Illustration shows silhouettes of injured and dead women as well as red circles and bar charts

"A more realistic map of the state of violence against women"

Last month, the Mediterranean Institute of Investigative Reporting (MIIR) published a data-driven investigation into femicides in Europe. 18 newsrooms contributed, to give the public a detailed picture of what the journalists call "an undeclared war on women". The project was realized in the scope of the European Data Journalism Network (EDJNet) that DW is also a part of. We spoke to Janine Louloudi, a journalist at the MIIR who led the research, and to Thanasis Troboukis, a journalist at the iMEdD Lab, who was in charge of data analysis and visualizations.

Janine Louloudi (MIIR)
Thanasis Troboukis (iMEdD Lab)

The coverage of COVID-19 was dominated by data-driven reporting, as there were lots of numbers available that could be analyzed and visualized. In your article, you describe femicides in Europe as an epidemic as well. Is it one that could also easily be tackled with DDJ tools? How accessible was the data you were looking for?

The reality is that data related to femicides and violence against women is not easily accessible. Neither on national nor on European levels. When we first started looking into what data was already there, in October 2022, we discovered a report by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE). That's the most competent authority in Europe when it comes to issues like physical, sexual, psychological, economic violence in intimate partnerships. They also publish indicators on femicides. Now the EIGE report we found was from 2021, but the data documented there covered the years 2014-2018. Which means there was no relevant information on femicides for the entire period of the pandemic.

Eurostat has been developing an EU-wide survey to get updated figures on violence against women in the EU. The survey has been running in member states from 2020 onwards. Results are expected in 2023 and will then be used to update the domain of violence in EIGE's "Gender Equality Index"–which won't be out before 2024.

On the other hand, Eurostat had some useful data on intentional homicides of women by intimate partners or family members–which is a rather precise definition of femicide, given that it hasn't been recognised as a crime in its own right in the EU, apart from Cyprus and Malta that have put it into law. But even in the case of intentional homicides, data from some countries were missing and/or only covering a period up until 2020.

Now EIGE and Eurostat get their figures on violence against women from national police and justice authorities. This made us realize we'd have to look for updated data in every single country. And this led to the data sets we eventually collaborated on.

We eventually managed to find information for 20 countries, but that doesn't mean the data was always useful. Some of our teams were lucky and could access police or ministry databases and search for the most recent figures. However, most countries were not offering this data publicly–which meant we needed to make requests to the relevant authorities. And there's also the case of our colleagues in Serbia who had to submit an FOI request to receive data.

Once this process had begun, we faced another problem: not having comparable data. There were differences in the definitions of crimes between countries, and also of the way the police or relevant ministries collected and categorized data related to them. For example, in some cases we could find the number of victims, but there was no distinction if the victims were male or female or if they were above the age of 18, or what the gender of the perpetrator was.

In essence, the process of collecting and analyzing meaningful data was quite challenging.

So you eventually had to compile your own database, based on a variety of sources. Did any national or European institution surprise you – in a good or in a bad way?

Well, as mentioned before, the EU institutions surprised us negatively. 

After discovering the EIGE and Eurostat data gap, we asked ourselves many times: How is it possible in this day and age that EU countries cannot deliver data with similar characteristics at least once a year?  How can the EU not have up-to-date information on a matter so crucial for the lives of women? Shouldn't policies regarding the wellbeing and safety of women be reviewed on an annual basis as well? Shouldn't EU institutions have proper information to draft much needed legislation to  prevent violence against women, deliver justice and support victims?

We need to keep in mind that all EU member states are signatories of the Council of Europe "Istanbul Convention", which calls for action on violence against women, but also for better performance in the collection of related data. However, six EU member states (Bulgaria, Czechia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia) still haven't ratified the convention, and there's also the case of Poland, where the government has been looking to withdraw from the Convention. 

The European Council only cleared the way for EU ratification of the Istanbul Convention this February.

We are mentioning all this because for some countries, e.g. Greece and Slovenia, the ratification of the Istanbul Convention means a visible improvement in data collection by the relevant authorities. We were positively surprised to receive detailed data covering 2019, 2020, and 2021 from the Greek authorities. Some of it was explosive, as it showed that in 2020 and 2021, Greece had a huge increase in the number of femicides (and other types of violence as well).

For your investigation, you spoke to Cristina Fabre Rosell of the European Institute for Gender Equality, who discusses the effect of the pandemic on intimate partner violence. She expresses the hope "that with the collection of data on intimate partner femicide across the years, perhaps we will be able to build the evidence". Other authorities and NGOs you talked to also highlighted the importance of data. Would you say that the people in charge have started to recognize the data "black hole" and do something about it?

No, unfortunately not. Almost all our partners had difficulties getting the data we set out to find. Even in Cyprus, a country that legally recognizes femicide as a crime in its own right and has ratified the Istanbul Convention, it was really difficult to retrieve data from the police. Our team had to file requests for two months until we finally received updated figures.

Almost all experts we spoke to made a point about the lack of data, which also means that authorities have a blurred perception of reality when it comes to intimate partner violence and femicides. Femicides and other incidents of violence against women are under-reported in so many countries.

This led us to the idea to also get data from unofficial sources, like private monitoring initiatives, and compare them to the official annual figures.  In the case of Greece, for example, the number of femicides recorded by the Greek section of the European Observatory on Femicides was 2,4 times higher than the number the police gave for 2020, and 1,4 higher for 2021. In this context, it's important to understand that the under-reporting of crimes also causes a lack of trust towards state institutions and their ability to intervene and protect women.

On 25 November 2022, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, the European Commission called for the swift adoption of a directive on violence against women. This particular directive recognizes the data gap and proposes that collecting data should be made compulsory throughout the EU. This could be a way for Brussels to push governments to improve data on femicides and gender-based violence.

Member states would profit as well: They'd have a substantial data basis when drafting policies on the prevention of violence against women, and they'd be more capable to adapt to extreme situations, for instance during a pandemic, which requires a quick implementation of measures to protect female victims of intimate partner/domestic violence. Most countries were unable to do that during the Corona crisis.

Your research addresses a very sensitive issue. At the same time, DDJ is a rather unemotional way of doing research. Why did you choose the data approach?

In Greek news, femicides are always covered in a very "sensational" way, focusing on the crime itself, the background story of the relationship between victim and perpetrator, often even presenting femicides as "crimes of passion". The audience thus loses sight of the rate at which femicides occur and the need to look at the reasons behind the phenomenon.  We chose to approach the issue through data because numbers don't lie. Well, at least when the crimes aren't under-reported.  But even in this case, we believe that through data you can witness the real-time change in incidents of violence against women and femicides, the increase or decrease and the rate at which the crimes occur. And by collecting data from so many European countries, we were able to create a more realistic map of the state of violence against women in Europe during the pandemic.

That said, we obviously recognize that femicide remains an extremely sensitive issue that causes severe trauma for the families and friends of victims. In order to better tell the story and help the audience relate to the data collected on the subject, but also to understand that authorities often fail to protect the lives of female victims, we at MIIR also chose to include interviews in our investigation. We talked to victims of intimate partner violence, and we talked to relatives of women that had been murdered by their partners. This was maybe one of the hardest parts of our report.

Having just finished an investigation based on challenging data that became part of the story itself: Do you have any lessons you'd like to share? And: would you do this again?

We think it's important to remember that all the data we collected, all the numbers we present refer to specific moments in time that had a drastic effect on a woman's life. That woman suffered violence at the hands of an intimate partner or family member. That woman died as a result of it. This is a thought we returned to many times during the data collection process, to keep perspective of why we were doing this. That said, we think this project gave us a better understanding, a confirmation even, that there is still something very wrong with stereotypes in gender roles, because thousands of women in Europe are being mistreated by men, and many of them lose their lives every year. This is not just a trend, the data shows it's a more permanent situation. We think it's important that we as journalists focus on this with care, and keep authorities in check. So we can eventually have better sex education, better prevention against violence, better support and better lives for women.

The interview was slightly edited for clarity and readability. Illustration by Louiza Karageorgiou (MIIR-Efsyn)

If you're interested in further resources on the subject, also check out this article on gender-based violence and (the undercounting of) femicides in India, published by DW last year.

Eva Lopez