MADRID(WOMENSENEWS)--Spain's new prime minister is internationally best known for his decision last month to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq, which drew the ire of the Bush administration.
But domestically, Prime Minister Jose LuisRodriguez Zapatero is attracting attention for making female empowerment a top priority.
Newsstands abound with pictures of Zapaterosurrounded by colorfully dressed female ministers and Spanish media have made much of the cultural and visual shift from previous governments of mostly gray-suited men.
Women's groups and the general public are welcoming Zapatero's promise to pass a broad legislative package to combat domestic violence. The issue has risen to the forefront in Spain, where newspapers now keep almost daily tallies of the number of women killed or attacked by abusive partners. Political leaders across the spectrum have called for measures to combat the violence.
A survey taken by the State Institute of Statistics the week after the mid-March election found that 93 percent of respondents believed more severe laws were necessary to combat domestic violence. After terrorism, unemployment and crime, abuse against women was ranked as one of the country's most serious problems.
Zapatero also wants to streamline divorce proceedings and legalize abortion, illegal here except in cases of rape and severe birth defects. Although the abortion law is rarely enforced, it is supported by the influential Roman Catholic Church, which also opposes the government's plan to legalize gay and lesbian marriage.
Two Milestones in First Week
During his first week in office, following the April 17 inauguration, the new Spanish government made history twice.
First was the inauguration ceremony, when half of the 16 ministers sworn in as members of Zapatero's cabinet were women. Then, for a few hours, a woman led the country. Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, the vice premier, was the acting prime minister of Spain while Zapatero paid a brief visit to Morocco several days after the inauguration.
The milestones show how far Spain has come in the 29 years since the end of the arch-conservative dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, when a man had a legal right to "discipline" his wife by beating her and holding hands in public was prohibited.
Following Sweden's Footsteps
"I am proud that Spain is now on par with Sweden, in terms of parity in government," Fernandez de la Vega said several days after she ended her stint as acting head of government.
In 1994, Sweden's ruling Social Democratic Party pioneered a policy of equal representation in government. Intended to serve as a model for the rest of society, the policy is known as "Varannan Damernas" for a Swedish ballroom tradition that alternates the job of partner-choosing between men and women.
And now the Spanish government wants to fall into step with Sweden, which still has a government evenly split 11-to-11 between men and women.
Finland had a gender-equal government in 2004, but now there are 10 men and eight women in power. In parliament, Sweden and other Nordic countries are world leaders in terms of gender parity, with women constituting an average of 39.7 percent of lawmakers. Women make up 16.4 percent of lawmakers in the rest of Europe and 14.3 percent in the United States, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
"We have a long way to go," the Spanish vice premier said. "But to give normality to positions that until now were prohibited to women is a significant advance."
Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega and the other female ministers are serving in Spain's fifth government since the country's transition to democracy in the late 1970s. They took office on April 18, after the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party scored a stunning upset over the right-wing Popular Party government of Jose Maria Aznar, the former prime minister. The election was held three days after terrorists blew up commuter trains in Madrid on March 11, killing nearly 200 people.
Strong Leadership Qualifications
Tina Alarcon, president of the Centro de Asistencia a Victimas de Agresiones Sexuales (Center for Assistance to Victims of Sexual Aggression), headquartered in Madrid, is one of many feminist leaders hailing the new government's emphasis on equality. "We have been fighting for this for years," she said and noted that the female ministers' strong records easily qualify them for their posts.
Infrastructure Minister Magdalena Alvarez, a former tax inspector, fought for funding for the government in the southern region of Andalusia. Culture Minister Carmen Calvo was key to the success of Malaga's Picasso Museum while she was Andalusian culture secretary. And Health Minister Elena Salgado Mendez is a renowned economist who will be key to the government's plan to legalize abortion on demand during the first 12 weeks of a pregnancy.
"We didn't want them to appoint just any women," Alarcon said. "We wanted women who think like feminists and who use their posts to fight for equality and all the aspirations that we Spanish women have."
Alarcon was one of about a dozen feminist leaders invited to a meeting with Vice President Fernandez de la Vega and Social Affairs Minister Jesus Caldera, whose ministry will formally be in charge of women's issues.
Ana Maria Perez del Campo, the nation's preeminent feminist, of the Federation of Separated and Divorced Women and a campaigner for equal rights since the Franco dictatorship, also attended the meeting and said she had high hopes for "the victory of our law."
Focus on Gender-Violence Law
During the last government's term, women's groups drew up the proposed Comprehensive Law against Gender Violence, only to be rejected in the Spanish parliament by Aznar's Popular Party.
But after a record year for fatalities as a result of domestic violence, the Popular Party has now come out in support of the new law, making its adoption virtually certain when the new parliament takes it up.
According to the Federation of Separated and Divorced Women's Associations, 97 women died in 2003 at the hands of abusive husbands or boyfriends or former male companions. It was the highest figure since it began keeping annual tallies in 1999.
In total, 10,720 complaints of gender violence were lodged last year, according to Alarcon, the organization that is helping to bring 8,000 cases, including some from previous years, to court. So far, the organization has had a 30-percent conviction rate.
Alarcon said one of the most important accomplishments of the Comprehensive Law will be the merging of civil and criminal proceedings related to abuse of spouses and children.
"It's something so simple as linking the case of a father who requests visitation rights in a divorce proceeding, to a criminal case in which he is accused of sexually abusing a child."
The comprehensive law also envisions educational and awareness programs, including an obligatory class on gender equality for schoolchildren.
The new government has also said it wants to expand the numbers of police officers dedicated to combating domestic violence.
Jerome Socolovsky is a journalist based in Madrid.
For more information:
Ministerio de Trabajo y Asuntos Sociales--
Instituto de la Mujer
(Ministry of Labor and Social Matters--Women's Institute):
Government Offices of Sweden--
Equality between women and men in Sweden:
Centro de Asistencia a Victimas de Agresiones Sexuales
(Center for Assistance to Victims of Sexual Aggression):
Federacion de Asociaciones de Mujeres Separadas y Divorciadas
(Federation of Separated and Divorced Women's Associations):