Every week in Germany three women die from partners or ex-partners. The left-wing parliamentary group in the Bundestag calls for more decisive action.
The lockdown made many things worse: Protest against violence against women in May Photo: Sachelle Babbar / picture alliance
The couple had been married for a long time, both were in their late 50s. They lived in a small town in the north of Brandenburg, the children had long since left the house. “They were employed, middle-class, everything was totally normal,” says the Berlin lawyer Christina Clemm. Clemm represented one of the adult children in the district jury trial after the wife was found dead in her bed. Her husband had strangled her.
The case, says Clemm, stuck in her mind, even if it was a few years ago: Because it is typical of what happens when a man kills a woman. “In the process, there was an incredible amount about the fact that the woman had emancipated herself a little from the relationship, for example wanted to travel alone,” says Clemm. “And about how much it made him feel humiliated.”
The man cried a lot during the trial. He stated that he acted emotionally: In an argument, he didn’t know how to help himself other than that she should finally be quiet. Clemm doubts the act of affect to this day, “because the situation in bed spoke against it”. However, the court came to the conclusion that the perpetrator had endured a prolonged difficult situation in which he feared he might lose his wife.
The pent-up despair has indeed discharged. The perpetrator was convicted not of murder but of manslaughter. In addition, the sentence was reduced to four and a half years in prison because of the affect. “That’s very little for a complete killing,” says Clemm. “But that happens a lot in the area of intimate partner violence.”
The act Clemm describes is a femicide: it is the killing of a woman in the context of gender-based violence. According to Clemm, there is hardly any awareness of this phenomenon in German criminal law. The President of the German Association of Women Lawyers, Maria Wersig, also criticizes: “The prevention, prosecution and sanctioning of the killing of women on the basis of their gender is given little priority in this country.”
This may also be due to the fact that the federal government has so far been reluctant to recognize the problem for Germany at all, as Alex Wischnewski from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation says, which has just published the brochure “Femicides in Germany”. In response to two small questions from the left faction in the past two years, the government twisted itself out. In response to a request from the taz, the Federal Ministry of Women lists measures against violence against women, but confirms that no statement can be made about the number of so-called femicides.
And when the police crime statistics in the area of intimate partner violence were presented last week, neither women’s minister Franziska Giffey (SPD) nor the president of the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), Holger Münch, used the term.
The BKA registered 142,000 cases of intimate partner violence in Germany in 2019, more than 80 percent of those affected are women. While men run the risk of being killed by others, especially outside of a partnership, the relationship is most dangerous for women: 117 women died in that year by partners or ex-partners. Many fear that Corona will worsen the situation.
What is behind the deeds remains in the dark
The women’s political spokeswoman for the left-wing parliamentary group in the Bundestag, Cornelia Möhring, is now calling on the federal government to investigate, name and prevent femicides in Germany. In the media, homicides against women are played down as “jealousy dramas” or “acts of relationship”, says Möhring, who in the run-up to the International Day Against Violence Against Women at the end of November wants to bring her parliamentary group to the plenary on Thursday. “But all of these killings happen in the context of devaluing and oppressing women.”
In addition to the recognition of the term, a “Femicide Watch” observatory should be set up, demands Möhring, which should record all killing, every fatal accident and alleged suicide of a woman in Germany and research the causes of femicides.
The data situation is thin. Research has so far made clear that critical situations for women are, in particular, separations, pregnancies or personal professional successes. There is a structural dimension to the acts that is obscured by the lack of terminology, says lawyer Clemm; All these cases would be negotiated as if they were surprising individual cases. Often there is understanding for the perpetrator, his difficult relationship and the fear that his life plan will fail.
This understanding can also be traced back to the fact that the Federal Court of Justice ruled again and again, and most recently in 2019, that there is no lower motive for a killing if “the separation is based on the victim and the accused deprives himself of what he actually does not lose want”. As in the case that was negotiated in the north of Brandenburg, such a low motive would be decisive in order to convict the perpetrator not only of manslaughter but also of murder.
The perspective of the Federal Court of Justice is deeply patriarchal, says Clemm. If a man is desperate, it is understandable. To kill someone because of it, however, makes an “absolute claim to ownership” clear. Not even cases in which a woman is mistreated for years and ultimately killed would necessarily be punished as homicide, let alone murder, says Clemm. Often they would only be convicted of bodily harm resulting in death. The perpetrator, it was said, “only” wanted to abuse his wife and did not intentionally kill her. And because of the violence she had previously experienced, the woman should have expected an attack to come.
“In general, intimate partner violence is often blamed on the victim,” says Clemm. “The question then is why the woman has not ended the relationship long ago.” On the contrary, it would be necessary to ask why the perpetrator did not immediately look for a place in therapy and leave the woman the first time he struck to protect them.
Femicides make up only a small part in the area of intimate partner violence, in which many other acts – 115,000 women were affected in 2019 – do not lead to extremes: those in which women only wake up in hospital. Or those where the perpetrator stops strangling the woman at the last second. “Only when we say there is a real problem here,” says Clemm, “does it become apparent which patterns are underneath.”
Clemm, Möhring and the female lawyers’ association are calling for a new interpretation of the applicable law. In a policy paper from the beginning of November, the female lawyers’ association writes: The low motives for the killing should no longer be questioned simply because the victim has separated from the perpetrator. This follows from the evaluations of the Istanbul Convention, the internationally binding agreement of the Council of Europe to combat violence against women.
Christina Clemm, Rechtsanwältin
“I’m interested in awareness of gender-based violence and a change in the system behind it”
It is the right of every person to decide with whom he or she enters into or maintains a partnership, according to the Lawyers’ Association. An intimate relationship between perpetrator and victim should not be considered to mitigate punishment, but on the contrary, in homicides, could lead to classification in the case group of “low motives”. Public prosecutors and judges would have to receive mandatory training on the subject of gender-based violence. But one thing above all must stand in the foreground of all of this: prevention.
“It may sound contradictory – but I don’t think much of life-long or long prison sentences,” says Clemm. “What I want is an awareness of gender-based violence and a change in the system behind it.” Creating understanding for other gender roles, even in daycare centers and schools. Promote counseling services, expand the network of far too few women’s shelters. And break the taboo that surrounds talking about violence in a partnership.
For the relatives of the victims whom Clemm represents, the trials that are carried out against the perpetrators are often ambivalent. “It’s not just a dead mother, but the perpetrator is usually her father at the same time. That wrecks the whole family. ”For many it is important to understand how things got this far. But even then, the situation often remains incomprehensible. “Good,” says Clemm, “it won’t be for anyone anymore.”