The politics of sexual harassment in Spain

A scandal related to women’s rights and the socialist party in Spain, PSOE, broke out last month on International Women’s Day. Liz Cooper looks at a case of sexual harassment by politicians at work that is at the heart of the current row in the PSOE.

Liz Cooper
8 April 2013

On International Women’s Day this year a major political scandal broke out in the north of Spain in the town of Ponferrada, (pop: 69,000) in Castilla-Leon which is aggravating the leadership tension in the national socialist party PSOE in Madrid.  A traditional mining town, Ponferrada reinvented itself as a tourist centre after the collapse of the industry, as it lies on the Camino de Santiago pilgrim route. Surrounded by mountains the town expanded during the nineties building boom and the University of Leon moved in to run a number of undergraduate courses in the town. It has been governed by the conservative Partido Popular (PP) since 1995. That is until the other day. 

In early March the political situation in Ponferrada had reached an impasse, with both major parties needing the support of the small independent party IAP, to takeover the town-hall in a motion of censure on the sitting mayor, Carlos López Riesco (PP). The problem, at least for the socialists, was that the leader of IAP, Ismael Alvarez, had been found guilty in 2002 of sexual harassing the counsellor Nevenka Fernández  when he was the mayor and at that time a member of the conservative party, PP. In a highly publicised court case  he was fined 2,165 euros and sentenced to pay an indemnity of 12,000 euros. He resigned but there was nothing in the penal code then or now that required his resignation, nor prevented his return to politics. He came back 8 years later in 2010 forming the IAP.

On March 5th this year, a group, mostly women, of senior members of the PSOE in Leon, a major town and home-base of ex-President Zapatero, hearing of a proposed pact between PSOE and IAP, issued a manifesto entitled “Toleréncia cero es cero”.( Zero tolerance means zero). They made it clear that in no circumstances should the PSOE accept a decision upheld by the vote of a person convicted of sexual harassment.

The manifesto was received in Ponferrada without comment. Three days later on Friday March 8th, International Women’s Day, the pact was made and the socialists took the town-hall with the vote of IAP. The row within the PSOE continues, building a media frenzy on the issue of leadership but bypassing the reality of actual sexual harassment.

Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, leader of the PSOE, hurriedly issued an ultimatum to the new mayor, Samuel Folgueral, voted in on the back of the deal, either to give up his seat as mayor or leave the PSOE. Folgueral promptly left the party along with 5 other PSOE counsellors. With a minimal re-shuffle at party headquarters, there is still no sign of resignations at central or local level in the light of the crashing mistake admitted by Rubalcaba.

The real significance of this case is that it is founded on a fact of women’s lives that is rarely talked about, even more rarely the basis for a political brouhaha. That the leaders of the PSOE were able to accept the vote of a man found guilty ten years earlier of the sexual harassment of a fellow worker in a subordinate position, simply in order to secure the party’s position in the town, shows precisely the level of importance attributed in general to sexual harassment at work in Spain. It is of no consequence.

Up-to-date national research on sexual harassment is hard to come by. A study published in 2006 based on telephone interviews in 2004  with over 2,000 women at work, found that 14.9%  had suffered sexual harassment at work of which only 1.6% had sought help from an organization or institution. The report emphasised the “social” invisibility of the issue, treated by many including the media as a personal issue. A recent and as yet unpublished research report for the Basque Government, based on telephone interviews with a sample of 750 women working in Northern Spain, found that over 55 % of the women reporting sexual harassment in the interview, had told no-one. Of those who had told someone over 92% had told a friend, family member, or workmate. Only 12% had referred the issue to someone in the company. None had spoken to a Union, a Women’s group, or asked any other institutional organisation for help. 80%of the advice received from family and friends included: ‘leave the job’ 40%, ‘minimise the problem’ 22% and 18% ‘keep away from the situation’   

Sentences have been stiffened under the current penal code: prison sentences of up to 7 months are possible in theory. More importantly it is the very high level of tolerance towards the issue and the difficulty the society has in seeing unwanted sexual contact in the work place as a societal problem that obstructs a woman’s right to work in an unthreatening environment and on equal terms with men.

The special importance of the case in Ponferrada in 2002 was two-fold: the well known novelist and political columnist for El País, Juan José Millás, wrote a book about the case:  “Hay algo que no es como me dicen” (There is something here that does not add up)  allowing the details to reach a much wider audience than is the norm in cases of sexual harassment. The book stressed the effect on the counsellor harassed who, although winning her case in the courts, was unable to continue to work in the town and finally left not only the area but the country. It was also notable for the behaviour of the courts. In the original case the prosecuting counsel asked the claimant how she had coped with the incessant harassment as she claimed; she was not after all a woman worker in a supermarket where “they pinch your bottom and you have to accept it in order to feed your children”. In the appeal court the fine was reduced as the court considered there was no relationship of superiority between the mayor of a town and his counsellors.

What stands out also is how the lives of the two protagonists in the case have developed since the guilty verdict on the mayor. Nevenka Fernández, the claimant not the accused, was forced to abandon her country in 2003, unable to find work, unable to live a normal life. . Millás describes going to visit her when she had established her life in a foreign country and had found a job within 6 weeks of arrival and a flat in the city centre. “She seemed happy, but in exile” he wrote. She remains in exile to this day.  Meanwhile the ex mayor, with a guilty verdict on his file, spent the first few years after the case developing his economic interests in the area, and in 2010 returned to politics, still in Ponferrada, forming the independent party the IAP. In the 2011 elections IAP received 6000 votes giving the party enough seats to hold the key to town affairs.

If even the left that professes to take the rights of women seriously, is capable of such an act of blind stupidity on the issue of sexual harassment as the pact they made in Ponferrada, perhaps Juan José Millás is right. On being asked to comment on the affair this time around he wrote in “El País:”  “este expediente se resuelve con dos palabras: da asco”. Translated: “this business can be summed up in two words: it stinks”.







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