VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN

Gender violence: feminist group says Spain’s legal system betrays women

Las Tejedoras argue that victims still suffer from a lack of support from the state

A protest against gender violence affecting women.
A protest against gender violence affecting women.

Meet Clara. Clara is beaten by her partner. On the advice of her friends, and encouraged by a government poster campaign against gender-based violence, she decides to go to the police.

However, her nightmare is just beginning: interrogation by the police; a lawyer who does not care; and a judge who calls her a liar. These are just some of the ordeals that Clara is put through by the Spanish legal system.

Clara's story is fictional, but for many women in Spain it is a familiar one. It is a tale that is being told in a video, produced by a Madrid-based feminist organization called Las Tejedoras.

The 13-strong group hopes that this video will bring the problem of abuse into the limelight: focusing less on actual, physical abuse, and more on abuse by the system against victims of violence.

Generally, in Western societies, violence against women is less tolerated than it once was. However, Las Tejedoras claims this is not the case in Spain. In a survey conducted by a government unit responsible for gender violence, two million women in Spain say they have been the victims of some type of abuse at some point in their lives.

In most cases the charges are dropped, or the accused is let off"

While figures released by the country's CGPJ judicial watchdog show that reports of violence against women by partners or ex-partners dropped by over 10,000 between 2008 and 2012, Las Tejedoras say that many cases still go unreported and that an estimated 73 percent of abuse cases are "invisible."

Why should this be? The group blames the legal system. "In most cases the charges are dropped, or the accused is let off, or there is a counter charge against the victim and she is found guilty. So, logically, there is not a lot of interest in reporting it when you are going to encounter this," says Las Tejedoras' Beatriz Sevilla.

"The root of the problem is that we have a sexist upbringing, a media that foments sexism, families that were educated under sexism and which reproduce the same ideas, and on the other hand laws and public policies that are very weak in these areas of education and values," adds fellow Tejedora, María Naredo.

There are a number of hurdles a victim must overcome before she can get justice.

Firstly, having made the complaint to the police (no small thing in itself), the case could be dropped. "On the one hand they are saying 'report, report, report' but then the number of cases that are dropped are increasing [by 158 percent between 2005 and 2012] and the number of restraining orders are falling," explains Chus González, another member of the feminist group.

Next, there is the lawyer. Maria claims that in many cases the male defendant is able to hire a private lawyer, whereas the female victims often have to rely on free representation. The free lawyers are rushed, and sometimes only meet their client a few minutes before the hearing begins.

In court, women often find that they are not handled sympathetically by the authorities. Las Tejedoras claim that police rarely bother to collect evidence in gender violence cases.

The refuges exert a tight control over the women"

"It's just the woman's word against the man's word and then it's up to the judge who they believe," explains Beatriz. "Because there is the prejudice that women tell lies to get revenge on their husbands, and because there is no other evidence due to the lack of investigation, the judges interrogate them in a very strong way."

Official figures show that the number of defendants found guilty fell by 5.6 percent between 2007 and 2011, when it stood at 60.3 percent. If the defendant is found guilty, there is then the question of the sentence. A defendant can (theoretically) be sentenced to one or two years in prison for a "one-off" attack. However, Las Tejedoras claim that this latter phrase is misleading. Violence is rarely a one-off occurrence, but part of a long-term campaign of abuse; psychological, sexual and physical.

The sentence is often suspended for a first offence, meaning that men who beat their partners rarely go to jail. Women are often too "exhausted" by the process to appeal, say Las Tejedoras.

There are safe houses victims can go to but, depending on the region, you can only enter a public safe house when you have already reported the crime and filed a restraining order.

"The refuges exert a tight control over the women," says Beatriz. "You can't be back 10 minutes after you said you would or you get a sanction. They have to know where you are at every moment. If you aren't back at dinner time, you don't eat. [Women] feel that they have less liberty there than with their partner!"

Ultimately, the group says that they do not want to discourage anyone from reporting abuse, but that they want to raise awareness of how things work after that point. "These women have already gone through enough," concludes Maria.

If you would like advice on help available to victims of gender violence, email Las Tejedoras at tejefeminismo@gmail.com.

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