The killing of Shanquella Robinson is being investigated as a femicide, an unfamiliar term for many in the United States as this gender-motivated crime has not been defined by US legislation despite being a global issue.
Robinson, a 25-year-old former student at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina died in October while staying in a luxury rental property in the Mexican state of Baja California Sur.
Prosecutors in Mexico are seeking to extradite one of Robinson’s friends as a suspect in the case. Daniel de la Rosa, the attorney general for Baja California Sur told local media last week that an arrest warrant was issued for the crime of femicide, or the killing of a woman because of her gender, in connection with Robinson’s case.
No one has been charged in the case, and authorities have not released the names of Robinson’s friends.
Unlike Mexico and other Latin American countries, the US does not have a law recognizing femicide as a different crime than homicide, which several experts say does not mean that killings targeting women are not happening in the US at alarming rates.
“Femicides happen all the time in the US, and many famous murder cases that we all have in our consciousness are actually femicide, but we don’t put that label on them,” said Dabney P. Evans, director of Emory University’s Center for Humanitarian Emergencies, who studies violence against women.
As the investigation into Robinson’s death continues, here’s what you need to know about what is considered femicide in Mexico, why gender-based violence is a big problem globally, and why scholars say that writing femicide into US law could help women.
It’s become a crisis in Mexico
Femicide is the most extreme form of gender-based violence (GBV) and is defined as the “intentional murder of women because they are women.”
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 is the killing of women by people with whom they had no intimate relationship.
In most countries, femicide is not different from homicide in criminal law, but Mexico is among at least 16 countries that have included femicide as a specific crime.
Under federal law in Mexico, people can face up to 60 years in prison if convicted. The difference between homicide, or unlawful killing, and femicide, varies from state to state in Mexico.
There could be a history of violence – sexual or not – and threats, or “if the victim was in community, for example, and if she was killed and her body was in public,” said Beatriz García Nice, who leads the Wilson Center’s initiative on gender-based violence.
A video circulating online in recent weeks appears to show a physical altercation inside a room between Robinson and another person. Her father, Bernard Robinson, told CNN his daughter is seen in that video being thrown to the floor and beaten on the head.
It’s not clear when the video was taken or if it depicts the moment Robinson suffered the injury that led to her death.
While there is legislation against femicide in Mexico, “the main problem is the execution,” García Nice said. The number of gender-based violence cases are underreported in national statistics and the law is “under executed” in the judicial system, she said.
García Nice says nearly 95% of femicide cases in Mexico go unpunished. “If you commit a crime of femicide, there’s really not that much of a chance for you to get convicted for it. And that’s one of the reasons why we see that rates are still very, very high.”
Alejandra Marquez, an assistant professor of Spanish with a focus on gender and sexuality in Latin America and the Caribbean at Michigan State University, said the “feminicidos” crisis in Mexico started several decades ago and first gained national attention in the 1990s when hundreds of women were killed in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez.
“There used to be this idea, especially in central Mexico, where it was like ‘women are getting killed over there at the border,’ but because it’s expanded all over the country, it’s sort of become this phenomenon that can no longer be ignored,” Marquez told CNN.
“When you’re in Mexico, it’s part of day-to-day conversation,” Marquez added.
More needs to be done in the US, experts say
The disproportionate killings of Black women, the crisis of missing or murdered Indigenous people and the 2021 deadly shootings of women at Atlanta-area spas are some examples of cases that could potentially be labeled as femicides, experts say.
“As a society, we need to recognize that these are not one-off deaths. These are in fact, connected to patterns of masculine violence, and we need to think more closely about preventing that kind of violence,” said Evans, the scholar at Emory University.
An analysis of homicide data by the Violence Policy Center shows 2,059 women in the US were killed by men in 2020 and 89% knew their offenders.
For Evans, having femicide legislation in the US would not solve the issues of toxic masculinity, patriarchy, and misogyny that lead to gender-based violence but the terminology could “allows us to talk about this phenomenon” and prevent it from happening.
There are existing laws that address gender-based violence in the US and mechanisms to track domestic violence but they are flawed.
The federal hate crime law covers violent or property crimes at least partially motivated by bias against race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender or gender identity. At the state level, the definition of a hate crime varies and several states do not cover bias based on gender.
Earlier this year, federal lawmakers reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act. The legislation is aimed at protecting and supporting survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking – all documented precursors in femicide cases.
During a March ceremony celebrating the act’s passage, President Joe Biden said more needs to be done to address the issue.
“No one, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, should experience abuse. Period. And if they do, they should have the services and support they need to get through it. And we’re not going to rest.”
Gender-based violence is a global problem
An estimated 81,100 women and girls around the world were killed intentionally last year with about 56% of them by intimate partners or family members, a UN report published last week shows.
It’s hard to describe the full scope of gender-based violence, the report says, because roughly 4 in 10 killings reported by authorities have “no contextual information to allow them to be identified and counted as gender-related killings.”
“These rates are alarmingly high, as we can see; however, that’s the tip of the iceberg,” Kalliopi Mingeirou, the chief of Ending Violence against Women Section at UN Women, one of the entities that compiled the report.
Mingeirou said when a femicide isn’t classified legally for what it is, police cannot investigate properly. Other challenges in stopping and preventing femicides include the lack of resources and training for authorities expected to implement laws.
“What women and girls deserve around the world is to have a world that respects their choices, that respects their rights,” Mingeirou said. “We need to have equal rights. We have a primary right to be free from violence because if we are free from violence and harassment, we can achieve, and we can thrive in this world.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated that Robinson was a current student at Winston-Salem State University.