Woman holding an anti-domestic violence sign

MADRID, Spain–Women have been strangled, shot, torched with gasoline or stabbed, sometimes while their children looked on. Statistics on domestic violence are in dispute, but one tally puts this year’s death toll at 55. Hundreds of thousands more survived beatings or other abuse, and most of them suffered in silence.

For most of these Spanish women, the pain and humiliation meted out by a macho husband or companion was taken as another part of a harsh life.

However, women and their allies in Spain are now making their own contribution to the global movement to end violence against women–the force behind worldwide demonstrations in 155 countries this month.

A socialist politician has triggered a heated national debate with a proposal to drag at least some of the ugliness out into the open: He wants the names of men convicted of domestic violence to be systematically published in newspapers. In Spain, all convictions are read in open court and become part of the public record.

Some defendants’ names do make it into the press, but many newspapers just use initials, although full names are legal. This crusader wants to go a step further and legally mandate publication of convicted wife-beaters’ names.

“What this proposal aims to do, obviously, is draw attention to a serious social problem that has deep roots in society and makes people look the other way,” said the politician, Jose Bono, socialist governor of the Castilla-La Mancha region of central Spain. “I consider it an aggressive initiative aimed at waking up a sleeping social conscience.”

Government, Critics Oppose Stigmatizing Wife-Beaters

Bono dropped his anti-domestic violence bombshell on Oct. 10 in a routine speech to the Castilla-La Mancha regional legislature. As it stands, the proposal would apply only to that region, and even there it is far from becoming law. Responding to criticism that the proposal is unconstitutional because it violates people’s right to privacy, Bono has asked Spain’s Constitutional Court to study the idea and determine if he can proceed with it.

Elsewhere, the reception among central government officials and even those in Bono’s own party has ranged from frosty to downright dismissive. Among other things, critics say that stigmatizing wife-beaters will do nothing to help rehabilitate them. They claim it would be arbitrary to splash their names across newspaper pages and not those of, for example, tax cheats. As a rule, such names are not published.

However, women’s advocacy groups welcomed the idea of publishing convicted wife-beaters’ names as a useful tool in transforming a society they see as a bastion of machismo. In addition, Spain has been saddled with nearly four decades of additional sexist baggage accumulated during the right-wing dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco, who died in 1975.

Several women’s advocates have urged Spain’s center-right government to embrace the initiative and apply it at the national level. The government dismisses the idea of publishing violent culprits’ names as unhelpful and demagogic.

“This is not about making a vendetta or revenge list,” said Ana Maria Perez del Campo, president of the Federation of Separated and Divorced Women’s Associations. “It is simply a way for people to identify violent men,” she said. “It is not just a way to end the secrecy and silence that lets aggressors go unpunished, but also a preventive measure.”

Another leading activist, Enriqueta Chicano of the Federation of Progressive Women, said that even if the Bono proposal to publish convicted batterers’ names fails to get off the ground, it will have had a positive effect because it’s got people talking about the problem. “It has given Spain a good jolt,” she said.

Machismo Stems Partly From Catholicism, Police, Judicial Indifference

Alberto Moncada, a sociologist at the University of Alcala de Henares, 30 miles northeast of Madrid, said Bono’s proposal would be more appropriate coming from the judicial branch or the police. Spanish machismo, he said, stems in large part from “a tradition in which neither police nor judges pay much attention to women.”

Furthermore, the Roman Catholic Church has promoted machismo by teaching that within a family, the male is always right. “It is assumed that the father, the husband, is never wrong,” Moncada said. This mindset is typical of other predominantly Catholic countries of the Mediterranean, he said, like Italy and Portugal.

Both Chicano and Perez del Campo recalled the dark days under Franco when Spanish law said men had the right to “reprimand moderately” when angry with their wives. “In common, everyday language, that translated as ‘you can beat her, but just a little,'” Perez del Campo said. In practical terms, it usually meant that men who beat their wives were punished only if the woman’s injuries took more than two weeks to heal.

No one disputes the enormous progress Spain has chalked up in the 25 years since Franco died. It is now a prosperous, stable democracy, and women have made big strides in both politics and the workplace. Spanish women won the vote in 1931, French women in 1944, Italians in 1945 and Swiss in 1971. In the current Spanish parliament, for instance, the speakers of both chambers are women–a first. Neither has commented.

Tolerating Wife-Beating: An Old Habit That Dies Hard

But old habits die hard, among them tolerance for violence against women. Indeed, many Spaniards were stunned this year by a string of court rulings in which men accused of rape were granted leniency.

In one particularly shocking case in June, a three-judge panel in the northwestern city of Pontevedra granted a reduced sentence–seven-and-a-half years instead of the 15-year maximum–to Francisco Garriga Villanueva, 44, convicted of raping his girlfriend’s teen-age daughter after tying her up and slashing off her pajamas with a knife. The judges cited a “mitigating circumstance”: After ejaculating in the girl’s mouth, the man took her a glass of water.

Chicano says wife-beating is not taken seriously either. “People joke about it,” she said. “If the television is on in a bar and a domestic violence case is shown on the news, people say things like, ‘well, that woman must have had it coming.'”

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar’s government has come out against the publication proposal. He has not commented, but Health Minister Celia Villalobos said, “This is not just the responsibility of government,” but of all Spanish society. “The law can only do so much.”

In its defense, the government points to a 20-million-dollar plan instituted in 1998 that included construction of more shelters for battered women, special training for police to deal with domestic violence and school programs to teach children about the problem.

Some Official Shelters “Just Places to Park Women With Kids”

At the same time, the government-funded Women’s Institute also disputes private advocacy groups’ assertion that 55 women have died this year at the hands of their husband or partner, putting the figure at 34, down from 42 last year.

Perez del Campo criticizes the government’s plan, saying it conducted its census of battered women by telephone rather than in person and built the new shelters without consulting women’s groups as to the kind of living facilities needed. “Some of them are basically just places to park women with children,” she said. She also disputes the official estimate that 600,000 Spanish women are abused at home each year, arguing that the real number is closer to 1.2 million.

Perez del Campo also noted that the same day Bono unveiled his proposal, newspapers carried stories about two more deaths–a suburban Madrid man stabbing his wife repeatedly in front of their five-year-old daughter and a woman in the southern city of Marbella stabbing her husband as he slept, after being subjected to his repeated beatings. Both of the accused are in jail, awaiting trial.

“You can’t fight violence with violence,” Perez del Campo said. “But if the powers that be turn their backs on victims, there will come a time in which, naturally, women will have to be allowed to defend themselves.”

Daniel Woolls is a journalist based in Madrid.