Familicide: the killing of a current or former intimate partner and children, a crime most often committed by men against women after a lengthy period of intimate partner violence.
This little-understood concept is often classified under the broad term of domestic homicide. Three or more victims meet the definition of a mass killing, also characteristic of familicide, but familicide is often considered a private crime rather than a public one.
As a result, data on familicide is also rare. New research from the University of Guelph has taken a first look at the phenomenon in Canada, where a woman is killed by an intimate partner approximately every six days.
“Familicide is a final step of violence against women,” said Ciara Boyd, lead author of “Familicide in Canada, 2010 to 2019” and a PhD student in the College of Social and Applied Human Sciences who studies gender-based homicides.
“Violence against women hasn’t been taken as seriously because women are not viewed as equal,” Boyd said.
Familicide is a gendered crime
Narrowing the focus for this paper came from previous research on domestic homicides across Canada. The lack of familicide-specific research has been attributed to its rarity, despite the fact that familicide carries a high victim count.
The paper, published in Homicide Studies, analyzed 26 incidents of familicide with 71 victims and 26 accused that occurred over a 10-year period, drawing on data from the Canadian Domestic Homicide Prevention Initiative with Vulnerable Populations. Information was collected from publicly available media files and court documents.
Half of the 26 cases involved a documented history of violence by the accused, including physical, emotional, sexual and economic abuse.
Researchers found familicide is a gendered crime, most often perpetrated by men whose victims are women and who commit these killings using firearms. Many occurred in rural environments; half were prompted by the female partner attempting to leave the relationship with the accused.
Familicide might be rare, but its impact reverberates across communities, challenging the myth these are private matters, said Boyd’s adviser, Dr. Myrna Dawson, a professor and research leadership chair in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology.
“Just because they occur between people who know one another doesn’t make them any less serious,” said Dawson.
Boyd’s work focuses on commonalities among all mass killings, said Dawson, who believes understanding those connections will enable people to see the violence as a continuum. “One of the key commonalities across that is angry white men.”
Studying homicide is a way to understand social interactions as well as social structures and processes, Dawson said. “It’s a lens into human behaviour, and studying familicide gets us that much further.”
This research helps in discussing, understanding and preventing these types of killings, said Dawson, including using terms like patriarchy and toxic masculinity. “We have to bring those terms out into the public domain so the public can better understand what we mean when we say them and how they contribute to violence.”
How the patriarchy and toxic masculinity devalue women
“In a patriarchal society, white males are taught they’re the dominant superior group,” said Boyd, adding toxic masculinity is a primary factor in familicide.
Research has found the social construction of masculinity positions white men as the “norm,” leading them to believe they are superior to women and children as well as other men and racial groups.
“Men are socialized to have control,” Boyd explained. “Masculinity and control go hand-in-hand. When their control is threatened, their masculinity is threatened. That’s when the problem happens.”
Domestic homicide of any kind, Boyd said, is often an extension of a man’s feeling of entitlement to regain that control.
“Women feel like they’re under threat, and they are,” Dawson said. The pandemic forced many living in abusive and violent relationships to remain in their homes and prompted many women to leave the workforce, reducing their independence further. Then came the overturning of Roe v. Wade. “A lot of the gains made for women are starting to move backward.”
Familicide is a form of mass killing and is a type of domestic homicide. Classifying it as a distinct form of violence is imperative to address its root cause and to prevent and respond to it, said Boyd.
“How can you develop prevention measures when you don’t know anything about it? There is so much to learn in this area and so much that can help prevent all kinds of gendered violence.”
Dr. Myrna Dawson