Women protesting Spain�s parliament

MADRID, Spain (WOMENSENEWS)–It was largely thanks to Ana Orantes–to her death by burning, to be precise–that gender violence in Spain finally burst into the public’s awareness.

It was 1997 and, at the age of 60, Orantes mustered the courage to appear on a TV show and testify to decades of brutal beatings by herhusband. She had been unable to get arestraining order despite dozens of complaintsto the police.

Several days after the show was aired, Orantes was dead. Her husband had beaten her badly, one last time. Then he doused her with gasoline and lit a match.

Now, six years later, the Spanish parliament has unanimously passed legislation that just might have saved Orantes’ life, had it been in force back then.

The “Order for the Protection of Victims of Domestic Violence” gives battered women the option of getting a fast-track restraining order on a violent partner within a maximum of 72 hours.

Since the law went into force in late summer, 1,390 women have sought protection under the order, according to the Madrid-based Woman’s Institute, a government policy-making body. Local authorities in Madrid say that about 20 women a day apply for the order.

Woman’s Institute director Miriam Tey de Salvador says the order is part of a larger package of legal measures sponsored by the conservative government of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar Lopez. The measures have redefined domestic violence as a crime rather than a misdemeanor, allowing tougher penalties and quicker custody for suspected aggressors.

Since 1997, says Tey, the number of shelters for battered women has increased from 159 to more than 260 today, and there’s been a doubling of help desks at police stations and courthouses.

Economic and job assistance has also been approved for victims who have to leave their home “and this year more than 1,000 women will benefit from this help,” Tey says in an e-mail response to queries from Women’s eNews.

While women’s groups have welcomed the measures, some say they are being slighted by Aznar’s administration.

The protection order, they say, was the boiled-down result of a much broader initiative last year by an array of parliamentary factions urging a Comprehensive Law on Gender Violence.

Surge in Fatalities

No one disputes that more has to be done to combat domestic violence and the issue is centered on how much of the response should be legislated. The debate has taken on a particular urgency this year, however, with a surge in the number of fatal victims of domestic violence.

Since January, 74 women have been killed–almost as many as in all of 2002.

So 2003 is almost certain to be the deadliest year for domestic violence in Spain since the press started keeping death tallies. That began after the Orantes’ murder shocked a nation where, during the 1939-75 dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco, wife-beating was technically allowed.

“What we’re witnessing is a total system failure,” said Angela Alemany Rojo, president of the Themis Association of Women Jurists, which is based in Madrid. “The government and the politicians don’t know how to adopt the right measures to give victims a sense of security.”

Ana Maria Perez del Campo Noriega, president of the Federation of Separated and Divorced Women, which runs a nationwide network of shelters in Madrid, believes the increased number of victims is a sign that women are starting to confront their tormentors.

Unlike Tey, and many other women’s rights activists who believe the elevated figures is the result, at least in part, of more women reporting violence, Perez del Campo says aggressors are lashing back. She likens it to what happens when slaves demand freedom.

“When slaves rebel, the use of violence to subject and dominate them increases,” she said.

Nevertheless, she dismissed the government’s legislative efforts as “a marketing ploy.”

Many of the advances being made, she said, are quietly being reversed via the backdoor with other legislation such as a proposed Grandparent’s Act. That legislation, unlike any other in Europe, according to Perez del Campo, would enshrine visiting rights to grandchildren in the civil code.

In a society like Spain, where family solidarity is strong, that would provide a way for abusive husbands or fathers to circumvent restraining orders, she says, because many grandparents would use their allotted time to make grandchildren meet with their fathers irrespective of any court injunction or the mother’s wishes.

“I’m a grandmother, and I have nothing against grandparents,” she said, “but this is one more tool to be used against women.”

Abused Women May Be Overcoming Fears

Measures such as these only add to the shattered hopes since the Congress of Deputies, Spain’s parliament, set up a Gender Violence Commission last fall to study the Comprehensive Law proposal.

The idea had been to include wide-ranging legal measures such as steps to combat sexual harassment on the workplace, reduce trafficking in women and require educational programs against gender prejudice.

Even the Order for Protection is weakened by the lack of enforcement measures and the 72-hour, or three-day, required response time, according to Alemany of the lawyers association.

“Three days are a long time for a victim to live with her aggressor,” she says, adding that her organization had proposed adopting the Austrian model which calls for an immediate response.

Responding to such criticism, Woman’s Institute director Tey dismissed the need for a Comprehensive Law, saying domestic violence is a complex problem that can be fought only in part through legal action.

Aznar’s center-right government, which has spearheaded a drive to trim government spending, also appears to favor administrative steps instead of a comprehensive law out of fear that in some cases activists could use the legislation to force the creation of costly social programs.

Instead, the government is pushing through “Plans against Domestic Violence” so as to tackle the problem “from all fronts,” such as education and social work assistance, the Women’s Institute director says.

Tey insists that Aznar’s government, which has been in power since 1996, is the first in Spain to take such a multifaceted approach.

And the result, she claims, is that “one of the greatest achievements has been that all of Spanish society has gained awareness and responded to the problem of domestic violence, which has left the private sphere and been converted into a public matter condemned by everyone.”

Nevertheless, Tey agrees with some activists that the increase in cases of domestic violence “is a sign that abused women are overcoming their fears.”

Violence Socially Accepted

But in a recent echo of the Orantes case, a judge in Barcelona is being investigated for ignoring 13 complaints from Ana Maria Fabregas before she was hammered to death by her husband.

Alemany believes the persistence of such cases proves that there is still much work to do in raising awareness, particularly in the legal profession. Because, she says, even when courts have had tools against gender violence, often they are used in minimal fashion or not at all.

She noted other recent rulings in which a 13-year-old girl’s sexual experience was a mitigating factor in the conviction of the rapist, who was a police officer. Another ruling by the all-male Supreme Court cited drunkenness by a sexual assailant as a reason for leniency.

“The judges are a reflection of the society we live in,” said Alemany. “And we are still faced with a society that considers this a private problem, and not a crime” to be dealt with by society.

Jerome Socolovsky is a journalist based in Madrid.

For more information:

Themis: Asociacion de Mujeres Juristas
(In Spanish, Castellano and French):

Federacion de Asociaciones de Mujeres Separadas y Divorciadas
(In Spanish):

Ministerio de Trabajo y Asuntos Sociales–Instituto de la Mujer
(In Spanish):