Do I remember the first time?" Cristina narrows her eyes. "I don't know... It started bit by bit. He'd pull my hair sometimes, or push me... One afternoon when we were out for a walk in the park he got angry and started punching me on the arms and the stomach. Then he began crying. I was very frightened; it felt terrible to see him like that," she says. Cristina was 15 at the time, and had been going out with her boyfriend, who was 16, for six months. That was three years ago. She says that to begin with, the relationship was "magical" and that the couple seemed to exist in a world of their own. But little by little, he gradually took over her life, and in reality, he had already extinguished her personality long before he began being violent with her.
A few weeks later, at a party, a friend saw him grab Cristina by the hair and shout at her. "He was hysterical, and my friend was very frightened. She said he was an animal and told me that I should leave him," she explains with a weary smile. "In reality this was nothing compared to what he had done on other occasions, and I told her so. But we never talked about it in terms of abuse. For me it was something else. Gender violence is something that happens to married women, or adult women. That's the way I saw it."
At the time, Cristina had no idea that there were - and are - so many other cases similar to hers. Between 2011 and 2012, there was a 30-percent increase in court cases dealing with assaults by men aged under 18 against their girlfriends, bringing the figure for last year to 632. These are the first such figures, and the experts say they are the tip of the iceberg. The majority of families are still unwilling to bring charges against their daughters' abusers, often because the young women concerned do not want to recognize that they are trapped in cycle of violence.
One such case is the 14-year-old girl who, 10 days ago, was stabbed to death by her 18-year-old boyfriend at her home in the small Catalan town of Tárrega. Neither the girl nor her family had reported any of the killer's previous attacks. The girl, who had broken up with him a few weeks previously, is the youngest fatality involving gender violence in a year that as of October 19 has seen 39 women killed by their partners or spouses.
Young men are behaving in ways we thought we had managed to curb"
Since records first began on such murders, there has been one other case involving a minor: the shooting last year of a young woman in Albacete by a 40-year-old man with whom she was involved.
Psychologists, academics and lawyers say that assaults against girlfriends are being committed at earlier ages than ever before. "Young men are behaving in ways that we thought we had managed to curb," says Susana Martínez, president of the Commission for the Study of Mistreatment of Women. "We are talking about situations where the boy is in charge and exercises his power through control, while the girl is submissive." She says that most of these relationships are still based on the traditional model of romantic love, in which the man is supposedly strong, and the woman weak, dependent, and in need of protection. "Just like in the fairytale where the princess needs the prince to save her. These behavior patterns, taken to the extreme, can lead to violent behavior, but even if they don't reach that extreme, these types of relationships are preventing girls from taking up a fulfilling role in society," says Ana Bella Hernández, the president of a foundation she set up for female victims of gender violence.
Alicia (not her real name) was 14 when she began going out with her first boyfriend, aged 16, and believed her relationship was something out of a fairytale. She says that she fell completely in love, and that although he was jealous and was frequently angry, she thought this was normal. "I was flattered. I interpreted his behavior as that of a knight in shining armor, and whose jealousy was proof of his love," she says. She says that she could think of nothing else at the time, and would sneak out at night to see him, or miss school. But as the months passed, his attacks of jealousy progressed from arguments and insults to shoving and spitting, as well as sexual violence, which usually goes undetected and rarely features in the statistics.
She endured this situation until she was aged 19; she is now 24. "The violence just got worse. He would hit me, and then beg forgiveness, and I would forgive him... Sometimes I even felt guilty for having provoked him, for having made him change in that way... I loved him, or at least that is what I believed," says Alicia. One night, after leaving a nightclub, he beat her up, kicking her to the ground, breaking her leg and injuring her neck. "A friend took me to hospital, I was put in plaster." When she got home her mother was shocked, but had no idea about her daughter's situation.
The spiral of violence worsened, while her friends and family seemed unable to react, often justifying her boyfriend's behavior, or simply seeing jealousy as an expression of his passion. A survey carried out in 2010 shows that around one-third of young men and women believe this, while 12 percent of young men, and six percent of young women, think that females should avoid arguing with their partner.
In the coming weeks, a new survey carried out by the Health Ministry will be published. It is based on interviews with 8,000 young people. It indicates that adolescents start relationships younger than ever before - the average age is 13 - and that they are highly subject to the male-dominated roles that children see at home, as well as on television, in movies and in books. These early relationships need not be harmful or lead to violence, explains Virginia Sánchez, a lecturer in psychological development at the University of Seville.
She says that having relationships at an early age is a positive sign, as long as it is based on mutual respect and that both partners are of similar ages. But she says that her work shows that violence is increasingly a part of relationships between adolescents. "Both parties often use very violent language, and unless this is checked, it can lead to serious behavior patterns to do with domination and submission that are very difficult to shake off later in life," she says.
Experts such as Sánchez, or Olga Barroso of the Luz Casanova Foundation, which has a program for adolescents who have suffered gender violence, say that smartphones make it easier than ever for young people to be in touch, but that they can also be used to control their movements. "Things like WhatsApp, texting, and social networks are used to monitor what somebody is thinking and doing. And if the relationship comes to an end, smartphones can be used to hassle and bully somebody," says Susana Martínez, adding that smartphones, when used properly, can be an aid to relationships.
These relationships are stopping girls taking a fulfilling role in society"
Barroso explains that in most cases, adolescents are yet to develop a full understanding of the roles of domination and submission within a relationship, and simply see these behavior patterns in terms of interest or concern: "It's a fine line, and these are situations with many subtleties and singularities," she says. "For example, is it normal if your boyfriend asks you to call him from your home phone to let him know that you have arrived safely? Or what if he tells you to send him your location every time you go out so that he knows where you are, or if he asks to see your phone so that he can monitor who you have been talking to or sending text messages to?"
Young men may choose to see these demands as "proof" of their love, says educationalist Nieves Salobral, adding that it is not uncommon for young women to give their boyfriends their email and social network passwords; by relinquishing their privacy they are showing their love. As another young woman with whom Barroso worked explains: "I loved him, and although you know that it isn't really right, that the insults and violence are wrong, he is, after all, your boyfriend, and you justify the behavior, because you don't want to see him in a bad light. You just want to help him, so that it will stop happening."
But as Barroso points out, failing to check these kinds of demands simply reinforces the likelihood that they will increase. Many young women refuse to end the relationship, and even keep it a secret from their parents and friends. One mother says that she has discovered that her daughter, Gema, is still in touch with a boyfriend with whom she had supposedly broken up six months ago. The girl, aged 16, is receiving psychiatric treatment after her mother discovered that the boyfriend had been abusing her. Up to that point, she thought that he was a model of politeness; the pair had been going out together since they were 14. "To begin with, when they started going out together, I was okay about it. The boy was very well mannered, and I knew his parents," she says.
At the same time, she admits that she had refused to see what was really going on: her daughter had stopped seeing her friends, and she always seemed to be arguing with her boyfriend. "It was always about his jealousy, but of course they always made it up in the end," she says. One night, the girl returned home with blood on her clothes and was very upset after another argument with her boyfriend, who had by then disappeared. "I knew that something had happened to my daughter, but she was only interested in finding out where he was, and that she was afraid he had done something stupid." The mother called him on his cellphone, and asked him what had happened. He eventually admitted that he had hit her daughter.
I interpreted his jealousy as proof of his love," explains one victim
At that point, the mother explains, her whole world fell apart. She didn't know who to turn to. She spoke to the boy's parents, and found help for her daughter. "I didn't report it to the police because they were both minors, and his family had gotten involved... I even began to wonder if maybe I had overreacted, and that this was simply a typical kids' argument that had gotten out of hand. But it wasn't. And I am happy that I took the matter up," she says. That said, she wishes she had taken action sooner, and has a number of regrets, including not having realized what was going on; allowing the boy into the family home; and not having told her daughter to break up with him the first time that she had told her about the jealousy.
The girl is now receiving treatment, help and support, without which, even though the relationship is now over, she could find herself drawn into a similar pattern in the future. Some women have endured violent relationships for decades, refusing to see their situation for what it is. And often, even when they break up with one violent man, they are attracted to other authoritarian, domineering partners.
Sexual violence is usually undetected, and rarely features in the statistics
In many cases, a young woman's choice of partner is influenced by a difficult home life. "I saw my boyfriend as a protector. To begin with I felt great, but later on...," says one. Later on came the violence.
In other cases, the parents can play a role in helping their daughter escape from a violent relationship, as in the case of Laura (not her real name). "One day when he was stoned, he tried to beat me up in front of his own parents. Things got so out of hand that he even turned on them," she says. This event finally prompted her parents to encourage her to report him to the police. But she refused, saying she was fearful for her family. In the end, it was the boy's parents who turned him in, and it then emerged that he was facing other charges for violent robbery. He was sentenced to two years in jail, and Laura has not seen him since. She resumed her education and now works in healthcare. But like many other women in her situation, she still attends group therapy sessions, where she shares her experience with others. "At that age you just don't see yourself as a victim of abuse, and if and when you finally do, it is still very difficult to then take the step to do something about it. You don't want anything to happen to him and you don't want your family to suffer. It is complicated."
Alicia says that she put up with the insults and the violence until one day her boyfriend beat her up in the street. She was fully supported by her parents. At the same time, like Laura, she believes that she could have avoided the whole experience if she had been better informed about the dangers of going out with violent young men, and if she had been taught to spot the warning signs early on. The experts agree, and say that schools should teach pupils about equality and the emotional aspects to relationships; at the same time, these are issues that families need to address. In short, even into the second decade of the 21st century, outdated beliefs endure that jealousy is a sign of intense love. The challenge is to see the signs early on, and stop the spiral of male violence.