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The gendered impact of suicide bombings in Europe: an analysis

Suicide bombings in Europe are the only type of armed violence there that has caused relatively equal levels of male and female casualties, research from Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) has found. Other forms of armed violence, such as bladed weapons or small arms, disproportionately cause male casualties. All forms of violence are overwhelming perpetrated by men.

Since 2000, there have been 22 suicide bombings in Europe. Seven of these caused mass fatalities.  These are: Myyrrmanni, Vantaa (Finland) in October 2002[1]; Leganes (Spain) in April 2004; London (UK) in July 2005; Bourgas (Bulgaria) in July 2012; Paris (France) in November 2015; Brussels (Belgium) in March 2016; and Manchester (UK) in May 2017.  In total, these attacks killed 242 people.

To date, there has not been an analysis of the gender of these victims.  However, AOAV’s research shows that of the 242 people killed, 125 were men and 117 were women (Table 1).  As such, the victims of these almost universal Salafist-jihadist motivated bombings were 52% of men and 48% women, a relatively even split.

Data source: see hyperlinks in the attacks list (media reports)

Overall, an analysis of the male and female ratio of victims recorded in each attack (Table 2), show that only two European suicide bombings seem to demonstrate a significant gender bias.

The first is the 2015 Paris attacks. Here, the majority of the victims (93 out of 126) died at a hard rock concert, a traditionally male dominated music genre.  Of these, 63 were men and 30 were women. In total, 76 men and 50 women died across Paris that night.

The second incident is the 2017 Manchester attack that targeted an Ariana Grande concert, whose audience was predominately made up of young girls. For this reason, and for the ‘feminist’ ideas that the pop singer and her lyrics embody, the case was described by some as a misogynist attack.  Of these, 18 were women and 5 were men.

Despite these two exceptions, however, the overall death toll of the seven attacks is relatively gender-equal.

Data source: see hyperlinks in the attacks list (media reports)

Global historical trends

Any comparison between Europe’s gender patterns of harm from suicide bombers with global armed violence trends has to be done with care. While reporting on Europe’s suicide bombings is invariably intense and detailed, on a global level there is still vast room for improvement in terms of data collection when it comes to casualty recording. Gender is not always included in datasets and even when it is included, there remains significant limitations to this data. Notably, both in Europe and around the world injuries are even less likely to be disaggregated by gender, even with some of the most high-profile events.

Despite such limitations, though, the findings above are in sharp contrast with global armed violence trends. In the latter – when gender is recorded – men typically make up a far higher number of fatalities. For example, data from the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, which recorded global suicide attacks between 1982 and 2016, show that 90% of the 23,993[2] victims were men (Table 3). Furthermore, 92% of the 65,514 who reported injuries were men (Table 4).

Why are there starker gender differences from the global figures of suicide bombing harm than in Europe?  This might speak towards both issues of targeting and the make-up of street life.  

The difference between Europe and the five countries with the highest numbers of civilian deaths and injuries in 2018 – in order Syria (9,587), Afghanistan (4,260), Yemen (1,807), Iraq (1,508) and Pakistan (1,215) – is notable. According to AOAV’s Explosive Violence Monitor, men are strongly over represented in each country’s civilian casualty toll. Out of these five countries, Afghanistan was the one with the highest proportion of explosive violence female casualties: 21%. Iraq was the country with the lowest figure instead, and women accounted only for the 13% of civilian casualties recorded, from incidents where women were mentioned among the casualties. This is attributed partly to the gendered make up of public spaces in these countries. Public spaces, such as streets, shops, and restaurants, in European countries are largely much more evenly split along gender lines.

Other weapons are less indiscrimate.  For instance, men are over-represented among small arms and bladed weapons homicides in Europe. As Table 5 shows, 81% of people killed by small arms and 68% of those killed by sharp instruments globally are men. UNODS’s Global Study on Homicide, for the period 2007-2017, analysed seven European countries: Italy, Finland, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the UK (England and Wales only). Clearly when weapons are used that have a specific intent, the gendered nature of the dynamics of violence is often more apparent (where men are more likely to be both victim and perpetrator).  In the case of explosive violence, the wide area effects of the blast is, it seems, gender blind in environments where men and women are present in equal measure.

This difference between ‘gender neutral’ explosive violence and other ‘gender specific’ forms of violence is reinforced in Table 6, which shows the aggregated homicide data of the sample of all European countries examined. Here, 68% of victims are men while women constitute 32%.

Data source: https://dataunodc.un.org/GSH_app

Overall, men consistently represent the majority of victims in all European countries examined.  The biggest ratio difference between men and woman was registered in Italy and Sweden (40 percentage points), the smallest in Norway (10 percentage points), as Table 7 shows.

Analyzing the gender bias

Not all weapons are equally biased, however, when you drill into national contexts. Tables 8 and 9 show a comparison between the percentage of male and female victims killed by each mechanism nation to nation. Sharp instruments do not seem to present any, as they affect men and women equally at the sample level (Table 8). Fire arms present a male bias instead, as they disproportionately affect men in 5 out of the 7 countries of the sample (Table 9).

A gender bias is also present in terms of the places where violence takes place. According to the UNODC’s 2019 Global Study on Homicide, women are more likely to be victims of intimate violence, killed by a partner/ex-partner/family member. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to fall victims of organized crime and gang-related violence. This trend is confirmed by the 2007-2018 England’s and Wales’ data release by the Office of National Statistics , which clearly show how women in England and Wales are for the most part killed in the domestic context (82% of incidents), while men are equally as likely to be killed in domestic and public environments (Table 10).

Data source: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/articles/homicideinenglandandwales/yearendingmarch2018

However, in absolute values more men are killed in domestic spaces than women (Table 11). This is because overall the majority of homicide victims are men.

Data source: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/articles/homicideinenglandandwales/yearendingmarch2018

Looking at Table 11, it is striking to notice that very few women are killed in public spaces in the UK. This is in contrast to the fact that the suicide bomb explosions in public places of the last 20 years caused an equal number of male and female victims. This is probably because of the relatively few numbers of this kind of attack in Europe. In fact, since 2002, suicide bombs have caused 224 casualties in the continent. The overall number of homicide victims recorded only in the 7 countries of the sample in the period 2007-2017 is 19,971.  Clearly, suicide bombings are exceptional – in many senses.

Concluding remarks

Combining data provided by the UNODC’s Global Study on Homicide, AOAV’s Explosive Violence Monitor, the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, and the Office for National Statistics, it was possible to draw the following conclusions:

1) In absolute values, men are disproportionately represented among the number of homicide victims in general, and explosive violence victims in particular.

2) In relative terms, sharp instruments do not present a gender bias in Europe. In absolute values, however, they kill more men than women.

3) In relative terms, fire arms in Europe affect men disproportionately. The same result is found in absolute values.

4) Suicidal explosive violence is the only kind of armed violence that even in absolute values does not present a gender bias in Europe. This is the only exception to the Conclusion n.1. The European suicide bomb victim trend is in contrast with the global one, one that records about 90% of the world suicide bombing fatal casualties to be male.


[1] Data provided by Alexis Kouros of the Helsinki Times

[2] Total number of victims whose gender was recorded