By Daniel Woolls
Friday, September 27, 2002
In Spain, an accountant accused her boss, the mayor, of sexual harassment and refused to back off, and was willing to endure a trial. The resulting uproar handed women's rights activists a major victory. Also, calls to remove spermicide from condoms.
MADRID, Spain (WOMENSENEWS)--A sexual harassment case so ugly and spectacular that it's being made into a TV movie has given women in Spain a triumph in court and a rallying cry for more victims to speak out.
Spain has traditionally been lax on sexual harassment and the maximum penalty was a fine. However, sexual harassment became a jailable offense in a 1999 reform of the penal code. Still, women's advocacy groups say the vastmajority of women here shy away from denouncing such conduct or recognizing it as harassment at all and that complaints in the male-dominated world of politics are virtually unheard of.
So it was a particularly sweet victory for them in late May, although an incomplete one, when a mayor in northern Spain was convicted of sexually harassing one of his employees--a brilliant accountant half his age--for months after a brief relationship between them ended. A movie about the case is expected to air on Spanish television this fall.
The win was only partial because this time, too, the man avoided prison. Instead, a three-judge panel voted 2-1 to fine him the equivalent of $6,500 and ordered him to pay $12,000 in damages.
The court said the woman, Nevenka Fernandez, had not suffered physical damage, a criterion for imposing a harsher sentence such as jail or a ban on holding public office.
Still, women's groups called the case a breakthrough.
"The real victory is that the case was carried through to the end and the victim had the courage not only to denounce the harassment but put up with the trial," said Enriqueta Chicano, president of the Federacion de Mujeres Progresistas (Federation of Progressive Women).
"What's important for us is that this is the first case to gain enough public exposure to encourage women to report this kind of behavior," Chicano added.
Fernandez, now 27, filed suit in March 2001 saying she had endured abuse from her boss and former lover, Ismael Alvarez, mayor of the town of Ponferrada, that included his groping her (and himself in her presence), humiliating public criticism and one incident during a trip they made together in which Alvarez slipped into her hotel room and masturbated in front of her.
"He besieged me constantly because he simply could not get it into his head that I did not want to be with him," Fernandez testified during the month-long trial in the regional capital of Burgos.
The trial began in late April of this year and drew extensive coverage in national newspapers. That's significant for a case from a town of 60,000 people, capital of an area better known for cattle breeding. Pedro Costa, a Spanish movie director, is shooting a film based on Fernandez's story and expects it to air on television this fall.
The public sessions were a grueling ordeal for Fernandez. The prosecutor was so loud and aggressive as he questioned Fernandez that several times she sobbed on the stand. The judge called him to order, reminding him that Fernandez was the plaintiff, not the defendant. Eventually the prosecutor was removed from the trial and placed under disciplinary investigation.
Psychologists testified that Fernandez, who took medical leave from her job as Ponferrada's treasurer in September 2000, was suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome triggered by sexual harassment. Before-and-after photos of Fernandez in the Spanish media showed a tall, attractive woman transformed into a pallid, emaciated wreck with dark circles under her eyes.
As he announced he was stepping down, Alvarez insisted he was the target of a political lynching orchestrated by the opposition Socialist party and said that, if there had been sexual harassment, Fernandez was the perpetrator and he the victim. He also warned other Spanish men.
"Be careful if a young lady says, 'That man touched my ass,' because the man will have real problems just because the young lady has said so," Alvarez told a news conference on May 29. He is appealing his conviction.
After the trial, the wife of conservative Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar spoke up. Rather than express solidarity with Fernandez or women in general, she praised the mayor. First Lady Ana Botella said Alvarez's decision to resign was "impeccable." The next day, when reporters asked her about those remarks, she stood pat.
Behavior legally considered as amounting to sexual harassment is common in the Spanish workplace but women either turn a blind eye or don't deem it to be harassment, according to a study by Workers' Commissions, one of Spain's main labor federations.
Of 1,004 women surveyed in 2000, 18 percent said they had experienced behavior such as invasion of personal space, undesired physical contact, pressure to go on dates or have sex, or hints that they could advance professionally in exchange for sex, the report stated.
But when asked point-blank if they had been a victim of sexual harassment, only 6 percent of those 1,004 said yes.
Rita Moreno Preciado, head of the federation's women's affairs section, said many people in Spain, both men and women, simply don't know what sexual harassment is or that they needn't tolerate it.
She said women "are capable of saying 'yes my boss or colleague is all over me every time he stops by to give me a document' but don't know such behavior is now classified in the European Union as an example of sexual harassment."
"There is an immense number of people who don't know the meaning or implications of that term," she said.
Spain is probably no more macho than other European countries when it comes to sexual harassment, although discussion and awareness did begin later here than elsewhere, perhaps in the late 1980s, Moreno Preciado added.
And even when Spanish women do acknowledge harassment, they're reluctant to file a formal complaint because jobs are precious and they fear being fired. Unemployment among women in Spain is 19 percent, twice the rate among men.
Daniel Woolls is a journalist in Madrid.
Also see Women's Enews, July 22, 2002:
"European Union Tells Members to Bar Sex Harassment":
Links (in Spanish):
Gender and Working Conditions in the European Union
(Acrobat pdf format):
World Health Organization--Fact Sheets
"Women and Microbicides":
Global Campaign for Microbicides:
(WOMENSENEWS)--Scientists and health advocates on Thursday urged manufacturers of condoms and sexual lubricants to remove the spermicide Nonoxynol-9 from their products, citing studies that show it increases risk of HIV transmission.
"The belief that N-9 helps prevent HIV is deeply entrenched and it would take years and a massive public education campaign to set the record straight," said Lori Heise, director of the Global Campaign for Microbicides. "The most prudent thing to do is to eliminate the risk by removing N-9 from lubricants and condoms now."
Studies published since 2000 have shown that rather than protecting against HIV as hoped, N-9 actually increases risk of infection by destroying or irritating cells in the rectum. N-9 is considered less risky when used vaginally, though it has been shown to increase the risk of genital lesions in women who use it multiple times a day, a factor that can encourage transmission of the virus.
A World Health Organization report on N-9 released in June recommended that condoms containing the spermicide "should no longer be promoted" because of evidence that the ingredient increases risk of HIV transmission when used rectally. Though N-9 has been used for more than 50 years as a contraceptive, it was added to sexual lubricants and condoms in the 1980s, when scientists mistakenly believed it would offer protection against HIV. It now is contained in the outer lubrication of 42 percent of condoms sold commercially in the United States and about half of those available worldwide.
Heise said removal of N-9 from condoms and lubricants would benefit women as well as gay men because studies indicate that between 6 percent and 13 percent of women engage in anal sex. She added that advocates were not calling for the removal of N-9 from products designed exclusively for vaginal use--such as certain gels and creams that are used alone or in combination with a diaphragm or cervical cap--because the spermicide is still moderately effective as a contraceptive.
At least five condom and lubricant manufacturers--including Johnson and Johnson, Mayer Laboratories, Inc. and Planned Parenthood Federation of America--have already agreed to the coalition's request. But the three largest condom manufacturers--Ansell Ltd., Church and Dwight Company, Inc., and SSL International plc--have reportedly balked, arguing that N-9 provides back-up protection against pregnancy if a condom breaks.
The WHO report, however, found that "there is no evidence that N-9-lubricated condoms provide any additional protection against pregnancy" or sexually transmitted diseases, compared with condoms that are lubricated with other products. Officials at the larger condom manufacturers did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment.
--Jordan Lite, assistant managing editor of Women's Enews.