Every day in Germany a man tries to kill his partner or ex-partner. One in three attempts is successful. Activists say too many perpetrators are getting off lightly.
One Sunday evening in early 2019 in Frankfurt, Germany, a 35-year old doctor was stabbed 18 times by her former partner. She died within minutes on the street outside her front door.
Julia Schäfer, a prosecutor in Frankfurt at the time, was called to the scene. This case, sadly, is a very typical one, she says.
"She had left him, and he had been trying to win her over again for a while. He had threatened and abused her, and she had turned to the police. She had a restraining order against him. On the night in question, he waited for her for hours; when she told him again that it was over, he drew the knife he had brought and killed her," Schäfer recalls.
Every day in Germany a man tries to kill his partner or ex-partner. Every third day an attempt is successful. Fresh figures show an increase in domestic violence against women and a continuously high number of femicides for 2019. In the European Union Germany topped the list for the number of femicides in 2018.
The killing of a partner does not come out of the blue, says Schäfer, who now heads a crime-prevention unit in the interior ministry of the state of Hesse.
"It is often the grueling climax after many years of domestic violence, which begins with insults and humiliation and also economic pressure," she says.
Domestic violence begins with insults and humiliation and physical abuse — and often ends with murder
Women's rights activists deplore reporting of such crimes in German tabloid media, which regularly sensationalize and romanticize the killings, writing about "crimes of passion," "love tragedies" and "family tragedies."
This kind of wording influences the way people think and implies that the crime is a private matter, a singular incident rather than part of a problem in German society as a whole, Vanessa Bell from the NGO Terre des Femmes points out.
"Femicide is still a taboo topic in Germany," she says. The statistics show only cases that have been charged or convicted. According to an EU-wide study in 2014, only an estimated one in three cases of domestic violence is reported to the police.
Read more: Is France doing enough against femicides?
In the Frankfurt stabbing case, the perpetrator was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
In many similar cases, however, German courts are more lenient, passing a verdict for voluntary manslaughter, which carries a sentence of up to ten years.
In each case, all the circumstances are taken into account, and the judge often sees the perpetrator's emotional distress as a mitigating circumstance, implying that he inflicted pain on himself in helpless jealousy by killing the woman he loved.
Many judges refer back to a verdict passed in 2008 by the Federal Court of Justice, Germany's supreme court for civil and criminal proceedings. The court overturned a lower court's murder verdict and ruled that the defendant had not been malicious in his actions. The court found no abject and base motives, which are the prerequisite for a murder sentence. Instead, it stated, "The separation was initiated by the victim herself and by killing her the accused deprived himself of what he actually did not want to lose."
"The problem is that this constitutes a form of victim-blaming," says Leonie Steinl of German Women Lawyers' Association (Deutscher Juristinnenbund).
The ruling also accepts that "a woman was killed because the perpetrator did not allow her to lead a self-determined life. Such a crime is the result of a concept of ownership and inequality based on gender," Steinl explains.
This is the very definition of femicide, she argues — the killing of a woman on account of her gender.
"When a man kills his former or current partner because she has left him or wants to leave him, this should normally be seen as murder, because the act is motivated by a gender-based concept of ownership that violates human dignity," Steinl says.
Basically, she says, a similar kind of patriarchal concept is the basis for "honor" killings, when a girl or woman is killed by relatives for having brought perceived dishonor on the family.
Patriarchal ownership is the context both for "honor" killings and the killing of a former partner out of jealousy.
"In all such constellations, women are killed for gender-related reasons because the perpetrators do not permit them to lead an independent life based on beliefs and values that differ from their own," Steinl says.
"But if we compare the jurisdiction in these cases, we see that German courts put 'honor' killings in a different societal context and hand down tougher sentences for them," she says.
"Femicides in Germany are much more likely to be socially recognized as a problem if they can be assigned exclusively among religious or ethnic minorities. But in fact, two-thirds of the perpetrators are German nationals," says Bell from Terre des Femmes Germany.
"Domestic violence occurs in all parts of society, it is not a question of religion or nationality or education," says former prosecutor Schäfer. "It is our obligation not to turn a blind eye and say it is none of my business, but rather to get involved, offer help or call the police."
Germany signed the Council of Europe's Istanbul convention in 2018. It is the world's first binding legal document to prevent and combat violence against women, recognizing femicide as a structural problem in society. It puts an emphasis on protecting the victims and spells out which measures must be implemented in the German legal system.
In 2021 a team of observers will scrutinize progress made in Germany. Women's rights activists hope that this will give a much-needed boost to train police and judges, expand the psychological and legal care of victims, launch national awareness campaigns, and increase the number of shelters for women, which is still much too low. Around 30,000 women look for a place in a shelter every year, double what is available.
"Germany wants to take a leading role in the fight against gender-based violence, but so far it is sadly lagging behind," says Leonie Steinl from the German Women Lawyers' Association, while calling for more awareness.
"Most people here have either not heard the term femicide before — or they think it just happens in Mexico, where women are abducted, raped, killed, and dismembered. Worldwide people have taken to the streets to speak out against femicide — but in Germany, it is not yet a topic for general debate. Here we can learn a lot from other countries," she says.
This article was first published on November 10, 2020. It was republished on November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women 2020.