The discovery just before Christmas last year of the bodies of two women in their home in a suburb of Bilbao in the Basque Country, one of the 17 autonomous regions of Spain, brought the deaths of women at the hands of their male partners or ex-partners up to 50 for the year when a man eventually confessed to the murders of both his wife and his mother-in-law. He had beaten the two women to death after a dispute about money, he said. Before the end of the year one more woman was assassinated in Madrid bringing the total number of women killed by partners or ex-partners during 2014 to 51 according to government sources, a total of more than 200 over the past five years.
Some non-government organizations claim the number is higher. Different organisations and monitors use varying criteria, including deaths of minors or deaths at the hands of other family members.
Women in Black action at start of demonstration. Madrid 7 November. Photo: author
On November 7 a demonstration in Madrid organised by feminist groups and calling for state-wide support, succeeded in bringing together over 200,000 according to the organizers in Spain; the biggest demonstration on the issue of gender violence to have taken place in the capital. The event began with actions by “Women in Black”, a feminist group originating in Bilbao who regularly appear in the streets of Spain, open to all women to take part, in actions to draw attention to the serious issue of violence against women in this country. At just after 11.am, with the march timed to start at mid-day and demonstrators arriving in their thousands, over 50 women dressed in black lay down on the pavements around the Ministry of Health, next door to the world famous “Museo de Prado”, lying still and silent in a representation of women killed in the family context in a society that pays little heed to the issue. Spain is not the leader in the overall gender violence stakes in Europe where on average 7 women a day are killed as a result of violence within the family environment; that dubious honour belongs to Denmark where over 50% of women say they have experienced gender violence.
The timing of the demonstration in Madrid, only 6 weeks from the general election forced all the political parties not only to comment but also to make an appearance on the march to maintain their political credibility. The leaders of the three left wing parties, Podemos, the Socialist Party (PSOE) and the far left Izquierda Unida, all attended. The right, the Partido Popular (PP) and Ciudadanos, sent relatively unknown representatives. With the town hall in the hands of the left for the first time in 24 years the Madrid local government strongly backed the protestors and the mayor, Manuela Carmena, attended the demonstration along with the mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau. Madrid Town Hall was bathed in violet light at night and during the day carried a huge placard in support of the demonstration. The press, including some of the media on the right, generally backed the demo. “ABC” the most influential daily of the right-wing wrote a short piece applauding the march for drawing attention to what they described as “esta lacra social” (this blight on our society) pointing out that 1378 women had been assassinated since 1995. Certainly one of the most remarkable aspects of the demonstration is that it has drawn at last acknowledgement and support from some state institutions, making it an even greater than expected success for the feminist movement, which has been crying out for the institutions of the state take a stand.
Madrid Town Hall supports the 51% majority. Photo: Irune Lauzirika Jauregi.
However, there is the other side of the coin. The right wing daily “El Mundo” published a piece just six days after the demonstration, referring to another 5 murders of women in the domestic environment, one a day following the demonstration, bringing up the question of the relationship between the increasing empowerment of women and a higher level of gender violence. It seems that the response has to be a continued demand to force the state to intervene as strongly as it did to bring about an end to the armed struggle of ETA, the Basque “terrorist” organization, now off the map after 40 years of activity.
It is just over 10 years since the Socialist Government of Rodrigues Zapatero elected in 2004, made a critical contribution by introducing the most advanced law in Europe on violence against women, “Ley Orgánica 1/2004”. The law set out to define the political and social, not simply personal and marital, nature of the issue. As the British Journal of Epidemiology reported in 2006 the new law moved the problem “from feminist claims to institutional affairs in Spain”.
Moving the issue from the private domain and underlining the rights of women under the law included the setting up of specialist courts to deal with accusations of violence, hugely increased budgets for protection and for the training of workers in the field, making extensive legislation revisable at regular intervals. Hailed in Europe the 2004 Law received an honourable mention in the Future Policy Awards in 2014 in Geneva backed by the UN (Women’s Section) and the World Future Council, who mentioned especially the stated aims to protect and empower women and most importantly to change social attitudes.
Affected by the economic crisis and suffering cuts almost from inception, the 2004 law has been partially dismantled, especially over the last three years with the massive withdrawal of funds under the conservative government of the “Partido Popular”, (PP) making it considerably less effective. The PP government cuts in funding have included moving from a budget of 30 million originally under the socialist government to 6.6 million today. Under this Government there has been an increase in the number of cases of gender violence archived by the courts, an increase in withdrawal of complaints before the process is completed, an overall decrease in official complaints, poor assessment of risk and a reduction in the number of orders of protection.
Whilst the recent demonstration will have alerted many more to the seriousness of the reality of violence against women, the historical lack of public concern for, as distinct from awareness of the issue, is extraordinarily low and consistently so; one reason perhaps why the electoral campaigns of all parties do not address the issue in any detail in election year. Brief reports of each death through gender violence regularly appear in the press and on television, accompanied invariably by the emergency phone number to call for help. Awareness of the problem is at a high level. Although between 2010 and 2014, two hundred and five women were killed in gender violence attacks, little sign of concern on the part of the public has shown up in the opinion polls. The regular opinion poll in Spain by the Centre for Investigation into Social issues (CIS), showed in November last year that only 0.4% (nought point four %) of the population considered violence against women to be one of the top problems of Spain: a figure that has varied little over the past 10 years although the media has consistently reported on the events.
Over the same period concern about corruption and fraud moved from 1.3% to 42% of the electorate seeing it as a major issue. The CIS “opinion barometers” are clearly capable of measuring broad changes in attitude when they occur over time. Concern for the effect on women of gender violence does not shift. Few potential electors appear to really care.
World and European organisations continue to report failures on the part of Spain to address the problem. The “Informe Sombra” (Alternative Report) on Spain from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), published in December 2014, stated that the Spanish Government had not complied with international requirements on the issue of violence against women and would be denounced before the UN. Their major findings showed serious lack of funds available, poor structural definition of the issue, improper methods and mechanisms of evaluation and perhaps most importantly the report points specifically to a lack of political will, the motive force that generates political action. In July 2015 CEDAW agreed that the 2004 Law was a “key emancipation element”, but that Spain still lacked a comprehensive plan to deal with all forms of violence against women, denouncing the lack of political initiative before the UN, as promised.
In spite of the attempts of the Socialist Government beginning in 2004, and in the face of the searing comments from the UN over the last 10 years, on occasion politicians in Spain appear to be unbelievably insensitive to the facts of so many women’s deaths at the hands of male partners or ex-partners. And it is not just a condition that affects the State. The Government of the Basque Country controlled by the Partido Nacionalista Vasco (PNV) the Basque conservative nationalist party, has recently proposed “El Mapa de la Memoria” (The Memory Map) to record the experience of violence in the Basque Country over the 50 years between 1960 and 2010. The Map is dedicated to “unjust” assassinations and the plan is to show pictures of “the human face of suffering of each victim unjustly murdered” and to organize acts of remembrance for each one, a total they say of 95 persons. During the same 50 years it is likely that at least 100 women were killed in the region by their partners or ex partners: reliable statistics were not kept until the year 2000 since when on average 2 deaths per year have been recorded in the Basque Country. Apparently the Basque Government is citing as “unjust deaths” only those killed in acts of illegal terrorist activity by ETA or at the hands of the police and has no plans to include the human face of suffering of the victims of gender violence.
Read more articles in openDemocracy 50.50's series on 16 Days Activism Against Gender Violence