A girl of three was killed in Madrid at the end of December in a presumed case of gender-based violence, the government said – one of seven children to lose their lives in that way last year.
In June, angry demonstrations were held in cities across the country after a man was accused of killing his two daughters, Olivia, six, and Anna, one, and dumping their bodies in the sea off the Spanish island of Tenerife, Reuters reported.
“The plan of the accused was to cause his ex-partner the greatest pain she could imagine, by deliberately causing uncertainty about the fate that Olivia and Anna had suffered at his hands,” a court document said, according to the news agency.
Equality Minister Irene Montero said the new system would mean all “sexist murders of women, because they are women,” would be counted. “Naming feminicides is to do justice, the most basic exercise of reparation with all victims of sexist violence,” she said in a government news release.
In this way, Montero said, “we are making progress in making all forms of sexist violence visible in order to carry out the public policies necessary to eradicate them. What you don’t name, does not exist.”
French campaigners support this move and are pushing for a similar framework to be adopted in their country. Nous Toutes want the femicides of young girls and women outside couples also “to be counted, so we can show the extent of the abuse against women in France,” said Breuil.
French society is “ready to see a change” because it “understands that these abuses are not inevitable” and can be avoided, Breuil concluded.
CNN’s Duarte Mendonca, Anaëlle Jonah, Chris Liakos and Camille Knight contributed to this report.