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North Carolina faces increasing proportion of femicides

femicide.jpeg

Headshot of Melody Gross courtesy of Alvin C. Jacobs, Jr.  

Content warning: This story contains mention of suicide, sexual assault, domestic violence and gender-based violence. 

Despite strides in gender equality and advocacy, North Carolina continues to grapple with systemic issues that perpetuate violence against women, including domestic violence and inadequate support systems for victims.

As of April 2023, 22 of the 27 domestic violence-related homicide victims up to that point in the year were women — equating to about 80 percent. As of April 18 of this year, there have been 24 recorded domestic violence-related homicide cases in North Carolina, with more than 90 percent of the victims being women.

In many cases, instances of domestic violence occur before femicide — the intentional murder of women and girls because of their gender. According to the North Carolina Coalition for Domestic Violence, about 35 percent of women in North Carolina experience domestic violence in their lifetime.

“When you see a femicide, what you're not seeing is that, throughout that time period previously to that moment, there have been patterns of escalating abuse,” Melody Gross said.

Gross is a survivor of domestic violence and the keynote speaker and trainer of Courageous SHIFT, a consulting agency for employees experiencing domestic violence.

In many femicide cases, Gross said, the domestic violence has usually reached a point where the victim attempts to leave. But, she said, since the abuser does not want them to leave, they turn to murder or murder-suicide as a last resort.

N.C. Rep. Sarah Crawford (D-Wake)  said one of the factors that exacerbates violence against women is the wage gap between men and women in North Carolina. This puts women at a higher risk of having to be reliant on unhealthy relationships to afford living costs, she said.

Before being elected to the General Assembly, Crawford served for several years on the board of Safe Space — a Franklin County-based nonprofit that provides assistance and resources for domestic violence and sexual assault survivors.

Better access to child care in the state would also allow women opportunities to both go to and stay at work, she said, instead of being forced to remain with their children due to a lack of resources.

Crawford said women from marginalized communities face a disproportionate risk of femicide. Black women and transgender women are three times more likely to be murdered than cisgender white women, she said.

Pilar Rocha-Goldberg, the president of El Centro Hispano, said, in Latino communities, there is a strong culture of machismo, an exaggerated sense of masculinity. This heightened feeling of masculine pride and aggression can play a role in domestic violence against women, she said. 

Language access to domestic violence resources and in court systems also discourages migrant communities from seeking help against violence, Kathleen Lockwood, the policy director for the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said.

Although domestic violence resources and court systems are required to provide services in multiple languages, she said, they may not do so with the cultural awareness that makes migrant victims feel comfortable contacting them.

“If we don't work with our people, and with the different cultures in having this understanding, we're still going to be behind in addressing this issue,” N.C. Rep. Maria Cervania (D-Wake) said.

A lack of offender accountability in domestic violence cases in North Carolina is a large contributor to the femicide rates, Ellen Rummel, the chairperson for Mecklenburg County’s domestic violence fatality review team, said.

She said convicted offenders are often released from jail within a day, have very low bonds set or do not receive adequate punishment for their crimes. Many cases are also dismissed completely before offenders are even presented to the criminal justice system, she said. 

“That is what contributes to continued abuse of women, and then continued homicide of women — we aren't taking it seriously before it becomes fatal,” she said.

In North Carolina, the current legal classification of assault on a female is a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum of 150 days in prison.

Rummel said the classification should be raised to a felony, because the injuries categorized as “assault on a female" seen by the domestic violence fatality review team on murdered women are horrifying.

“I don't think that the general public understands the level of violence that is perpetrated and then treated as if it were a dime bag of weed,” she said.

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Cervania said there needs to be a differentiation of femicide from homicide because the two are not synonymous — there are distinctly different reasons why women are being murdered. 

In addition to recognizing femicide as a legally defined crime, Crawford said the loose firearm laws in North Carolina need to be reformed so perpetrators do not have easy access to guns. In April 2023, the Republican-led General Assembly overrode Gov. Roy Cooper's veto and repealed the state's permit requirement for handguns.

Removing the barriers that make it difficult for women to escape dangerous situations as well as providing financial and practical support for them to sustain themselves are necessary in battling violence against women that could be lethal, Gross said.

She said when the public sees cases of femicide, they also need to see the stories behind the victims — what the victims meant to people, what they meant to their community, to their family and to their friends.

“So that we're not just labeling them as someone who died because they didn't leave, but instead we’re saying, ‘That was a sister who loved to cook or loved to hike,’” Gross said. “Actually understanding that they are more than just the outcome of a horrible relationship or a horrible person.”

Resources for gender-based violence at the University can be found here. The Compass Center in Chapel Hill also offers free domestic violence and stability resources, and the Orange County Rape Crisis Center provides resources for survivors of sexual violence.

@sophbgli

@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com

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