The ongoing struggle to end gender-based violence in Spain

Although there is still a long way to go, Spanish society has never been the same since the death of Ana Orantes in 1997. Gender-based violence is now visible and can be recognised by anyone. Photo of the first nationwide feminist strike, on 8 March 2018 in Madrid, Spain. (AP/Francisco Seco)

On 17 December 1997, public awareness of gender-based violence saw a radical and lasting change in Spain. On that day, Ana Orantes, a 60-year-old woman, was burned alive by her ex-husband, on the patio of her home, after talking on TV, in a very matter-of-fact way and without shedding a tear, about the beatings, attacks and humiliations she had suffered at the hands of her husband during their 40-year marriage.

Thirteen days before, Ana had explained, on a TV talk show, how she had filed 15 complaints against him without ever receiving any protection for herself or her 11 children, and how after finally securing a divorce, the judge had forced her to share the same house as the man who had been abusing her, one living upstairs and the other downstairs. Her former husband was living a life of his own, having met another woman, but he would often go to the house to see Ana, as he did that day, after having seen her on TV, and killed her with the strike of a match and a can of petrol.

Ana was not given any kind of protection, support or resources after speaking out. It was not until he had murdered her that Ana’s husband went to jail, where he was sentenced to 17 years but died in hospital six years later, after having a heart attack in the prison where he was serving his sentence.

But Ana’s death was not in vain. As Irene Ramírez, a lawyer for the Commission on Violence against Women, explains, her murder “shed light on the need to provide women in Spain with legal and social protection”. Protests broke out calling on the authorities to change the legislation, and the people of Spain began developing an understanding of the need to do something to tackle gender-based violence, placing the conservative government of José María Aznar against the ropes.

Old and new obstacles to progress

The lawyer points out that many are the reasons why Spain was lagging so far behind in the fight against gender-based violence, not least “the lack of social awareness in a country with a Francoist tradition that relegated women to the home and considered them second-class citizens in relation to men”. The result was that the domestic abuse was rendered invisible and considered to be a private matter, to be resolved within the confines of the home.

As Ramírez explains, Spain’s recent history aside, patriarchy has been etched onto society’s mindset over thousands of years, so change takes time, and is never free from resistance.

The counter-offensive against the feminist movement in Spain is being led by a new political formation. Vox, the far-right party that won its first seats in the Spanish parliament at the May 2019 elections, is arguing that the current legislation “discriminates against men” and should be replaced with laws on “intrafamily violence” that provide “equal protection for old people, men, women and children”.

It has also pledged to do away with the feminist associations and organisations working with victims of gender-based violence and to go after “false GBV accusations” (which account for just 0.0013 per cent of all accusations).

“The recent rise of the extreme right in Spain has meant that the feminist movement has gone from working towards new goals to defending rights already won and that are now being challenged. There are many reasons underlying the fact that gender-based violence is still a serious problem in Spain,” explains Ramírez.

For Octavio Salazar, a Spanish jurist specialising in constitutional law, well-known for his work in the field of gender equality and new masculinities, the discourse of the far-right political party is not only a “potential threat, in that it could develop into a force with the capacity to govern or to influence government policies [editor’s note: something which remains to be seen, when a government is finally formed],” but already poses a threat in itself, by “voicing reactionary views that resonate in many sectors of society and that could clearly obstruct any progress towards equality”.

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From the lack of legal protection, now resolved…

Thanks to the protests following Ana Orantes’ death, Spain began to see the prosecution of gender-based violence and the emergence of restraining orders, but such measures proved insufficient and the feminist movement kept up the pressure until its calls for new legislation were met. The long-awaited law was finally passed in 2004 and included an increase in prison terms, prevention measures, awareness-raising and specific training on gender-based violence.

With the enactment of this legislation, Spain became one of the first European countries to introduce a specific framework law on gender-based violence, which was followed by the Equality Law in 2005. The Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women, also known as the Istanbul Convention [signed by European Union and non-European Union member states], was not adopted until 2011, seven years after the introduction of a specific law in Spain.

In spite of the progress made, the number of GBV victims in Spain is still disturbingly high. Forty-five women have been killed by their partners or former partners so far this year, and1,020 since 2003, when records first began, as this article went to press.

The figures are, nonetheless, lower than other countries in the region (those that actually have data on this type of violence). Although it is difficult to compare countries, according to the figures of Eurostat – the EU’s official statistics office – France, Germany, England and Wales and Italy ranked worst in terms of the number of intentional homicides against women between 2015 and 2017.

The number of GBV cases registered in the courts, in Spain, has risen in recent years (from just over 134,000 in 2010 to almost 167,000 in 2018), but the data needs to be interpreted with caution. As Salazar explains to Equal Times, there has been an increase in social awareness about the issue over recent years and the number of cases reported has risen as a result, which does not necessarily mean that the problem is growing but that it has become “more visible”, whereas not much more than 10 years ago, “there was very little talk of it, or mention of it in the media”.

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… to the unresolved education and training deficit

Government spending on the “National Strategy for the Eradication of Violence against Women” for the 2013-2016 period amounted to €1.56 billion (around US$1.73 billion), whilst the economic impact of gender-based violence (healthcare, social services, legal proceedings, etc.) exceeded €10 billion. The overall cost in terms of GDP for the EU-28 represents 0.8 per cent (around €110 billion).

Salazar explains that the violence is rooted in a culture of sexism that imitates a set model of the male subject and a way of understanding relationships between men and women, which are difficult to change over the short term. He believes that meeting this objective – comparable to a long-distance race – requires a very specific focus on working “with the young men and boys who are reproducing this behaviour in an accentuated fashion, creating very toxic relationships”.

Ramírez, analysing the data on gender-based violence cases, points out that the problem is not the law in Spain, but the fact that it is not fully implemented, especially when it comes to training for professionals and investment in education.

Fifteen years after the introduction of the law against gender-based violence, for example, and over half of Spain’s 31 major cities are still without specialised criminal courts, training for health professionals is rare and educating young people about gender and equalitybarely occupies a few hours of the lesson schedule, she explains.

Ramírez and Salazar nonetheless agree that, although there is still a very long way to go, Spanish society has never been the same since the death of Ana Orantes. Clear evidence of this can be found in the two historic feminist marches – organised by the Spanish trade unions CCOO and UGTtogether with various feminist organisations and civil society groups – held on 8 March over the last two years.

The International Labour Organization’s Violence and Harassment Convention (190) and Recommendation (206), actively promoted by the international trade union movement, was adopted in Geneva this June and is pending ratification by all members, including Spain. However, just last week, the Secretary of State for Employment, Yolanda Valdeolivas,announced that “Spain is in a position to ensure the rapid ratification of the Agreement,” even though the acting Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez hasn’t managed to form a government since elections were held in April.

Gender-based violence is now visible and recognisable by any citizen as something that could be happening in their home or, perhaps, in the house next door.

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