Jacquelyn Campbell

(WOMENSENEWS)–Scholars from 11 cities have come up with some new answers to an age-old question in the battered women’s movement–which abused women are in the most danger?

As researchers probed the stories of women who had been murdered, some obvious clues such as gun ownership and an abuser’s arrest record were predictably prominent. But some more surprising results turned up, such as the presence of a stepchild and an abuser’s job status, says Jacquelyn Campbell, a leading scholar in the field who teaches nursing at Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing in Baltimore.

“Unemployment came out as the single most important demographic factor, so it really shows the community implications and the need to think about employment as being an important element for women’s safety,” Campbell says. The study appears in the July issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

Up to 1,300 women each year are killed in the United States by husbands, ex-husbands, boyfriends or ex-boyfriends, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. Along with Baltimore, researchers covered 10 other cities, including Dallas, Chicago, Atlanta and Portland, Ore.

Warning Signs Can Be a Matter of Life or Death

Knowing the warning signs about an abusive relationship, and when it might go from bad to lethal, can be a key life-saving tool for people close to a woman who is in an abusive relationship, according to experts.

“Victims die every year because someone they were talking to didn’t understand how dangerous the situation was,” says San Diego City Attorney Casey Gwinn, who often works with Campbell in training and other advisory efforts around the country. “Someone always knows about the abuse, whether it’s their mother, neighbors, friends or co-workers–someone knew.”

Advocates for battered women and law-enforcement agencies have long known the list of factors that put women in more danger from an abuser: a history of assault; gun ownership; forced sex; an arrest record; threats of assault, suicide, or homicide; stalking; an escalation in the seriousness of violence and highly controlling behavior.

The article identifies such new factors as the presence of a stepchild, highlights others, such as highly controlling behavior, and indicates that some abusive behavior may not be strong predictors of homicide, however terrifying or damaging they are in daily life.

According to the study authors, knowing the risk factors offers a variety of benefits, from helping victims to understand the gravity of their situation if they are minimizing abusive behavior, to guiding law-enforcement efforts to keeping the most dangerous abusers behind bars.

In San Diego, where coordinated victim-support and law-enforcement efforts are widely viewed as state-of-the-art, City Attorney Gwinn uses a different risk assessment tool from Campbell’s, but praises efforts to spread the word about the risks that battered women face. Assessing the danger or “lethality” that a woman faces also helps law-enforcement to focus their efforts where the need is greatest, Gwinn says.

“If we see a lot of risk factors at play, we can ratchet up our attention,” Gwinn says. “It allows us to target the use of our limited resources.”

‘Femicide’ Term Entering U.S. Usage

The journal article takes the step of using the term “femicide” to describe the homicides of women and it is the literal definition of the term. The term has long been used among feminists in an international context for practices such as stoning a woman to death for adultery and for so-called “honor” killings of women in some Muslim societies if their families believe that a rape or a relationship has dishonored the family. But the term is only recently gaining ground in scholarly literature on homicide in the United States.

“Homicide of women, or femicide, is all about domestic violence,” Campbell says. “If you want to prevent homicides of women you have to look at the reasons why women are killed, because the reasons are different than the reasons for homicide in general.

“Using the term femicide really identifies these deaths for what they are and I think it helps clarify it as the separate category of homicide that it is,” she adds.

The study takes an important new step in research on women’s homicides because it was the first to use a rigorous scientific method to compare the lives of women killed by abusive partners with battered women in general. The consortium of researchers in 11 cities drew information about 500 women who were either victims of femicide or attempted femicide. They identified another 427 women in the same cities who were living in violent relationships. Then they homed in on the femicide victims and interviewed a relative or friend of the dead woman who would be likely to provide an accurate account of the victim’s life circumstances.

This method of using case controls–comparing actual femicide victims to the population of abused women–is important to establishing the scientific validity of the research, a goal of several national funders. The research had support from the National Institute of Justice, the National Institutes of Health and other funders in the Washington area, according to Campbell.

Marie Tessier is a freelance writer who writes frequently about violence against women for Women’s eNews and other publications.

For more information:

Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing–
“Identifying Risk Factors for Femicide in Violent Intimate Relationships”:

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence:

U.S. Justice Department–Bureau of Justice Statistics: