Introduction: Gender-based violence
One of the most pressing concerns of human rights is the situation of women’s Human rights. In fact, women around the world not only suffer from constant discrimination in different fields of their everyday life, such as education, work, health and family life, but they are also the main victims of gender-based violence. The latter differs from regular interpersonal violence in the sense that it is also a form of discrimination, as it is directed towards the Female gender1disproportionally, and it is perpetrated toward females based on/because of their gender2. This label adds a political dimension to these crimes, categorizing them as a political phenomenon of group-based injustice. Such label gives the issue a political significance and a moral gravity. It also allows us to understand the phenomena more deeply as it studies it within a larger and more global framework, revealing the underlying social and psychological mechanisms, and therefore come up with more appropriate forms of redress, especially legal measures. However, even after years of feminist activism and theories, gender-based violence still did not acquire enough political importance as a phenomenon in policies, culture, the media…etc. It is usually characterized as a regular interpersonal form of violence with no political significance.
Gender based violence can take several forms, from sexual violence and harassment, domestic violence, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, denial of medical care, human trafficking and forced prostitution, ‘honour’ crimes…etc. Which makes it a central issue in International Human Rights Law, as it constitutes a serious threat that undermines and deprives females from the exercise of their basic Human rights which are deemed inalienable, interdependent and indivisible from all other human rights. Nevertheless, as we mentioned above, this label is not given the importance it deserves, the inexistence of a legally binding Human rights instruments that is expressly devoted to gender-based violence3attests to that. This issue of refusing to consider gender-based violence as a phenomenon can be analog to the issue of structural racism in the USA, which is a very controversial topic nowadays in the US, dividing the public to those who acknowledge the existence of a structural racism affecting black people, and those who consider these crimes and injustices as isolated cases. But when we take a look on statistics, the recurrence of such incidents must lead us to question the robustness of these claims; if we assume that these cases are all unrelated, then we are either accusing the black community to be inherently bad, which is very essentialist and thus cannot be true, or we are blaming it on a rather bigger structure that mobilizes such acts of discrimination and violence against this racial group.
Generally, reasons behind this denial of the structural trait of these crimes can be found in the fact that it is easier to deal with individual cases than handle them within the large framework of a global phenomenon. A second reason would be the fact that these crimes happen in private (for instance 67% of femicides were committed by intimate partners of the victim4), and therefore it is considered to be a private matter that should not be discussed publicly and is not worthy of public and political attention.
Femicide or homicide?
The gender-based violence targeting women can take several forms that vary in nature and degree of intensity5. As we know, one of the most prevalent gender-based violence acts are domestic violence, or intimate partner violence. Globally, 35 percent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence according to UNWOMEN. In some cases, domestic violence can escalate to the point in which it aggravates into a lethal form of violence, which is referred to as femicide6.
In the case of femicide, a woman’s most fundamental right, which is the right to life, is taken from her by another human being who believes they are entitled to take her life away. Whether it is perpetrated by a woman, or a man, femicide is usually an attempted crime backed with a number of patriarchal beliefs and a sense of ownership of the woman (Radford, 1992). It is not an isolated or arbitrary crime, as its roots can be found in a complex intersectional schema of economic, social, cultural, and political and gender factors. As the most recent feminist analyses tend to explore the intersection of multiple systems of domination, and to show how culture, race, class, sexual orientation combine with gender to organize violence against women.
Femicide, is described as an extreme form of gender-based violence that consists of the killing of women and girls because of their gender. Kelly (1988) insists that an essential element of the concept is framing it as an extreme form of violence in the continuum of sexual violence against women7. Nevertheless, the concept of femicide very much lacks acknowledgment and recognition, and is usually reduced to a gender-neutral homicide in judicial cases, and as a “female homicide victimization” in sociology. Such reduction makes the phenomenon evade the political agenda. The main questions that come to our mind at this point of the discussion, is what makes femicide different from ‘regular’ homicide crimes? How do we identify a femicide from a ‘regular’ homicide? What makes femicides a distinctive and global phenomenon? And what is the significance of such label? Is it nothing but a feminist concept to describe homicides perpetrated against women, or is it a legitimate concept that aims to describe a distinctive hate crime perpetrated against the female gender within the framework of structural factors?
First of all these crimes are worthy of attention, and they can be considered as a phenomenon rather than separate incidents, because of the magnitude of the issue. According to the Small Arms survey on femicides, the number of femicide victims reached 66 000 per year for the period of 2005-2009, which is 17% or almost one fifth of all homicide victims for an average year8. Most countries with high and very high rates of femicide are located in the Americas (central and south America). At the top ranking we also find Southern Africa and the Russian federation. And although the male v. Female ratio shows that men are murdered more than females (globally, 66 women are murdered for every man, in countries with very low homicide rates, according to the same survey), ‘men are rarely murdered because they are men’ (Radford, 1992).
This widespread phenomenon is sometimes referred to as a Female Genocide because of the gigantic numbers, as did Banjeri (2009) while discussing femicides in India, and Russel at COST annual conference in 2015, when she compared it to the holocaust which killed 6M Jews, while 50M women die in just one country.
Moreover, it is necessary to underline the fact that femicides are perpetrated and perpetuated within the framework of an asymmetric power relation, whether it is the position of the victims in the social structure (as in patriarchal societies) or an abusive relationship. As we mentioned earlier, these crimes do not come out of nothingness, they are the manifestation of misogynist beliefs, and the results of a process of abusing the victim for years. In other words, femicide crimes are located at the very end of an abusive process. It can be considered as the culmination of gender-based violence, the ultimate result of years of abuse. As it is often committed when the perpetrator perceives that it is the only way left to establish eternal dominance over the victim. In some cases where the abuser does not actually commit the crime, the victim might commit forced suicide due to the prolonged exposure to violence, which we also consider as a form of femicide. The particular case of intimate partner femicide should be considered a femicide because the power dynamic is always predominant: violent men kill, not because they lose control of themselves, but because they seek to control their partner. In this respect, it is symptomatic that women are at greatest risk of being killed in the weeks following their departure.
At this point, it seems fair to mention Shalhoub’s extended definition of femicide, which she established after studying femicide cases in Palestine in the Arab world. And which states that femicide is the process leading to death and the creation of the situation in which it is impossible for the victim to live (Shalhoub, 2003)9. Which means that femicide is a serious threat that deprives females from their ability to live safely, and therefore deprives them from other fundamental Human rights, before it -sometimes- finally deprives them from their right to life. Shalhoub actually emphasizes the unjust power dynamics that govern the life of women in the Arab world, and how the intersection of different power relations place women in a distinctive situation that makes her subordinate and controls her actions and future destinies, and even her self-definition.
The word femicide was first introduced by the North American feminist movement (Jill Radford, Diana E. H. Russell, Jane Caputi and others) in order to politicize honor crimes, and it generated a theoretical concept, but later it was diluted when it started encompassing broader crimes, which divested its initial political connotation. According to Alvazzi, ‘The broadening of the definition may be connected to a growing interest in generating quantitative information of violence against women to facilitate comparability across countries and jurisdictions’ (Alvazzi Del Frate, 2011).
It was used for the first time by Diana E. Russel, in the proceeding of the first International Tribunal on Crimes against Women in 1976. She defined it as the misogynist killing of women, and an extreme manifestation of sexual violence. Although it was already known to the Anglo-Saxon world, Russel had placed it for the first time within a broader feminist politics framework. In the Spanish speaking world, feminicide seems to be more acceptable (feminicidio), but femicide has become a consensus. It was used in the European parliament for the first time in 2006.
In view of the above, it seems crucial to distinguish femicides from gender-neutral
As a phenomenon that is motivated by an intersection of economic, political, cultural and gender factors, femicides can take several forms. Radford identifies racist femicide (the killing of black women by white men), homophobic genocide (when lesbian women are killed), marital femicide and femicide committed by a stranger. He also includes the victims of botched abortions, when female babies are killed more often than male babies, and when female children are neglected or starved (Radford, 1922).
Femicide and Human Rights:
Now that we have highlighted the magnitude of the issue, it is fundamental to dig into the Human rights perspective on the matter, and talk about the provisions in national legislatures and International Law that aim to tackle these crimes.
The intersectionality of factors that underlie femicides makes it crucial for researchers from different disciplines to adopt different approaches in order to analyze femicide. The most fundamental approaches are: the feminist approach, the sociological approach, the criminological approach and finally the most recent one is the Human Rights approach. This approach does not describe femicide as lethal only, but it classifies it as an extreme form of violence against women and therefore an extreme violation of women’s rights. It has emerged in the last decade, and it can be traced to 1993 when the UN General Assembly affirmed that violence against women constitutes a violation of the rights and fundamental freedom of women. Later in 2012, after a surge of femicide rates, the ACUNS (Academic Council of the United Nations System) organized the first symposium on Femicide in Vienna, with the aim of urging nation-states to double their efforts in femicide prevention through institutional initiatives and legal provisions to protect violence survivors. In fact, ACUNS describes femicide as a wide-ranging phenomenon encompassing murder, torture, honour killings dowry-related killing, infanticide and gender-based pre-natal selection, as well as genital mutilation and human trafficking.
Femicide and violence against women in general were recognized as the most frequent form of human rights violations. They constitute one of the main public health problems and is considered a considerable obstacle to development. The framing of femicide as a Human rights violation is one method to persuade states to adopt and amend legislations. This approach opens the discussion about femicide to the international community, which allows victims to hold states accountable when they fail to comply with the international obligations to protect women from violence.
According to Dawson Myrna (2016), the most influential statutes in recognizing femicide as a global Human rights Issue were: The Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979), and The Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women, Known as the convention of Belém do Para (1996). As they appeared most frequently in national legislations. Moreover, according to International law, people have the right to live freely from fear of violence, which makes VAW and femicides a human rights violation, thus triggering national obligations under International law.
The eradication of violence against women and femicide are today one of the priorities of the United Nations and is expressed through various programs set up at the global level. The UNiTE Latin America and the Caribbean campaign, launched in 2008 and supported by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, responds to an extremely alarming situation and attempts to foment a very broad social and political mobilization.
By 2013, the UN General Assembly’s resolution noted that gender-related killings of women and girls were criminalized in some countries as “femicide/ feminicide” and has been incorporated as such into national legislations in those countries.
As for Europe, the European Union program COST launched an action on Femicide across Europe to strengthen transnational cooperation in tackling femicide. The Council of Europe also made an important step by signing the Istanbul Convention (Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence) in 2011 which frames violence against women as a state obligation. This convention defines VAW as ‘a form of gender-based violence that is committed against women because they are women’ and that it is the duty of the state to address it fully and take all the measures to prevent it, protect the victims and prosecute the perpetrators. It particularly calls for the implementation of integrated policies and the establishment of official bodies in every state, responsible for data collection, analysis and dissemination, as well as evaluating the state’s policies. Insisting that femicide must be included in all of these.
However, in spite of the many awareness-raising and information campaigns, and the real progress made in national legislation – particularly since the Inter-American Convention Belém do Para- the assessments reported by the non-governmental organizations associated with the UN campaign, as well as the publications disseminated on the website of “Únete Latino américa y Caribe”, show that resistance is strong: this violence persists and in some cases is getting worse.
Scholars note that incorporating femicide in legislature and applying it is not an easy task. First of all, there is an ongoing debate as to whether include all murders of women under femicides, as there is a lack of consensus on ‘femicidal’ offences and gender-based indicators. Moreover, gender stereotypes can still impact courts’ decisions. Theory argues that the general stereotype about women being vulnerable and in greater need for protection than men, can make court actors view perpetrators of femicides as more culpable and threatening for society, than perpetrators of homicide against men. However, radical feminists oppose this theory, stating that patriarchal values continue to operate when male perpetrators of VAW are excused by placing a part of the blame on the female victim. Victims who did not leave the abusive partner are often perceived as contributing to their victimization. Another theory by Black (1976) about the behavior of law states that the dyad of victim-offender can impact the punishment. For example, intimate partner violence or femicide are primarily viewed as private and thus may be treated more leniently, while homicides perpetrated against males are seen as more public and thus instrumental and serious. A study led by Dawson Myrna (2016) showed that femicide cases in which the perpetrator is the intimate partner or a family member of the victim, were faced with less punishment than other femicides. This phenomenon can be referred to as ‘domestic discount’ or intimacy discount’. Another stereotype related to intimate femicides is that these crimes are believed to be spontaneous most of the time, and therefore not premediated events, which reduces punishment for perpetrators. In this case, we mention the case of Jonathan Daval who killed his wife after an argument about her wanting children, and him not being able to fulfill this desire. During the last trial, which took place at the time of the writing, the defense lawyers described the crime as an ‘accident caused by anger’, committed by an ‘ordinary man’. They highlighted that it was not a femicide, and that it was just a murder as it was not premeditated nor calculated.
National legislations on femicide in Latin America:
In order to assess these issues in real terms, we must study a specific state or region and discuss the ways in which establishing femicide policies is not enough to tackle the phenomenon.
In Latin America, the femicide rate is taking on such proportions that some states have decided to mobilize their legislative and judicial systems to try to put an end to it. In fact, they are obliged to do so, in part because of their regional commitments, as stated in 1994, in the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women. Article 4 of the Convention affirms that “every women has the right to have her life respected” and, in Article 7, it obliges the signatory states to “condemn all forms of violence against women and agree to pursue, by all appropriate means and without delay, policies to prevent, punish and eradicate such violence“10. Globally, at the continental level, the penal response, i.e. the criminalization of these lethal phenomena, seems to have been considered the “appropriate means”, in the sense of the Convention of Belém “do Pará”, to combat femicides. However, despite the adoption of these legislative arsenals, it is clear that the phenomenon of femicides has been on the rise in recent years in the region. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2019), femicide rates are particularly high in Latin America. For instance, in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Colombia, the femicide rates range from 6 to 14 per 100,000 population, and are 8 to 24 times higher than rates in Canada (Alvazzi Del Frate 2011). More than just the high femicide rates, what sets Latin America apart from other countries is the state’s failure to prevent femicides. In fact, even if Latin American countries are the leading countries in developing legislations to tackle the problem, these policies are most of the time not put into practice. Also, the criminal justice officials in these states lack training on how these new laws should be applied, and they struggle to interpret key legal terms. Moreover, a lack of public knowledge about the new laws was noted. The governments do not disseminate information to the public about the new laws and how they affect the victims and the perpetrators, which further hampers their efficiency. These flaws result in impunity for the perpetrators and injustice for the victims, and thus further fosters violence against women. It constitutes a violation of International Human rights obligations.
For these reasons, we chose to focus on Latin American national legislations on femicide, to discuss the imperfections that make them inefficient as femicide rates are continually rising in these states. In order to do this, we will use Carrigan M and Dawson M’s research about problem representation of femicide in legislation in Latin America, which was published in the International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy this year.
Latin American governments when addressing femicide in their national legislations had to add provisions describing the circumstances of the murder of women that makes it considered as a femicide. However, states used different means for this end. Some countries chose to criminalize femicide by amending their actual penal codes, while others implemented new special legislations.
The analysis of how a new infringement is integrated is essential from a legal point of view, it allows us to understand how it will interact with existing ones. It is also decisive from a political and symbolic point of view, as it allows us to determine its seriousness in relation to other crimes. As far as the Latin American continent is concerned, the legal emergence of femicide in national legislations is contrasted. It is possible to distinguish four different modes of integration. The first method consists of making femicide an aggravating circumstance of an already existing crime, particularly homicide, as in Venezuela or Argentina. The problem with this type of integration is that it does not directly name the femicide, and therefore makes it little visible as such. The second mode of integration consists of making femicide a semantic variation of an already existing crime, as in Chile, where the crime of parricide. This type of legislative modification allows the integration of new crimes into a normative and procedural mechanism already practiced by the judiciary in the broadest sense, and guarantees compliance with certain essential principles. However, they lack specificity and seriousness. The third mode of integration consists of making femicide an autonomous crime, but integrated into the National Penal Code. This approach has been adopted by Colombia, Bolivia, and Honduras, which reinforces the conceptual empowerment of the crime. Finally, the fourth and final mode of integration is to criminalize femicide outside the Penal Code, in an autonomous law, as in Costa Rica or Guatemala.
The legal definition of a phenomenon is also important because even if the introduction of a new offence is symbolic or formal, it allows its legal, social and cultural recognition. Thus, legislations in Chile, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic for instance, defined femicide as an intimate partner problem exclusively. While it is true that most femicides are committed by the victim’s male intimate partner (United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime 2019), researchers have found that 80% of femicides were committed by the victim’s intimate partner in these countries. Nevertheless, there are still too many ways in which a femicide can be committed other than in an intimate relationship that cannot be neglected.
While other states defined it under wider circumstances. In Bolivia it included the killing of the victim because she was pregnant or was in a situation of subordination or dependence with the perpetrator. In Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Panama, unequal power relations were included. These countries acknowledged the existence of gender inequality in their femicide legislation, but it was not directly linked to specific causes that can be of explanatory use for femicide cases. But generally, women who were previously subject to violence were included.
In Colombia, legislation defined femicide in accordance with academic literature on the matter, stating that femicide is the killing of women because they are women. However, despite its accuracy, this definition is not practical for criminal justice employees, and will further complicate the identification of femicide cases. Which is why, in 2015, Colombia amended its femicide legislation and included particular circumstances in which a murder is considered a femicide.
Other countries have included in their legislation the cases in which the victim is held against her will, or when another crime is committed before her death. Mexico and Panama for example included provisions related to kidnapping, Bolivia included killings related to a crime of human trafficking to be considered as femicides. In fact, human trafficking is a very widespread phenomenon, particularly in Latin America, and it is also a gendered international problem. Women constitute 80 percent of human trafficking victims, and in so many cases, human trafficking ends up by femicide if the woman tries to escape. Nowadays, human trafficking femicides are increasingly recognized by International Organizations.
Some countries also included state responsibility to prevent femicide and protect women from it by denouncing impunity in their legislations. Impunity in these legislations is defined as violence committed by public servants who impede the victim’s access to justice. In Latin America, impunity was recognized as a major contributor to the increasing femicide rates, as we mentioned, it is the parameter that distinguishes Latin American countries from other western countries with high femicide rates.
Finally and most importantly, we have prevention before punishment, which many states included in their legislations. Prevention can be defined as any activity that reduces the probability of femicide, it can consist of certain services provided to victims who are in danger of being killed, in order to assist them and protect them, and prevent the killing. This proactive approach is very much likely to be more efficient in reducing femicide rates in Latin America, than the reactive approach is.
Considering the multitude of parameters that have to be taken into consideration when making or implementing a policy about femicide, it is now clear that femicide cannot be prevented by simplistic solutions, as it requires concerted efforts, deploying scientific literature on the matter to enhance policies and adapt them to the different unique realities and particularities in each state or region.
Ciudad Juarez: the city that kills women.
After assessing national legislation in Latin America, we want to zoom in more and discuss the particular case of Ciudad Juarez in Mexico, more particularly the case of Gonzalez et al. V. Mexico in the Inter-American Court of Human rights.
Ciudad Juarez, a small city located in the north of the state of Chihuahua, precisely on the Rio Grande river, opposite El Paso, Texas, U.S. In this city border with the United States, since the beginning of the 1990s, a significant number of young women were abducted, sexually assaulted for the most part and found dead. Bodies of young girls, mutilated and bearing traces of sexual abuse, were discovered in the desert in dribs and drabs. These facts had already attracted the attention of various United Nations bodies, and even though the Court noted that there is no certainty as to the exact number of victims, it is estimated that more than 200 have been killed since that time, and since the victims share several common points (race, class and gender), these femicide crimes can be considered systematic. Ciudad Juárez had then been named “the city that kills women”. It can be considered as the capital of disappeared girls, where kidnapping of women and femicide have become epidemic.
In the late 1990s, a feminist movement called ¡Ni Una Más! (Not even one more!) emerged as the relatives of the victims decided to speak up and join the feminist activists in order to condemn the state’s lack of efforts to prevent or even investigate the cases. They particularly denounced irregularities committed by the Chihuahua State Prosecutor’s Office during the investigations of the murders between 1993 and 1998, and which were officially documented in 1998by the Mexican National Human Rights Commission (Comision Nacional de Derechos Humanos, CNDH). The CNDH had argued that these irregularities violated the Mexican Constitution, laws of the state of Chihuahua governing the conduct of public officials, the CEDAW and the Belém Do Pará Convention.
Moreover, after Russel and Radford’s joint work on femicide (1992)11, the activists made use of the word “femicide” and channeled it to the media, until it reached the state of Chihuahua and the Federal government. The Spanish word femicidio was developed in the first place by the Mexican anthropologist Marcela Lagarde to refer to the dramatic rise of femicide rates in Ciudad Juarez in principle. The particularity about it was that the definition included impunity and the states failure to tackle the issue, as was the case in this Mexican city.
In 2001, the ¡Ni Una Más! Campaign became transnational after the discovery of the bodies of eight women bearing the traces of extreme physical and sexual violence in a cotton field in Ciudad Juárez on 6 and 7 November of the same year. Three of these bodies were identified as Claudia Ivette González, Laura Berenice Ramos Monárrez and Esmeralda Herrera Monreal, whose murders became later the basis of the complaint before the Inter
American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR), in the case of González and Others ‘Cotton Field’ v. Mexico, decided in 2009. In 2003, the United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime had a mission in Ciudad Juarez and issued a report by the end, stating that although the state had detained suspects for emblematic femicide cases, it was unable to prove their guiltiness due to lack of evidence.
The campaign used the concept as a frame for the reports they produced to condemn the state’s non-compliance to its obligations in Ciudad Juarez. At the same time, the Observatorio Ciudadano Nacional del Feminicidio (OCNF) produced several reports in 2005 and 2006 framed by the concept, exposing the state’s lack of compliance with the CEDAW and the Belém Do Pará Convention. ‘Feminicidio in Mexico is the result of misogynist violent acts against women that violate their human rights that culminate in the death of hundreds of women’ (OCNF: 2006). The OCNF also emphasized the state’s responsibility in these femicides through the omission and unjust treatment of the relatives of the victims, the latter, just like the victims, were faced with discrimination by authorities. The Mexican authorities ‘exert over women institutional violence by preventing their access to justice and thus contributing to impunity’ (OCNF: 2006). Likewise, the Mexican government’s inaction had triggered the launch of an international investigation by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, and in 2005, the UN recognized the state’s responsibility for the murders in Ciudad Juárez. In fact, scholars identify 2006 as a very important stage in which the term feminicidio was instrumental to the social movements in order to raise awareness, and in which the legal instruments and reports about these murders and their impunity, allowed the framing of these crimes as feminicidios. Since then, Ciudad Juarez have become the main reference for criticism of the Mexican state’s institutional and cultural bias.
Outside the continent, feminicidios crossed the ocean and was adopted by the European Council and the European Parliament. In 2005 the parliamentary Assembly approved a recommendation and resolution on feminicidios in Mexico. Also, another resolution in 2007’s stated that ‘The murder of women in Central America and Mexico and the European Union’s role in preventing this’. In this resolution, the European Parliament linked the definition of ‘feminicidio to the understanding of violence against women enshrined in the Belém Do Pará Convention’ and considered that ‘the punishment and eradication of feminicidio is an obligation and a priority for any state that observes the rule of law’. 12
Following these investigations, reports and internal as well as external pressures, femicide has become a priority in Mexico, and made the impunity related to it as a source of shame for the Mexican state and Mexican deputies. As a result, in 2006, the Mexican Parliament in cooperation with UN Women established the Special Commission to follow up on Femicide (CESF), which produced a comprehensive report about femicide in Mexico as early as 2012. It stated that in 2010, the femicide rate in the state of Chihuahua reached 32.8 out of 100,000 women (CESF, 2012). And in 2007, the Mexican parliament passed a legislation on femicide, particularly thanks to the election of the anthropologist and feminist Marcela Lagarde – who popularized the work of Diana Russell and Jill Radford- to the Mexican Parliament.
The Cotton Field case “El Campo Algodenor”:
On November 6, 2001 eight female bodies were found in a cotton field in Ciudad Juárez, among which were two young girls and a woman, the three victims that were represented in the famous case of Cotton Field: Claudia Ivette González, Esmeralda Herrera Monreal and Laura Berenice Ramos Monárrez. These women had each disappeared on different dates and different locations. However, the dates of disappearance were close together (2000-2001) and the three victims shared some characteristics, they were young women from disadvantaged backgrounds. Two of them were minors. The bodies had been found covered with bruises, with signs of strangulation, mutilation, and severe sexual violence. This region where the crimes were committed and the bodies were found, was dominated by maquiladoras (Export Processing Zones), which means that the role of the state as a supervisor in this area is relatively insignificant. The factories in this area aim to employ women most of the time because they accept lower wages than men, which maximizes their profit. As a consequence, these women suffer from precarious living conditions, and have to commute in their way back home, and that’s where most of sexual assault and femicide crimes happen. This one specific case was particular because it was brought to the arena of transnational justice, after the victims’ relatives were treated badly by the Mexican authorities. In 2002, Irma Monreal, mother of the victim Esmeralda Monreal, presented an accusation to the Inter-American Judicial committee claiming the State’s international responsibility for the violations of the Belém do Pará Convention, to the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights and to the American Declaration. The committee declared the admissibility of the case in 2005, and in 2009 it issued a sentence against the Mexican state. Following the denunciation of the families of the victims, the Court found that the authorities had minimized the disappearance of the young women with discriminatory comments based on the gender and age of the victims. The Court noted several irregularities in the Mexican authorities’ investigation after the bodies were found: lack of precision in the discovery of the bodies, lack of rigor in the inspection and safeguarding of the crime scene, incomplete autopsies, arbitrary assignment of names to bodies, fabrication of culprits and therefore failure to continue investigations.
The judgment issued by IACHR in 2009 following the Cotton field case, alleged several Human rights violations to the Mexican State rights: the right to life, integrity and personal liberty, to non-discrimination and to access to justice and judicial protection of the three women – rights enshrined in international treaties, particularly the Belém do Pará Convention and the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights. The first major point in this judgment was introducing the term femicide to International Law and to Human Right. For the first time an international court acknowledged the term femicide as reference to the systematic violation of the women’s right to live due to gender. In fact, the petitioners’ representatives have put forward the concept of femicide, emphasizing that the violence committed against the victims was rooted in their gender. As a result, the Court decided, on the basis of the testimonies and documents produced, to rule on the feminicide understood as “the homicide of women because of their gender”. It has then examined these facts in relation to Articles 1(right to non-discrimination), 4 (right to life), 5 (right to the integrity of one’s life), 7 (right to liberty of the person), 8 (right to security of the person), 19 (rights of the child, as two of the women were minors at the time of death) and 25 (right to judicial protection) of the American Convention, and Article 7 of the Convention of Belem do Para, about the ‘state’s obligation to combat violence against women, conduct the necessary investigations and punish acts of violence against women, as well as the obligation to incorporate into their national legislation standards necessary to prevent, punish and eliminate violence against women’. However, in order to implement the Belem do In Pará, the court had to prove that ensure that the violence against the three victims were based on the status of women. It concluded that the violations were addressed specifically to women based on three elements. At first, it analyzed the context of violence in Ciudad Juárez and concluded that it is a structural phenomenon of gender violence influenced by a ‘culture of discrimination’. Then, they looked at the characteristics of the victims. They all were young students or manufacturing employees from a variety of backgrounds disadvantaged as were many of the murder victims in Ciudad Juárez. Finally, the Court focused on the modus operandi of the crimes to determine that the abusers specifically targeted women. Several reports established that there were common factors in many of the murders of women in Ciudad Juárez: Women are kidnapped as they walk the streets and are forcibly taken to isolated houses where they are raped, tortured, mutilated, and then killed. A few days or months later, their bodies are found at the bottom of the alleyways, in abandoned lots or in the desert. The Court concluded that the murders of the three victims had been carried out in a very similar way and seemed to fit the description of the other murders of women in Ciudad Juárez. Through this analysis, the Court was able to determine that Ms. González, Ramos and Herrera were victims of gender violence such as defined by the Belém do Pará Convention. It also concluded that they were victims of gender-related homicides, in a context of violence against women in Ciudad Juárez. At the end the Court details the obligations of the state to respect, guarantee and prevent, and concludes in this case the Mexican authorities’ response to the violence and, in particular, the investigative measures taken, to the violation of all of these provisions.
A second major point in the judgment was the analysis of the Inter-American Court of the general discriminatory and macho context in which this violence has occurred and has been made possible. It has used the Mexican state’s acknowledgment of the “culture of discrimination” in the Mexican society which further strengthens violence against women, to support this statement. The Inter-American Court thus concludes that these stereotypes become dangerous when they lead to a subordination of women, and that they are relayed by dominant public practices and policies. It therefore sees it as discrimination in the enjoyment of rights, in violation of Article 1 of the American Convention.
Among other things, the judgment stipulated at the end that the authorities of the country should publish the sentence in the Official Gazette of the Federation and in two mass media, publicly acknowledge the facts, erect a memorial to the victims, compensate the relatives, provide psychological assistance, create a database of femicides, and sanction officials and authorities who were negligent in the investigations. In sum, the Mexican State is considered responsible. The IACHR has given the Mexican State a period of time to take the measures imposed, but it has not fully complied with them, even to date. Impunity persists and women continue to die, murdered.
This case has become a milestone in Human Rights and Women’s rights since the 2009’s decision. The Court affirmed that murders of women for gender reasons are called femicides. It then determined that the three women in the case were victims of femicides, but that although most of the murders of women in Ciudad Juárez were committed for gender reasons, the court could not rule on all the murders. Although the term femicide was not considered in the judgment, as the case was judged as serial murders and not a death by gender, it was the first time that the term femicide was used in an international court. This one case alone, can crystallize the systemic injustice that women face in a patriarchal and capitalist society. Governments like Mexico, allows companies and multinationals to explore its workforce without respecting the basic Human rights of workers, paying them with very low wages that perpetuate the precarious living conditions, and putting their lives in danger.
To conclude, we have seen that while the femicide rates are in constant rise in several countries around the world, particularly in the Latin American Continent, gender-based violence and particularly femicide struggle to get a recognition in different fields, be it social sciences, criminology, or criminal law. These crimes that constitute serious threats to the lives of women, and are great violations of their basic Human Rights, are in part the responsibility of the state, as enshrined in different international treaties. States ought to mobilize all means in order to protect women and prevent these forms of violence, and in order to do so properly, gender-based violence and femicides have to be acknowledged. The latter are not concerns of the feminist movement exclusively, or only a product of a cultural relationship that hierarchizes the relationship between men and women, on the detriment of women, they are rather political crimes motivated by an intersectionality of political, social, economic, racial and gender factors inscribed within a system that acts against the lives of women and girls, and the full enjoyment of their basic Human rights. Last but not least, gender violence is not only the result of the inequalities and discrimination suffered by women, it is above all an instrument for maintaining these inequalities and discriminations, producing and reproducing them, as best illustrated in the Cotton Filed Case.
1 Although gender based-violence also affects males (especially in the cases of war), we choose to focus on females as they are the main victims, and because this paper discusses a particular form of gender-based violence which is feminicide.
2 According to the European commission website: https://ec.europa.eu/info/policies/justice-and-fundamental rights/gender-equality/gender-based-violence/what-gender-based-violence_en.
3 Patricia Viseur Sellers, The Prosecution of Sexual Violence in conflict: The Importance of Human Rights as Means of Interpretation, pg.30
4 Mcfarlane Judith and al., Homicide Studies: Stalking and Intimate Partner Femicide. 1999/11/01
5 Although we acknowledge that this variation does not mean the violence is less painful from the victim’s point of view, but a certain staggering is practical when discussing such matters.
6 Femicides are not always perpetrated by the victim’s intimate partners, but they are the most prevalent perpetrators.
7 Kelly, L. (1988) Surviving sexual violence, Portland, OR: Polity Press.
8 Nowak, Matthias. “Femicide: A Global Problem. Geneva, Switzerland: Small Arms Survey.” Research Notes: Armed Violence 14 (2012).
9Shalhoub-Kevorkian, Nadera. “Reexamining femicide: Breaking the silence and crossing “scientific” borders.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28.2 (2003): 581-608.
10 Article 7 of the CEDAW.
11 Radford, Jill, and Diana EH Russell. Femicide: The politics of woman killing. Twayne Pub, 1992.
12 European parliament’s resolution on femicide in 2007.
Alvazzi del Frate, Anna. “When the victim is a woman.” Geneva Declaration Secretariat (2011): 113-144.
Campo Algodonero: Claudia Ivette Gonzalez (12.496); Esmeralda Herrera Monreal (12.497); and Laura Berenice Ramos Monarrez (12.498), v. The United Mexican States. 2009. Inter-American Court of Human Rights. CASE NOS. 12.496, 12.497, & 12.498.
Corradi, Consuelo, et al. “Theories of Femicide and Their Significance for Social Research.” Current Sociology, vol. 64, no. 7, Nov. 2016.
Dawson, Myrna. “Punishing Femicide: Criminal Justice Responses to the Killing of Women over Four Decades.” Current Sociology, vol. 64, no. 7, Nov. 2016. ⮚ García-Del Moral P. Transforming feminicidio: Framing, institutionalization and social change. Current Sociology. 2016;64(7):1017-1035.
International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy. Volume 9, Issue 2, 2020, Pages 1-19
J. Brison, Susan. « Justice and Gender-Based Violence [*] », Revue internationale de philosophie, vol. 235, no. 1, 2006, pp. 259-275.
J. Fragoso. Feminicide: Impunity for the Perpetrators and Injustice for the Victims, the Palgrave Handbook of Criminology and the Global South, 2018.
Nowak, Matthias. “Femicide: A Global Problem. Geneva, Switzerland: Small Arms Survey.” Research Notes: Armed Violence 14 (2012).
Kelly, L. (1988) Surviving sexual violence, Portland, OR: Polity Press.
Radford, Jill, and Diana EH Russell. Femicide: The politics of woman killing. Twayne Pub, 1992.
Rita Banerji, Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies. New Delhi:
Penguin Books. 2008. Paperback.
Shalhoub-Kevorkian, Nadera. “Reexamining femicide: Breaking the silence and crossing “scientific” borders.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28.2 (2003): 581-608.
Sosa, Lorena P. A. “Inter-American Case Law on Femicide: Obscuring Intersections?” Netherlands Quarterly of Human Rights, vol. 35, no. 2, June 2017.
Patricia Viseur Sellers, The Prosecution of Sexual Violence in conflict: The Importance of Human Rights as Means of Interpretation, pg.30
Mcfarlane Judith and al., Homicide Studies: Stalking and Intimate Partner Femicide. 1999/11/01
About the author:
Houda Merezak is a bachelor student in Political science, in the Mohammed VI Polytechnic University of Morocco. Passionate about social justice and Human rights activism, she is particularly committed to the causes of gender equality and sustainable development.