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Brazil Implements Femicide Legislation as the UN Assesses Global Gender Equality

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 By Kate Sopcich, Research Associate at the Council On Hemispheric Affairs (COHA)

 Brazil Joins the Movement

On March 9, 2015, a day after International Women’s Day, Brazil passed legislation that addresses femicide in the country. Facing heightened attention as a female leader, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff played a key role in the legislative measure. With this move, Brazil has joined a global movement that seeks to appropriately respond to the severity of an endemic crime that results from deeply rooted power imbalances prevalent in many patriarchal societies.

 In accordance with international law, Brazil’s new legislation specifically recognizes femicide as the act of murdering women because they are women. BBC News reports that Rousseff considers Brazil’s legislative action to be “part of a zero tolerance policy toward the killing of women” in the country.[1] Regarding the progress of the recognition of femicide, head of UN Women in Brazil Nadine Gasman commented to Reuters, “it has taken us a long time to say that the killing of a woman is a different phenomenon. Men are killed in the street, women are killed in the home.”[2]

 Why Femicide?

 Identifying an act of violence or murder as related to broader societal themes of misogyny, instead of merely an isolated or situational crime, indicates a federal and judicial cognizance of a systematic issue. Enshrining the distinction between homicide and femicide into law is crucial; such recognition is essential for progress towards true gender equality. On the importance of the legislative terminology, Gasman explains, “it’s a way to talk about this problem, make it visible by giving it a name and increasing sanctions for this crime.”[3] The sanctions referenced by Gasman are 12 to 30 year jail sentences for perpetrators of femicide, and increased sentences for crimes perpetrated against “pregnant women, girls under 14, women over 60 and people with disabilities.”[4]

 These consequences have been deemed “strict” and “tough” in international news headlines, but they are not particularly harsh considering that, in many countries, homicide perpetrators can receive death penalty or life in jail. This specification may seem to impose vulnerability on the indicated groups. The intention here is not to imply that women are the weaker sex and require further protection, it is to emphasize the state’s recognition of past and present impunity for perpetrators of gender-based violence, and its desire to combat the systemic issue by offering a route of justice.

 The legal adoption and implementation of the term femicide is monumental for Brazil and the other nations that have also employed the term in their legislations.

 Despite accruing international attention and importance in recent years, femicide (also referred to as feminicide) remains a new and foreign concept for many throughout the world. Initially the word was coined by authors Diana Russell and Jill Radford in 1976 with their book “Femicide: the Politics of Woman Killing.” In the early 2000s, Mexican Congresswoman and anthropologist Marcela Lagarde appropriated the term to Latin American Academia.[5] Some interpret the term to merely connote an unwarranted, gendered rendition of the term homicide, particularly at first reaction. Despite its absence in the online resource of renowned Spanish dictionary Real Academia Española, the word feminicidio was included in the 23rd printed edition released in 2014.[6] Most English dictionaries have not yet recognized the word’s legitimacy, indicating the Spanish-speaking academic community’s relatively prompt acknowledgment of femicide as a valid issue.

 There are strong threads of contention in the debate over the term, primarily questioning whether the specification of the murder of women is truly needed. Critics argue that legal recognition of femicide is unnecessary and actually risks worsening gender inequality. Professor at New Mexico State University Molly Molloy suggests that the way the term is used in “sensationalistic narratives of sexual murders,” specifically in Ciudad Júarez, Mexico, “distracts… from the real social dysfunction experienced by Mexicans living near the border.”[7] Additionally, some scholars argue that the creation of a specific classification of murder for the killing of women only serves to oppress them further by dividing society into marginalized groups.

 Contrary to Professor Molloy’s conviction, acknowledgment of femicide is vital for women’s access to justice. Murder is complex, and at times does merit a degree of specification to indicate particularities. The term genocide is necessitated because committing a mass killing of people demands a different level of malicious intent, and also indicates a racial aspect to the nature of the crime. In a similar vein, the murder of women in connection with sexual aggression, domestic violence, and misogyny manifests as a distinct act from homicide, and stems from a long-established depreciation of women in patriarchal societies throughout the world.

 Multiple factors distinguish femicide from homicide: overarching causes, perpetrators’ motives, location, tactics employed, and judicial response are all particularly notable. Commonly at the hands of former or current partners, femicide is typically sexualized or related to sexual relationships. UN Women reports to Reuters that, oftentimes, femicide occurs as an end-result of recurring domestic violence.[8] Gender-based violence can occur for the length of an abusive relationship, and is greatly hidden from the public sphere. It persists due to gender-imbalances in society; women may fear a violent reaction from their partner, unjust treatment from the police force, or feel too ashamed to come forth. The act, however, is not only limited to the private realm. In the public sphere, when sexual aggression or any sexualized detail is present in a crime or murder of a woman, it merits specification as femicide.

 In its 2014 “Model Protocol” for the identification, investigation, and prosecution of femicide in Latin America, the UN delineates femicide to derive from “patriarchal and misogynist cultures prevalent in society, the excessive bureaucratization of legal procedures,” and “the difficulties in investigating the complex and cruel modalities of this violence.”[9] Simplifying the connection between societal and cultural norms and the justice system, Anastasia Maloney with Reuters expounds that femicide “stems from a macho culture that tends to condone violence against women and blames women for it, which, in turn, often leads to low prosecution rates for gender-related crimes.”[10] Regularity in judicial recognition of femicide will help to outline broader, intersecting societal issues at play. In addition to proper recognition, specialized training in the investigation and handling of femicide cases is increasingly necessary. Legislative recognition of the problem indicates the seriousness of the issue and can provide the impetus for future progress in these areas.

 Forward motion for equality and justice throughout the hemisphere calls for a renovated approach, one that adequately emphasizes the real ramifications of gender inequality. With its new law, Brazil has laid down the necessary legal framework to promote a pathway to justice. Nadine Gasman contests, “it’s always a challenge implementing laws, but having this law makes it compulsory to investigate this crime with a gender perspective.”[11]

 Femicide in the International Arena

Despite its prior academic and social emergence, the international community first recognized femicide in 2013, at the 57th session of the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). During the Commission’s session, the UN called upon the governments in attendance to bolster their legislation and specifically identify femicide as a crime that is distinct from homicide. Furthermore, the international body called for the “integration of specific mechanisms and policies to prevent, investigate and eradicate femicide, and end impunity by ensuring accountability and the punishment of perpetrators of such crimes and reparation for the victims.”[12]

 The UN has exhibited a regional focus on Latin America and the Caribbean that helps shed light on the severity of the phenomenon in the Western Hemisphere. In its investigations, husbands, boyfriends, or other family members were found to be the perpetrators in 66 percent of female murder cases in Chihuahua, Mexico.[13] In Honduras, murder is the leading cause of death in women and girls of the reproductive age.[14]

On a global scale, in the past as well as in the present, domestic violence, rape, femicide, stalking, and other gender-related crimes are notoriously mishandled, enabling the perpetuation of widespread impunity. Local police forces, judiciary sectors, and federal constitutions are generally ill equipped to appropriately manage these cases.

A 2014 report from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) purports an impunity rate of 98 percent in cases of femicide and gender-based acts of crime in some Latin American countries, highlighting the turbulence of the situation.[15] As of 2012, El Salvador and Honduras each had estimated impunity rates of 77 percent for cases of femicide. And although general rates of impunity are high throughout many countries in Latin America for all crime, including the murder of men, the difference lies in the nature of femicide. Victims of femicide are not murdered while engaging in illicit or violent activity, they are murdered at the hands of their partners and family members, often in the presumed shelter of the private sphere. When these factors intersect with a lack of legal framework to properly identify, address, and persecute the crime, impunity represents more that just state ineptness, it illustrates the dangerous convergence of judiciary shortcoming and societal gender imbalances.

As a resource to address femicide in the region, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued the “Model protocol for the investigation of gender-related killings of women in Latin America: Femicide/feminicide” on April 26, 2013. The UN considers the protocol to be a tool in combating impunity. Essentially, the document acts as an instruction manual for ensuring the pursuit of justice in cases of femicide as opposed to being forgotten or improperly handled. The UN statement declares, “this protocol will provide guidelines and instruments for the accurate investigation of these crimes, including in the collection of evidence and in criminal prosecutions, to guarantee women’s access to justice.” Such a protocol has unfortunately become necessary after repeated mishandling of femicide and other crimes pertaining to violence and discrimination against women.

In addition to the OHCHR’s protocol designed for the region as a whole, UN Women is directly working with select countries in Central America such as Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras. Evidencing an impressive collaboration of national governments, local police forces, international entities, and nongovernmental women’s groups, efforts include the establishment of special justice units, the training of police forces in handling victims of gender-related crimes, and increased focus in the collection of empirical data regarding femicide and gender-based violence.

Brazil joins a number of Latin American nations that have extended legislative specification to femicide. These countries are Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama and Peru.[16] Adoption of the term effectively serves to legitimize its cause within the judicial realm, as well as set an example for other nations worldwide. When a country’s legislation enshrines the word femicide in its constitution, it is establishing a legal framework that can provide access to justice. The idea is to end impunity that is overwhelmingly afforded to perpetrators of femicide, particularly throughout Latin America. Affirming the importance of legislative protection, the UN proffers that the absence of a “specialized penal code that adequately describes the murder of women based on reasons of hate, contempt, and asymmetrical power relations between men and women,” is the highest indicator of rampant impunity.[17]

International Initiative

UN Women claims that “the political will is there” to improve gender equality, and regional initiatives do appear to support this claim. The UN’s Commission on the Status of Women’s 59th Session is now coming to a close in New York at the UN Headquarters, taking place March 9-20.[18] This session marks the 20th anniversary of the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, which established the “Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.” The objective of the conference is to assess the international community’s progress regarding its initiatives thus far. The session will serve as a catalyst to redirect focus and strategize for the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals era. In the forward to the republishing of the “Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action” in preparation for its re-analysis, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon urged Member States to “renew their commitment” to the Platform and “carry it out in full,” twenty years after its adoption by 189 Member States.[19] The international community stands at a critical point in its examination of past actions, current status, and the shaping of future objectives.

The outcome document goes on to remind Member States and spectators, “Gender equality is not only a goal in itself, but serves to achieve all other goals on the global agenda.”[20] The UN aptly includes that “urgent and sustained action is needed to transform the structures, institutions and norms—economic, political and social—that are holding back progress on gender equality. These systematic changes must be deep and irreversible.”[21] Lamentably, what the UN is setting out to accomplish in the international community is to challenge and reform structures, institutions and norms that are, in fact, “deep and irreversible.” On a global scale, the principles established with the Platform in 1995 still remain alarmingly pertinent to the status of gender equality today.

Decades have passed without significant progress in diminishing gendered power imbalances, and the international community is increasingly focusing on themes of political stability, diplomacy, and alleviating poverty. What is typically overlooked, but emphasized by the rhetoric of the UN and its endeavors, is that gender equality is an integral part in the attainment of broader global development objectives. Implementation of democratic values, reduction of poverty and socio-economic disparity, and the long-term establishment of peace can only be strengthened and legitimated by greater gender equality, and vice versa.

 The Curious Magic of March

At the beginning of the women’s movement in the early 1900s, the Socialist Party of America declared the first National Woman’s Day in the United States. The movement for women’s rights gained global momentum, and at an international conference in 1910, Clara Zetkin proposed the concept of an International Women’s Day.[22] Countries all over the world now choose to celebrate the holiday on March 8 to honor women’s achievements, assess their societal status, and plan for the future.

While this attention is positive for the women’s movement, and any advancement that results from these endeavors is always welcome, it can be an excuse to address issues of gender equality just once a year. Brazil’s Congress has managed to pass gender-related legislation the day after International Women’s Day, and right before a global assessment of the status of the world’s women in society. Why does legislation pertaining to the eradication of violence and discrimination against women only enjoy legitimacy in the days near and around International Women’s Day? Are local, regional, and international actors uncomfortable with consistently addressing gender issues? It is disparaging, yet paramount, to recognize that these themes, crucial to effective global development, merely receive annual attention. Gender-sensitive endeavors must be executed year-round to establish legitimate and comprehensive gender equality in the hemisphere and around the globe. Brazil’s legislative progress, as well as the greater Latin American effort to recognize and address femicide, does speak to the advancement of women’s rights in the hemisphere. However, the token March appearance of gender-related issues on local, regional, and international agendas demonstrates a lack of consistency in the fight for women’s rights

There is a mutual relationship between language and society. While it is true that society can shape language, language also shapes society. The utility of including the term femicide in federal constitutions may not be immediately recognizable, and its inclusion may not be capable of having an impact in the present moment or even the near future. The importance lies in what employing the term in the present moment can bring for the future. Normalizing the term femicide to recognize the common and prevalent differences in the ways women are murdered versus the ways men are murdered will illuminate deep gender imbalances in society. Utilization of the term will encourage the police and judicial forces to exercise gender-sensitivity when approaching the matter, or analyzing trends in crime. Widespread implementation of the term femicide can reshape society in how it perceives gender-based violence—its causes and perpetuators—and how it conceptualizes violence and discrimination against women. An instant change will not happen in Brazil simply due to the country’s legislative reform regarding femicide. However, the measure is part of a greater trend in the Western Hemisphere rising up to collectively reassess the state of violence and discrimination against women; heavily propelled by the United Nations, the movement is establishing the necessary rhetoric to facilitate future justice and equality.

 By Kate Sopcich, Research Associate at the Council On Hemispheric Affairs (COHA).

Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated. For additional news and analysis on Latin America, please go to: and Rights Action.

Featured Image by Steev Hise, “trip to Juarez, april 1 2006 – 17” taken on April 1, 2006. Retrieved from Flickr, on


[1] “Brazil Femicide Law Signed by President Rousseff.” BBC News: Latin American & Caribbean. Published March 9, 2015.

[2] Moloney, Anastia. “Brazil Passes Femicide Law to Tackle Rise in Gender Killings.” Thomas Reuters Foundation. Published March 10, 2015.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Femicide: A Term to Fight Gender Violence.” TeleSUR. Published November 25, 2014.

[6] “Amigovio, papichulo, feminicidio, homoparental; las palabras que aceptó la RAE este año.” Animal Politico. Published October 17, 2014.

[7] “Q&A with Molly Molloy: The Story of the Juarez Femicides is a ‘Myth’,” by Christopher Hooks. Texas Observer. Published January 9, 2014.

[8] “Brazil Passes Femicide Law to Tackle Rise in Gender Killings.” Reuters. Written by Anastasia Maloney. Published March 10, 2015.

[9] “Modelo de protocol latinoamericano de investigación de las muertes violentas de mjueres por razones de género (femicidio/feminicidio). La Oficina Regional para América Central del Alto Comisionado de las Naciones Unidas para los Derechos Humanos y la Oficina Regional para las Américas y el Caribe de la Entidad de las Naciones Unidas para la Igualdad de Género y el Empoderamiento de las Mujeres. Published 2014.

[10] “Brazil Passes Femicide Law to Tackle Rise in Gender Killings.” Reuters. Written by Anastasia Maloney. Published March 10, 2015.

[11]“Brazil Passes Femicide Law to Tackle Rise in Gender Killings,” by Anastia Moloney. Thomas Reuters Foundation. Published March 10, 2015.

[12] “UN Women calls for urgent and effective action against femicide.” Statement by Lakshmi Puri. Published May 15, 2014.

[13] “Fast Facts: Statistics on Violence Against Women and Girls.” UN Women. Published 2014.

[14] “Femicide in Latin America.”UN Women. Published April 4, 2013.

[15] “Ending Impunity for Femicide in Latin America.” United Nations Human Rights: Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights. Published August 25, 2014.

[16] “La Platforma de Acción de Beijing Cumple 20 Años.” Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe. Published 2015.

[17] “Modelo de protocol latinoamericano de investigación de las muertes violentas de mjueres por razones de género (femicidio/feminicidio). La Oficina Regional para América Central del Alto Comisionado de las Naciones Unidas para los Derechos Humanos y la Oficina Regional para las Américas y el Caribe de la Entidad de las Naciones Unidas para la Igualdad de Género y el Empoderamiento de las Mujeres. Published 2014.

[18] “CSW59/Beijing+20 (2015).” UN Women. Published March 2015.

[19] “Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action: Beijing +5 Political Declaration and Outcome.” Un Women. Published 2014.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] “About International Women’s Day (8 March).” International Women’s Day. Published 2015.