Against All Odds, Femicide Did Not Increase During the First Year of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Evidence From Six Spanish-Speaking Countries

Date01 November 2021
Published date01 November 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2021, Vol. 37(4) 615 –644
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10439862211054237
Against All Odds, Femicide
Did Not Increase During the
First Year of the COVID-19
Pandemic: Evidence From Six
Spanish-Speaking Countries
Marcelo F. Aebi1, Lorena Molnar1,
and Francisca Baquerizas2
This paper tests a situational hypothesis which postulates that the number of femicides
should increase as an unintended consequence of the COVID-19-related lockdowns.
The monthly data on femicides from 2017 to 2020 collected in six Spanish-speaking
countries—Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Panama, Mexico, and Spain—and analyzed using
threshold models indicate that the hypothesis must be rejected. The total number
of femicides in 2020 was similar to that recorded during each of the three previous
years, and femicides did not peak during the months of the strictest lockdowns. In
fact, their monthly distribution in 2020 did not differ from the seasonal distribution
of femicides in any former year. The discussion criticizes the current state of research
on femicide and its inability to inspire effective criminal polices. It also proposes three
lines of intervention. The latter are based on a holistic approach that places femicide
in the context of crimes against persons, incorporates biology and neuroscience
approaches, and expands the current cultural explanations of femicide.
femicide, routine activities theory, COVID-19 pandemic, lockdowns
1University of Lausanne, Switzerland
2University Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, Spain
Corresponding Author:
Marcelo F. Aebi, School of Criminal Sciences, University of Lausanne, UNIL-Sorge-BCH, CH-1015
Lausanne, Switzerland.
1054237CCJXXX10.1177/10439862211054237Journal of Contemporary Criminal JusticeAebi et al.
616 Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 37(4)
On March 28, 2020, roughly 2 weeks after the beginning of the stay-at-home restric-
tions imposed across the world to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, The
Guardian reported that “Lockdowns around the world bring rise in domestic vio-
lence,” with a subtitle that “Activists say pattern of increasing abuse is repeated in
countries from Brazil to Germany” (Graham-Harrison et al., 2020).1 Several days
later, on April 12, 2020, an editorial in the Journal of Clinical Nursing raised similar
arguments (Bradbury-Jones & Isham, 2020). Citing as examples, one domestic homi-
cide recorded in Spain within 5 days of the lockdown’s implementation and “. . . an
increased number of domestic homicides in the UK since the lockdown restrictions
were enacted,” the editorial warned that “The emerging homicide numbers underline
the serious and potentially devastating unintended consequences of the pandemic for
victim-survivors of abuse” (Bradbury-Jones & Isham, 2020, p. 2048). The reasoning
behind this worldwide concern is relatively clear: the convergence in a reduced space
and for an extended period of time of potential victims and offenders, coupled with the
absence of formal social control, should lead to an increase in domestic violence
offenses. Probably because this hypothesis—which we will refer to as the situational
hypothesis because it is based on the relevance of the situation in which a crime occurs
rather than the offender’s motivation—is grounded in common sense, it was supported
by experts from different fields and recounted in the most prestigious newspapers,
usually accompanied with anecdotical evidence similar to that quoted above.
In criminology, Cohen and Felson’s (1979) Routine activities approach have for-
malized this line of reasoning. This theory has been the object of several critics (for a
summary, see McLaughlin, 2019), but in the context of the pandemic, we were unable
to find any trace of them in the public discourse, nor did we find evidence that con-
structionists or postmodernists theorists were reassuring the potential lock-downed
victims by telling them that “crime does not exist” (Christie, 2004; Hulsman, 1986).
Sometimes, reality strikes hard.
The relevance of this apparent consensus about the conditions under which domes-
tic violence increases must not be underestimated, as it can provide the support needed
to introduce amendments to the criminal law and the criminal policies applied to pre-
vent that crime. The question is whether the empirical evidence corroborates the rea-
soning behind that consensus.2 In that context, someone could object, as one anonymous
reviewer of this paper did, that the length of the exposure to the risk of becoming a
victim—increased by the fact that the lockdowns forced intimate partners to spend
more time together—does not necessarily play a role in the theoretical framework of
the routine activities approach. If that was the case, then the lockdowns would not lead
to an increase in domestic aggression.3 We will keep that possibility as an alternative
hypothesis, although we have found no traces of it in the literature on the COVID-19
pandemic’s effect on crime.4 In the meantime, the primary research question of this
article is whether the data collected during the first year of the pandemic supports this
situational hypothesis or not. We intend to answer that question by focusing on the
most extreme form of violence against women and using data from six countries that

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