Gender violence in Spain: from electoral tool to decisive issue ?

As political parties in Spain struggle to form a government this week their commitment to dealing with violence against women is being put to the test.

Liz Cooper
16 January 2016

Weeks after the Spanish General Election in December it is still not clear who will pact with whom in order to be able to form a government, or whether there will be new elections called.

The Partido Popular (PP) currently the outgoing Government, won 28.72% of the vote; the Socialist Party (PSOE) came in second with a 22.01%, their worst ever result; roughly as predicted. The predictions for the two new parties, Podemos on the left and Ciudadanos on the right, turned out to be wrong.  Podemos came in third with 20.66% and Ciudadanos fourth with 13.93%, the reverse of the poll predictions. The IU/UP, the modern version of the old communist party also did far worse than expected picking up 3.67%. Turnout was just over 73%, slightly higher than in the 2011 elections.

It was an election campaign driven by television debates, national and local. Two weeks before the election, a grand debate was organised for the four major parties to fight it out in front of the national TV cameras and more than 9 million people tuned in. And a week later in yet another political face to face  this time nearly 10 million viewers switched on to watch the debate between the top two contenders only, the traditional party on the right, the Partido Popular (PP) and the Socialist Party (PSOE) on the left.  In spite of the last minute plug for two-party rule the major excitement in the election was the spectacular debut of pluralism onto the Spanish political stage. 

In the planned historic, yet predictable, four-way debate, there was one unexpected moment during the over 2 hour long session: a brief four minutes, given over to gender violence.  Ushered in by one of the moderators who introduced the point as “muy importante” each candidate rattled off a brief sentence or two. The PP told women what they should and should not do; the PSOE reminded the audience of the important socialist record on gender violence; Podemos attacked the cuts made by this Government to the budget for the protection of women, and Ciudadanos agreed with everyone, adding that what they needed was better co-ordination. There was no discussion of any kind whatsoever. Four minutes, but of major importance as they confirmed that the issue was on all party agendas.

Largely due to the massive demonstration (7N) in Madrid in early November drawing maximum attention to the issue of gender violence, and backed by the new socialist Madrid Town Hall, all parties had been forced at least to refer to plans to deal with it in their election campaigns.  Ciudadanos, prone to swinging in the wind, came up with a plan, a few days before the elections, and after the debate, to reduce the sentences for men causing physical harm to women in the domestic context, which carries heavier penalties for men than for women, as defined in the 2004 socialist law on gender violence.  Marta Rivera, no 3 on the Ciudadanos executive, followed up in a local television debate with the extraordinary remark that if children see their father beating up their mother, it is exactly the same experience as when they see their mother beating up their father. The inference being that both acts should be given the same treatment by the courts. 

In the following polls Ciudadanos lost several percentage points of support ending fourth in the final count, having once been on the heels of the PP. It has meant that the obvious, and expected by many, formation of the PP and Ciudadanos (now together 160 seats) to govern exclusively for the right, falls well short of the 176 seats required for an absolute majority. They have to pact with another party.

And it gets better for the women’s movement. After the elections and a week of haggling for positions of power on the executive committee of government still to be formed, Ciudadanos has had to back down from its plan to reduce the penalties for men found guilty of gender violence. It is a tremendous victory for the Feminist movement, who mobilised the November demonstration on gender violence and has been fighting for years to move the issue up the political agenda. The President of the new Congress, the Spanish House of Commons, has just been elected; he is the socialist Patxi Lopez, and he has stated that he wants the executive to come to an agreement, as a priority, on the issue of violence against women. That is a first.

Violence against Women March Madrid November 2015. Photo: Liz Cooper

Last year the number of women assassinated through gender violence reached 57 of which two murders have still to be confirmed by the Ministry of Health. During the year three young children were killed by their mothers’ estranged partners and another five deaths of minors in the context of gender violence are under investigation, according to government sources. Support and above all action at the highest level are essential if these appalling figures are to be reduced and finally extinguished. Not only in terms of increased budgets but in clearing the path that a women in need of help is forced to take. There are huge obstacles that require Government intervention in order to be cleared out.

To make an official complaint, once past the silent wall of societal disinterest, women who may fear for their lives have to find their way through the social services system run by civil servants, many of whom have jobs for life and tend towards conservative solutions. Abused women may have to denounce their abuser before the police force, overwhelmingly made up of men who have been trained to regard the issue as basically private. But the most dangerous institution in Spain for women and their children who need protection and help, is the judiciary, which is dominated by right-wing conservative patriarchal politics, and not adequate to deal with a modern democratic society. Judges are chosen by the Government or by pacts within the major parties: the separation of powers, written into the constitution, does not exist. In 2014 the then Chief Justice, himself on the right, Carlos Lesmes told his fellow lawyers and members of the Government that the current Criminal Trial Law, “is designed for chicken thieves, not for major fraudsters or for the cases we are seeing now involving such high levels of corruption".  Nor for gender-based assassinations, it appears.

It took over 10 years for the Supreme Court to ratify the section of the 2004 Law which required heavier penalties for harm caused by men in the context of gender violence, than that caused by women, finally recognising that gender violence exists. However, of the 57 women killed this year only 12 had made an official complaint and only 4 had received some sort of measure of protection. Only 3% of cases where the abuser has been condemned, are his rights to see his children expressly forbidden by the courts.

The social and judicial institutions that, under the Constitution, exist in name partly to ensure equality of treatment between men and women, under a right-wing Government completely fail to understand the issue of gender violence.  It is little wonder that the vast majority of brutal aggressors go undenounced; the majority of women, whether through fear or shame, either stay silently in the dangerous partnership, or try to deal with the situation by separating from the male abuser without making an official complaint or going before the courts.

Attempts to re-educate the Courts in relation to gender violence as required by the United Nations Organization, were set up by the Socialist Government under Zapatero, but over 26% cuts in funding effected by the Rajoy conservatives and a lack of political will, have led to an appalling lack of specialisation in an already overworked Judiciary.   A Government run by the PP is clearly prone to maintain its influence over the judiciary especially in an era where over 500 politicians are awaiting trial for alleged political corruption, many of them members of the PP.

In the face of such a reality, and now that there is a new Government being hatched, made  up mostly of the very same political parties who had those four minutes to spare, what can women who are exposed both within, and without the home to violence from men, expect  from the eventual winners?  Probably very little, especially if the right continues to dominate the new parliament.  In the recent run up to the elections women’s groups accused the Government of using the issue as an electoral tool and distorting the facts.

It has to be remembered that the Senate, the upper house, remains in the hands of the right which has the vocal support of the Catholic Church who are suggesting the left should abstain to allow the right to form a “stable” government, and who backed the right’s failed attempt to make abortion illegal in Spain. The King also backs the right, as his recent Christmas message made clear; it was a solid defence of the Constitution and the party line of the PP. He also refused to see the newly elected President of the Catalan Government, as is traditional, and suggested he should be formally informed by e-mail.  The right is clearly preparing a counter attack from the trenches on the new pluralist politics. Women will need to be very alert if the initiative they have imposed at last on party politics is to be maintained.

Surely there are no excuses left?

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