Femicide as a Separate Criminal Offense: A Milestone in Croatia

The murder of a 44-year-old woman by her former partner at her workplace in Split on November 30, 2021, initiated a series of actions that ultimately led to the definition of femicide as a specific criminal offense in Croatia two and a half years later. As of April 2, 2024, amendments to the Criminal Code will come into force in Croatia, introducing, alongside other changes aimed at improving the position of victims and witnesses and implementing provisions of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention), a new criminal offense: femicide, also referred to by legislators as the aggravated murder of a female person, recognized as a gender-based murder. Equally significant is the incorporation in the Criminal Code of the definition of gender-based violence, aligning with the definition provided in the Istanbul Convention. Consequently, according to our knowledge, following the examples of Malta, Cyprus, Belgium, and North Macedonia, Croatia becomes the fifth European country to legally define the term femicide1. In this manner, the Croatian government undoubtedly expresses the political will necessary to recognize and legally address the social problem of femicide.

In the last five years nearly 100 women were killed in Croatia. Over the last three years, based on available data2, 43 women were killed, 25 of them by their intimate partners, while 15 mothers were tragically killed by their own sons. Alarmingly, in 81% of these cases, the murders occurred within the victims’ homes. Furthermore, the brutality of these murders is escalating. Conversely, judicial practice recorded only 11 finalized verdicts for the criminal offense of aggravated murder, of which nine were cases involving the murder of women—six perpetrated by intimate partners and three by sons against their mothers. Surprisingly, not a single crime was recognized as murder of a woman because she was a woman, that is, as gender based.

The first femicide that triggered reactions and advocacy activities by women’s organizations was the aforementioned murder of a woman at her workplace in Split. The second femicide, which prompted widespread community reactions across the broader region, particularly in Bosnia and Herzegovina where it occurred, as well as in Serbia and Croatia, was publicly broadcast by the perpetrator on social networks. Thus, in a sense, the murder, typically confined to the closed space of the family home, was brought into the open, becoming visible in all its brutality, undoubtedly shaping public perception.

Ni jedna žrtva više, ni jedna žena manje! (in English: Not one more victim, not one woman less!)

It is crucial to recognize that legal changes aimed at better protecting women from violence often stem from advocacy efforts by women’s organizations, as was the case in this occasion. A few days following the murder in Split, activists from the WAVE member organisation Domine symbolically unfurled a flag outside the city hall bearing the message “Ni jedna žrtva više, ni jedna žena manje! (in English: Not one more victim, not one woman less!)” which publicly highlighted the absence of the recognition for the term “femicide” and the government’s shortcomings in addressing and regulating this issue. Subsequently, femicide gained traction as a recognized challenge in the public sphere.

A year later, an ad hoc platform, led by the Women’s Network of Croatia, was established to advocate for the recognition of femicide as a seperate criminal offense, with nearly every women’s organization in Croatia joining the cause. On the International Day Against Femicide, December 6, an action under the same name, “Not one more victim – not one woman swaa!”, was organized in 11 Croatian cities.

Ni jedna žrtva više, ni jedna žena manje! (in English: Not one more victim, not one woman less!)

Three demands were forwarded to the Ministry of Justice and Administration:

  1. the enactment of a separate criminal offense for femicide,
  2. the elevation of domestic violence from a misdemeanour to a criminal offense, and
  3. the implementation of a unified national policy addressing all forms of violence against women.

Women members of the parliamentary opposition also participated in the action, fostering a broad coalition of women’s support and alliance. Eight months later, on August 21, women’s organizations organized an action “Sigurnost žena je odgovornost države (in English: Women’s safety is the responsibility of the state)” in 22 cities across Croatia, in solidarity with women in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In September 2023, the first GREVIO evaluation report on the four-year implementation of the Istanbul Convention in Croatia was published, a development we believe influenced the reaction of the government and the subsequent announcement of changes to the law.

Less than a month later, Prime Minister Plenković, during a government meeting with representatives of women’s organizations in observance of September 22, the National Day of Combating Violence against Women, announced changes to a series of laws addressing violence against women. Surprising the public, he announced the introduction of a separate criminal offense for aggravated murder of a female person.

It is worth noting that in September 2022, the Ministry of Justice and Administration established a Governmental official Working Group for amendments to the Criminal Code tasked with improving regulation considering women victims of violence. However, until the Prime Minister’s announcement one year later, this working group had not deliberated on the criminal offense of femicide.

To gain a deeper understanding of the issue of femicide and advocating for legal amendments, it is important to highlight the establishment of an informal working group by Domine in early 2023. This group comprised fifteen female activists, legal experts, and independent professionals working on different aspects of femicide. Their collective analysis led to the conclusion that the State must enact a comprehensive law on gender-based violence, with a dedicated section on femicide. Additionally, the working group emphasized the importance of incorporating femicide into the Criminal Code and implementing an effective system for preventing and combating femicide. The recommendations and findings of this informal working group were formally presented to the Ministry of Administration and Justice in April 2023.

When the government unexpectedly proposed the criminal offense of femicide in September 2023, it became apparent that there was uncertainty regarding its formulation. The definition put forth by the government did not acknowledge femicide as a gender-based murder but rather categorized it as the aggravated murder of a close female person, a solution deemed inadequate.

Hence, members of Domine’s informal working group recognized the significance of this juncture and seized the opportunity to advocate for the implementation of the solutions proposed by the informal group regarding femicide and gender-based violence. Legal experts from non-governmental organizations Domine Split, CESI Zagreb, SOS Rijeka, and the Women’s Network of Croatia,3 in collaboration with Professor Maja Munivrana from the Department of Criminal Law at the Faculty of Law in Zagreb, who were part of the informal working group, submitted their proposal for amendments to the Criminal Code to the Ministry of Justice and Administration. This proposal advocated for defining the criminal offense of femicide as the murder of a woman based on her gender, emphasizing the necessity of categorizing femicide as a gender-based murder encompassing and penalizing all forms of femicide. Furthermore, the proposal suggested including a definition of gender-based violence in the Criminal Code, ensuring that gender-based violence would be regarded as an aggravating factor in all criminal acts, unless a more severe punishment is prescribed.

These proposals formed the groundwork for subsequent discussions regarding amendments to the Criminal Code within the Governmental Working Group, which also included some members of the informal working group. Parliamentary and public debates ensued. In addition to public actions, women’s organizations arranged a series of meetings with Ministry representatives. A thematic session dedicated to femicide was convened in Parliament, alongside several public statements aimed at raising awareness about the issue of killing women, just because they are women. Following consultations with numerous legal experts, the Ministry embraced the aforementioned proposals and presented the following amendments to the law.

Gender-based violence is now defined in the new legal amendments as violence directed at a woman because she is a woman or that disproportionately affects women. The legislator adopted the definition of gender-based violence outlined in the Istanbul Convention, recognizing that gender-based violence stems from unequal structural power dynamics between men and women, deeply entrenched in cultural, traditional, and social norms. Moreover, gender-based violence will generally be regarded as an aggravating factor in practice, unless the Criminal Code specifies a more severe penalty.

The legislator designated the crime as “Aggravated murder of a female person,” asserting its classification as a gender-based murder. Furthermore, the second paragraph delineates specific instances of femicide that should be considered when determining the criminal offense. These include crimes committed against close persons, person previously abused by the perpetrator, vulnerable person, those in relationships of subordination or dependence, crimes committed in circumstances of sexual violence, or due to relationships that subject women to unequal positions, among other circumstances indicating gender-based violence.

As a result of the work of the Governmental Working Group established at the Ministry of Justice and Administration, the Draft Law on Amendments to the Criminal Code, the Draft Law on Amendments to the Criminal Procedure Act and the Draft Law on Amendments to the Law on Protection from Domestic Violence were composed.  Legal changes aim to contribute to the reduction of domestic violence, violence against women and the stronger protection of victims of criminal acts through legislative solutions, especially through the introduction of the definition of gender-based violence, and introduction of separate criminal offense of aggravated murder of a female person.

The practical implementation of the law and its impact on preventing and combating gender-based violence or male violence against women and male murders of women remains to be observed. In particular, it is noteworthy that the announcement of a distinct criminal offense has elicited numerous negative reactions from legal professionals, including Supreme Court judges and constitutional law experts. These experts interpret the legal definition of femicide as a form of discrimination against men.

Stop femicidu! (in English: Stop femicide!)

When coupled with the resistance towards accepting the concept of gender-based violence, implementing new legal solutions becomes a significant challenge. Without systematic education, the adopted changes are unlikely to integrate smoothly into judicial practice. Women’s organizations will undoubtedly monitor the implementation and persist in advocating for new and improved solutions.

Written by

Iva Čatipović, SOS Rijeka – Center for Nonviolence and Human Rights

Mirjana Kučer, Domine – Organization for the Promotion of Women’s Rights Split4

  1. Belgium adopted historic law against femicide on June 29, 2023. In Malta femicide as a specific offence came into action in June 2022. In the amendments to the North Macedonian criminal code from February 2023, a new paragraph was added that defines the murder of a female person as an act of gender-based violence as aggravated murder “Another that takes the life of a woman or a girl under the age of 18 while committing gender based violence” Article 123. section 2. In September 2022, Cyprus included femicide as part of the law The Prevention and Combating of Violence against Women and Domestic Violence and for Related Matters Law of 2021, article 10 a. ↩︎
  2. https://femplatz.org/yX6uDYGXvSm8Jqremq.php
    https://www.womeninadria.com/femicid-hrvatska-istrazivanje/ ↩︎
  3. Two of which are WAVE member organisations in Croatia:
    Udruga domine – Organizacija za promicanje ženskih prava (domine – Organization for the Promotion of Women’s Rights) | website: https://domine.hr/
    SOS Rijeka – centar za nenasilje i ljudska prava (SOS Rijeka – Center for Nonviolence and Human Rights) | website: https://www.sos-rijeka.org/ ↩︎
  4. https://wave-network.org/croatia/ ↩︎
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or opinion/position of Women Against Violence Europe (WAVE).

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