Intimate partner violence and help-seeking: The role of femicide news

Colagrossi M., Deiana C., Dragone D., Geraci A., Giua L., Iori E., 2023 – Journal of Health Economics

Paper presented at the 2022 SIEP Conference “Inequalities and Public Intervention in the Future Europe”, University of L’Aquila

In recent decades, Italy has experienced a significant decrease in intentional homicides, thus becoming one of the countries with the lowest rates in the world, with only 0.5 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, well below the average in OECD countries (2.6) and the United States (6.0). However, the number of femicides in the country is persistent. According to ISTAT, in 2018, 55% of femicides were perpetrated by a current or former partner, and 25% by a family member. This shows how deeply gender-based violence is rooted in society. Femicides, indeed, represent only the tip of the iceberg of a broader phenomenon: about 30% of Italian women aged 16 to 70 have experienced physical or sexual violence at least once in their lifetime.

The recognition and reporting of violence are fundamental steps in ending gender-based violence. In a recently published study in the Journal of Health Economics entitled “Intimate partner violence and help-seeking: The role of femicide news”, Marco Colagrossi, Claudio Deiana, Davide Dragone, Andrea Geraci, Ludovica Giua, and Elisa Iori investigate the effects of femicide news on requests for help from victims of domestic violence.

 The effect of femicide news on a victim of domestic violence is, a priori, ambiguous. On one hand, it can increase the perceived importance of the expected benefits in seeking help (or conversely, the costs associated with the case where no action is taken), due to such factors as empathy or identification with the victim. On the other hand, femicide news can escalate fear of retaliation from the violent partner, especially if seeking help does not immediately end the violence.

To empirically study which of these two effects prevails, the authors combine data on female homicides from the period 2015-2019, collected by the Casa delle Donne per non subire violenza, with the number of calls to the anti-violence and anti-stalking helpline 1522 promoted by the Department for Equal Opportunities, as well as the number of reports to the Police for domestic abuse and maltreatments. The analysis is conducted at the provincial level and on a weekly or monthly basis, depending on the data source.

The study finds that calls to 1522 increase by 0.054 calls per 100,000 inhabitants. This effect, which corresponds to an 11% increase, is observed in the week following the femicide in the province where the crime occurred. At the same time, monthly reports to the Police increased by 6% (0.118 per 100,000 inhabitants).

Finally, the study uses weekly data on Google searches for femicide victims and the percentage of news about violence against women disseminated in the press and on the web (Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone). The authors show that not all femicide news has the same effects on victims’ help-seeking behavior. Calls to 1522 increase more when the femicide generates broader interest, as evidenced by Google searches for the victim’s name, when media coverage of gender-based violence is more intense, when the femicide victim is young, and when the method of killing is brutal.

These findings have important policy implications. Raising public awareness about violence against women and highlighting femicide events in the news can play a valuable role in encouraging victims to report the violence.

One possibility is that femicide news conveys information that is useful per se to the victim of violence to assess the potential consequences associated with the decision not to seek help. Note that the lack of certainty about an exclusion order of the perpetrator could limit the victim’s response.

At the same time, the choice to report the violence may depend on the relevance of the news to the victim herself, which is likely influenced by how often and with what intensity she is exposed to femicide news. News that circulates more in the media or is more present in public debate and informal discussions among family, friends, and acquaintances can therefore induce a greater likelihood of seeking help. Increased media coverage can not only increase the relevance of femicide for victims of domestic violence, but also reduce the potential stigma associated with seeking help.

The fact that both calls to 1522 and reports to the police increase after the dissemination of news about femicide also suggests that victims who may potentially seek help can be effectively reached not only through established channels (i.e., the police) but also through dedicated services such as hotlines.

However, the response to media relevance is short-lived. Policymakers can address this issue by promoting frequent and systematic informational campaigns and encouraging public discussion on gender-based violence. Evidence in this direction is supported by other studies showing that the #MeToo movement has contributed to increased reports of sexual crimes in a wide sample of OECD countries and that, in the Italian context, the campaign against violence launched in 2020 has induced a significant increase in calls for help to 1522.

The femicide of Giulia Cecchettin, in November 2023, has reignited public debate across the country and has been followed by street demonstrations and the strengthening of legislation on the protection of victims of domestic and gender-based violence (the so-called “Codice Rosso,” in force since 2019). In January 2024, ISTAT reported to the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry on Femicide, as well as on all forms of gender-based violence that requests for help to 1522 had significantly increased at the end of 2023, likely due to the effects of Cecchettin’s murder on public opinion. Yet, the journey toward eradicating gender-based violence seems to be arduous. The Department of Public Security of the Ministry of the Interior reports that in the first five weeks of 2024 (January 1 – February 4), 9 homicides with female victims were recorded, 7 of whom were killed by a partner or family member. This is a very similar figure to the same period of the previous year, when 9 women were killed, all by a partner or family member.

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