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Are children sacrificed in the interests of an abusive father's right of access?

Spanish law recognises children as direct victims of gender violence, but an abusive father's right of access on visits sanctioned by the judiciary means children are being killed by their estranged fathers. In Spanish.

Irune Lauzirika
8 December 2015

On the 7th of November last, an historic demonstration in the struggle for women's rights took place in Madrid.  Ángela González Carreño whose child was murdered by her ex-partner, the father, in a visit sanctioned by a judge, spoke to the enormous crowds in the protest against gender violence. Close by members of the extreme right wing party “Vox” tried without success to besmirch the face of the march. What the demonstrators reinforced were calls to respect existing laws and they emphasised in speeches and banners that structural alterations needed to be made to change societal values and to attend to the demands of the women who have experienced gender violence.

Since 2008, according to the UN, 31 children have been killed in Spain by their estranged fathers, 20 on visits sanctioned by the judiciary. Changes made in 2015 to the law on gender violence underline the need for protection of children, especially vulnerable in cases of imposed shared custody. 

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7 N Clothes line in Madrid. Photo: Liz Cooper

A major poll in 2015 found that 12.5% of women over sixteen, resident in Spain, have suffered physical and or sexual violence from their male partners or ex-partners, on at least one occasion. A UN report on Spain by the Committee for the Elimination of Violence against Women (CEDAW) reported that since 2008, 31 children had been killed by their estranged fathers, 20 of whom on access visits sanctioned by a judge. For many women and children, an apparently comfortable and secure home can be a very dangerous place indeed.  The Spanish Socialist Government in 2004 introduced a pioneering law, La Ley Orgánica 1/2004 which legislated in detail on the issue of violence against women on the part of their male partners or ex-partners.  The 2004 law was modified in this year of a general election, by the current conservative Government in the Ley Orgánica 8/2015, introducing important changes that recognized children as direct victims of gender violence.

However, changes to the law also gave the Courts the opportunity to make judgements on civil measures related to paternal authority.  The positive effects of the law will be limited if the role that children play in gender abuse is not understood; that children are fundamental to the decisions taken by many of the women involved. Almost 25% of women who decide not to continue with an official complaint of violence, state that it is because “he is the father of my children”. Men who consider themselves the owners of their female partners, well understand the role played by the children in the lives and decisions of their mothers and may use this knowledge to coerce and dominate.  Effective solutions for many women are unavailable because administrators, and above all the judiciary, are not rigorous enough although, as the centre-left daily El Pais commented in 2012, they are aware how the abusers can manipulate the situation through the children.

 The response of the UN Committee on gender violence, see reference above to CEDAW, to the violence suffered by Ángela González Carreño included the requirement that the antecedents of violence must be taken into account when determining issues of custody and pattern of visits to ensure the security of the victims and their children. The Committee also demanded that the judges and administrators should be free of gender stereotypes and one Committee member observed   that in Spain children were being “sacrificed on the altar of a father's rights”

Abusers are capable of adapting and disguising their violent intentions, above all where there is no agreement to shared custody. The State should remain vigilant on behalf of the children.  Without reference to the feminist movement and in what appear to be for reasons of equality, those who defend these norms often use the children as a weapon with which to control and harass the victims of abuse. The consequences will be negative, especially for those women who decide to end the violent relationship but do not make an official complaint for various reasons: insufficient proof, fear, lack of faith in the administration and the courts. They will also be negative for the women who may have won their case in court but once the aggressor has completed his sentence, will no longer be given any kind of protection.

These norms flourish in the context of inequality between men and women, where for example according to studies from the European Commission, women earn 16% less than men and where 34.9% of the women at work are on part-time, as against 8.6% of working men, and where women do the majority of unpaid work in caring for others. To impose shared custody, without agreement, in such a context is to the detriment of women’s and children’s lives.  In the first place where there is no communication it will be impossible to manage even routine issues and will increase stress on the women and children; secondly one has to assume a loss of buying power which will affect negatively their quality of life. This kind of required family organization will also mean that ex-partners will have to live near each other, limiting work and social possibilities.

In the face of lack of communication between parents, the children will tend to be used as a postal service as in most cases they will have to move from one partner’s house to another, on a weekly or two weekly basis, with the accompanying trauma that this involves: environmental changes, separation from friends etc. It is no surprise that these rules are invariably followed by the trumpeted statement “assuming the interests of the young person to be paramount”. However the rule in itself does not defend nor guarantee the superior interests of the young person and seems to impose other interests.

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7 N protest in Madrid. Photo: Liz Cooper

In the manifesto that Ángela González Carreño read at the beginning of the march in Madrid (7N) she rejected the imposition of shared custody and asked for the withdrawal of access to the children of men who have abused the women with whom they have lived.  Her words were cheered by many of the estimated 200,000 present and via the social media by many more.   The 7N calls that “the struggle must go on”, “enough is enough “, “we want to live” continue to resonate. The week following the demonstration eight women were assassinated by men in what has to be assumed was an attempt by the murderers to impede women’s increased freedoms through more intimidation, fear and murder.

Translated from Spanish by Liz Cooper

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