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The Three Places With the Highest Rate of Female Homicides on Earth Are All in Northeast Asia

On Feb. 1, murder suspect Mok Chun-yin was brought across the border from mainland China back to Hong Kong, ending three years on the run. Mok was accused of killing his ex-girlfriend, flight attendant Arbe Chan, whose body was found inside a wardrobe at her Hong Kong home in December 2013.

On Jan. 29, a murder-suicide shook the Japanese city of Nagasaki. Chiaki Nonaka was stabbed to death in her car by her ex-husband Shogo Temizu, who later hanged himself at his nearby home. Local press reported Nonaka, who had contacted the police to report Temizu for stalking, was killed when she brought their 2-year-old to see him.

About a month before that, on Dec. 22, a man fatally stabbed his wife and child in Seoul before he killed himself. According to their neighbors, prior to the triple murder-suicide, the man was frequently violent toward his wife.

Violence toward women does not, at first sight, appear to be a problem in Hong Kong, Japan or South Korea. Overall homicide rates are among the lowest in the world — below 1 per 100,000 people — and street crime is rare. Harassment is also uncommon: women generally feel safe when going out alone at night.

But despite the veneer of safety, the three jurisdictions actually have the highest rate of female homicide victims in the world. According to a report by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), published in 2014, Hong Kong and Japan top the ranking — with women comprising 52.9% of the total homicide victims — followed by South Korea at 52.5%.

These are a stark contrast to figures in other countries, where women make up less than half of homicide victims (the exception is Switzerland, whose figure is 50%). In Asia, for example, the number is 12% in the Philippines, 21.9% in China, 23.3% in Pakistan and 40.8% in India. In in the U.K. it is 29.7% and the U.S. 22.2%. The worldwide average is 21.3%.

On Feb. 14, women’s-rights activists around the world are commemorating V-Day, hoping to raise awareness of violence against women worldwide. The campaign, One Billion Rising, refers to the U.N. projections that 1 in 3 women will be raped or beaten in her lifetime, or 1 billion in the world.

In the absence of wars, crime and social conflicts, women in East Asia are more likely to be harmed by men they know — intimate partners, ex-partners or family members — rather than by strangers. According to UNODC statistics, 55% of of female homicide victims in Asia are killed by their family members or intimate partners; the figure for men, on the other hand, is 6%.

"With bitter irony, women run the risk of being killed by those who are expected to care for and even protect them," the U.N. body says. And in countries and cities where public spaces are deemed safe, violence against women is most likely to happen in the private domain, behind closed doors.

Women in Hong Kong, and in Asia, are disproportionately the victims of spousal battering, according to Shirley Kong, a postdoctoral fellow in social sciences at the University of Hong Kong, who does research on domestic violence, also known as intimate-partner violence. Women are greatly affected by such violence, she says, “even when they are not killed.”

In Japan, “1 in 3 wives experiences some sort of domestic violence and 1 in 20 has a near-death experience,” says Masako Ishii-Kuntz, professor of sociology at Ochanamizu University in Tokyo, citing government’s figures. “Closer to 20% of female homicide victims are victims of domestic violence.”

On average, a woman is killed by her intimate partner or ex-partner every three days in Japan. The same figure also applies in South Korea.

According to South Korea’s national survey in 2010, intimate-partner abuse — encompassing emotional, physical and sexual forms — occurred in 53.8% of married couples, and in 81.9% of those cases, it was wives being abused by husbands. Abuse is also widespread among unmarried couples. A 2014 study by Korea Women’s Hotline, a nongovernmental organization that assists female victims of violence, showed 90% of women surveyed had been physically or emotionally abused by their boyfriends.

Statistics in Hong Kong are grim as well. Around 20% of Hong Kong’s households experience intimate-partner violence — and the victims are overwhelmingly female. Family violence has contributed to 25% of the city’s homicides — with two-thirds of the victims women and one-third children. Yet, only 1 in 5 women who are physically assaulted by their partners report it to the police.

“Intimate-partner violence is prevalent — and underreported,” Kong tells TIME. “The official statistics reflect only the tip of an iceberg.”

Despite the ubiquity, most cases of violence against women, like the murders-suicides in Nagasaki and Seoul, hardly make a blip in the media. A few cases did receive extensive media coverage. For example, that of former British banker Rurik Jutting, who was sentenced to life in Hong Kong last November for torturing and murdering two Indonesian migrant workers in 2014. There was also the Gangnam murder — named after the upscale neighborhood in Seoul, where a woman was brutally stabbed by a man who said, “I did it because women have always ignored me.” It galvanized protests by South Korean women to draw attention to the misogynistic nature of the crime (and ironically, counterprotests by men’s-rights activists).

But even such horrific cases rarely succeeded to spark a long-lasting and deeper public discussion on the violence or ignite policy change.

“Only extreme cases that are pathological in nature like the Gangnam murder case will receive some media attention, but only for a short while,” says Grace Chung, associate professor of family studies at Seoul National University. The case, she says, “sparked some interest in this issue” and interest in “the term misogyny for the first time. However, I don’t think it reached the general public far and wide.”

Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan have laws that address domestic violence, but the predominantly female victims face social, economic and legal obstacles to get protection. Alleged Hong Kong killer Mok was previously charged for beating up Chan just three months before her murder, but he was merely placed on a good-behavior bond by the court. Before she was killed by her former husband, Nonaka told the police that he had been stalking her — but she refused to file a criminal complaint and the police took no real action. The South Korean man who killed his family had a prior history of domestic violence.

According to the 2013 national survey of domestic violence in South Korea, 58.3% of the respondents did not receive any legal follow-up after they called the police, and only 8.7% of the domestic-violence cases were prosecuted. In Japan, domestic violence constitutes one-fifth of all violent crime, but less than 10% of the reported abuses result in arrests. Nearly 70% of domestic-violence crime cases brought to Hong Kong courts resulted in good-behavior bonds, instead of prosecution.

“What the law is concerned with and wants to protect is family,” Chung alleges to TIME. “Domestic violence is perceived to be a crime that destroys family. So when dealing with [such] cases or violence against wives, the law prioritizes family over protecting victims.”

It is also not uncommon for women to return to their abusive husbands — 60% of abused women do so in Japan. One of the most common reasons is because they lack financial resources to start a new life. Unsafe child-contact and custody arrangements, made formally or informally, also put women survivors and their children at risk for more harassment and violence.

“I think it’s wrong to think children need to have both parents, especially if one is an abuser, or believed to be,” says Ishii-Kuntz.

Kong calls on the authorities not only to improve crisis-intervention service, like providing enough shelters and holding abusers into account, but also to devote more resources to ensure post-separation recovery of women survivors and their children, who likely to suffer abuse as well.

“They need housing, financial support, physical rehabilitation, psychological and social recovery,” she says.

The World Health Organization has declared violence against women as “a global health problem of epidemic proportions.” It is unlikely to go away: “At the global level,” UNODC says, “the average rate of homicide by intimate partners or family members is relatively stable worldwide.”

Sexism is seen as the root cause of the gender-based violence, and Ishii-Kuntz believes there is only one way to change that mind-set. “One key to correcting it is education,” she says. “Gender-equality education must be introduced at every level.”

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