A tough new law to tackle domestic violence, one of Spain's biggest political issues, has finally come into force. But can it make a difference? Graham Keeley reports.
Many victims do not know what resources are available to help them The new law to crack down on violence against women finally became law last Friday.
It provides for women who are victims of domestic violence to receive legal, economic, social and psychological help.
It also contains educational clauses to help bring more gender equality to schools and introduces a complaints mechanism against potentially damaging advertising.
But the Spanish government, which has made fighting domestic violence a cornerstone of its raft of new policies, does not claim it will stop husbands beating their wives to death overnight.
Employment Minister Jesus Caldera said that it could well be that the law would not bring an end to deaths from domestic violence in a country which saw almost 100 women killed by their partner or a male family member in 2004.
But he added: "From today, women know they will be able to benefit from the support and protection of public services."
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has made tackling the problem of domestic violence in Spain a top priority and said on taking office in April that he saw violence against women as the country's "worst shame."
Feminist associations had been loudly calling for a law to be introduced since the death in 1997 of Ana Orantes, a mother of 11 in her 60s who was burned alive by her former husband.
Following a court decision Orantes had been obliged to continue sharing a house with her former husband, a situation which she denounced in a television interview shortly before her death.
So far this year, at least six women have died at the hands of a violent partner.
A victim withdraws an accusation for fear and this is not understood by the judges and society. Those professionals need to be there to support her and understand her, not to judge her. - Angela Almeny, Spanish Association of Jurists.
The latest murders took place on 23 January, when a 61-year-old woman was shot dead by her husband with a shotgun in Toledo, north of Madrid and a 22-year-old was battered to death with blunt weapon in Malaga.
These figures are, by any standards, an appalling figure. But Spain – despite its macho reputation –does not have the highest death toll in Europe. Norway has this dubious honour.
Some critics, who saw Zapatero's promise to crackdown on domestic violence as simply a way of appealing to women voters, will be only too keen to see faults with the new law.
Even the liberal Spanish daily El Pais has warned that it should not be exploited by 'victims' trying to get the most from divorce settlements by claiming they were attacked by former husbands.
And El Pais reported there were not enough police officers to deal with the expected raft of new complaints which the law will bring.
The law provides for a special squad of 200 police and 250 Guardia Civil officers to offer protection for the women who are threatened by abusive partners or husbands.
But there are expected to be 20,000 protection orders, 14,000 'removal' orders against alleged aggressors and 60,000 complaints of violence.
So how can this tiny force deal with all this?
The new law does also set up a team of specialised judges, police, psychologists or forensic pathologists to help deal with this complex problem.
The Socialists claim this specialised judicial section will deal with domestic violence at all levels of the legal system, both nationally and regionally.
This will ensure that women are dealt with by experienced professionals.
It would, says supporters, address one of the most common criticisms – ignorance.
"It is a terrific issue and terribly difficult one to deal with. They need to start by addressing how girls are educated differently and brought-up differently from boys here to make a change there. – Marion Dodds, of the International Women's Club Barcelona.
Victims must not be seen as guilty party, says Angela Almeny, of the Association of Jurists.
"A victim withdraws an accusation for fear and this is not understood by the judges and society," she says.
The same victim, who might be considering making a complaint, feels no-one will believe her as she feels guilty.
"Those professionals need to be there to support her and understand her, not to judge her," says Almeny.
Many victims also do not know what resources the state can use to help them.
But women's groups say a persistent problem is the lack of coordination between the police and the judiciary, charged with protecting those at risk.
"The police, who have a direct relationship with victims, need to inform the judges. We need to have a permanent exchange of information," says Angeles Ortiz, of the Observatory Against Domestic Violence.
The police, for their part, point out that they cannot monitor every woman 24 hours a day. Putting one officer in charge of keeping watch on a woman round-the-clock is impractical.
The government has changed regulations to force the authorities to judge which women are most in danger.
But how to judge this?
A case which perfectly illustrates the difficulties of this situation is that of Jenny Lara.
She was burned to death, along with two daughters, by her ex-husband Ismael.
He set fire to their home in Alzira, near Valencia, in April last year.
But before her death she had complained about repeated attacks and been put under a protection order.
The 36-year-old, from the Dominican Republic, had even warned: "One day he will kill me."
The ambitious reforms of the Zapatero government will take time to make a difference.
In the meantime, asks commentator Silivia Gamo, what happens to the women who are threatened – like Jenny Lara?
"How many more have to die before we put into place all these measures to stop these men killing?" she asks.
Education is one long-term solution which Zapatero wants to address.
The new law will force schools to address the idea of 'sexual equality' and plant the idea of respect for women into the minds of potential wife-batterers of the future.
For Marion Dodds, of the International Women's Club in Barcelona, the problem is deep-seated in Spanish society.
Dodds, who has lived in Spain for 30 years, says: "It is a terrific issue and terribly difficult one to deal with.
"Apart from the violence, Spanish women accept much more verbal abuse than they do in other countries. But they need to address how girl's are educated and brought up differently from boys here to make a change."
The club raises money for a charity to help victims of domestic violence.
Contacts International Women's Club Barcelona:
Red Feminista: www.redfeminista.org Centro Reina Sofia para el Estudio de la Violencia: www.gva.es/violencia ^^^^^^^^^^^^^ Monday March 26 2007
A new Spain
Sweeping new sexual-equality laws are welcome, but domestic violence still needs to be addressed.
Today is the first day of a different society," said Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero recently, ushering in a sweeping sexual-equality bill that aims to give women a much greater presence in all levels of government and business.
Zapatero's Socialist Workers Party scored a stunning victory over the ruling conservative Popular Party in 2004 in the aftermath of terror attacks in Madrid that killed 200 people. Zapatero, a self-proclaimed feminist, lost no time in making equality for women a hallmark of his administration, naming women to half of the 16 cabinet positions, a first in Spain's history.
While the new law could have some problematic areas strict quotas for male and female members of boards and staffs seem too inflexible to ensure an appropriate role for merit and does not address Spain's accelerating rate of domestic violence, it is to be applauded for at least providing an arena of opportunity for women to become more involved in the political and business realms and for new fathers to be more involved with their children.
It was telling that the final vote in the 350-seat Congress of Deputies was 192-0, with 119 abstentions and 39 lawmakers absent. All of the abstentions were from the conservative Popular Party, which has opposed almost all measures taken by the current government. As Zapatero introduced the new law, opposition members tried to drown him out, shouting "You are a feminist!"
One of the most popular provisions is a 15-day paternity leave for new fathers, which in 2013 will expand to a month. New mothers can lend a portion or all of their 10-week leave to the father, but few use this provision. While some feel that Spain's vacation practices are already generous enough to accommodate time off for a new baby, many welcome the paternity leave as a family strengthener and a boon to the new mother.
The law also calls for women to make up 40 percent of candidates for elected office and on company boards, and offers favorable consideration in bidding for government contracts to companies that bring women closer to parity at executive and lower levels. The unemployment rate for women is twice that of men more than 14 percent versus 7.5. Although more women attend university than men, women are scarce at the top levels of business, making up only 2 percent of board members on the Spanish stock market's main index.
In making these changes, Spain joins most other developed countries in family-friendly work policies. The United States, where neither maternity leave, paternity leave nor sick leave are guaranteed, is an exception.
But several Spanish women expressed regret that the new bill does not address the increasingly serious problem of domestic violence. Amnesty International has cited the vulnerability of Spanish women (95 percent of victims of domestic violence make no official complaint) and the indifferent, uncoordinated responses from authorities. One woman, now living in the United States, said, "It's everywhere, every day, on the news; women slaughtered and tortured by boyfriends or husbands, and it's getting worse. Spain has advanced economically, educationally and politically, and has become an important part of the European Union, but it has not advanced socially as quickly or as far. It still has some of that macho mentality."
On the same day the sexual-equality law was passed, Spain announced it would donate $3.9 million to the United Nations Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women, the largest contribution ever to the 10-year-old fund. Secretary of State Leire Pajin said at a ceremony to mark the occasion, "This is a responsibility and an ethical obligation to women globally."
Spain is to be congratulated for its enlightened new laws and for its generous gift to the United Nations. This indeed might be the dawn of a different society in Spain, but domestic violence should be fought more vigorously as one of the last painful barriers to Spanish women's equality.