The tip of the iceberg – intimate partner homicide

8 December, 2016


Heidi Stöckl is a lecturer in social epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Associate Editor at Reproductive Health Matters.

A video interview with the author is now available online.

Anna V was 36 years old when she and her seven-year old son Anton were murdered by her ex-partner and father of their son at their home near Munich, Germany. Even though they had separated years ago and only had sporadic contact his jealousy of Anna’s new relationship led him to murder her and their son. Anna’s story is not an isolated case. In the same week, within a radius of 50 km, a 45-year old woman was murdered by her partner and a 36-year old woman survived a knife attack from her current partner.

Violence against women is common everywhere and occurs at shockingly high rates. Contrary to common belief, for women, home and relationships are not necessarily safe. While violence by men against men are much more common, women are more likely to experience violence by their intimate partners and they are also more likely to be murdered by an intimate partner than men. Worldwide, one in three women report physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner and one in three women is murdered by an intimate partner. In comparison, only five percent of male homicides are committed by an intimate partner worldwide.

The gendered patterns when comparing male and female intimate partner homicides continue when looking into the context of these murders. Women are more likely to murder their partner while they are in a relationship, while most homicides of women by their male intimate partners happens during or after separation, often grounded in men’s strong feelings of jealousy, entitlement and possessiveness. Women barely murder their partner after the relationship ends.

Since 1975, the marital age for women has increased in the US, which has shown to have an enormous effect on intimate partner violence,  known to be associated with young age. Women have also become economically empowered and are therefore more able to leave abusive relationship. Societal attitude to divorce have also changed and domestic violence services are increasingly assisting women to leave abusive relationships if they want to. These are some of the reasons why intimate partner homicide rates have dropped significantly for men in the US since 1975, while it only slightly decreased for women. As women are more likely to murder intimate partners while in a relationship, these changes have favoured the reduction of male intimate partner homicides to a greater extent, showing that men actually benefit from increased investment in domestic violence services too.

Intimate partner homicide is not only a tragic event in itself, through the murder of a human being full of aspirations, wishes, needs and feelings. It also leaves a large void to those around them, their families, friends, colleagues, neighbours and most of all – their children. Children of victims of intimate partner homicides do not only lose one parent to homicide, they also lose the other to criminal justice system. Children of homicide victims often have to move house and sometimes school as a consequence, due to experience stigma and isolation. Families and friends also have to deal with the loss of a sibling, son or daughter, mother or father or a close friend they believed they can grow old with, they will also carry the burden of “what if” with them for a long time.

Despite the abhorrent crime that intimate partner homicide presents — its immeasurable human costs and its costs to society through the criminal investigation, legal procedures and imprisonment– data on intimate partner homicide is fairly poor.  While we know the number of men and women murdered worldwide, information beyond their sex and age is rarely available, let alone comparable across countries. Information about who the murderer is and how the murderer is related to the victim is only collected routinely in a few countries, while the vast majority have missing information, often because the perpetrator could not be identified or merely because it is not reported.

Data on the victim-offender relationship is crucial for better understanding of the extent and nature of violence against women across countries and changes in its pattern over time. It can also be important for policy development and to inform countries where to best focus their prevention efforts. Measures to reduce homicide needs to take a gendered perspective for female homicides to drop significantly. To reduce female homicide rates it is imperative to increase investment in domestic violence prevention services and put in place policies that will ensure detection of those experiencing intimate partner violence in health care settings. Even though intimate partner homicide is only the tip of the iceberg of violence against women, its prevention is an important policy goal.