A decade of male-on-female violence leaves a tragic total of 658 deaths

The killing of five women in as many days has highlighted an issue that refuses to go away The problem has been aggravated by cuts to programs to combat domestic abuse, say experts

María R. Sahuquillo
A group of women carries 77 torches in memory of the victims of gender violence in Spain last year.
A group of women carries 77 torches in memory of the victims of gender violence in Spain last year.Tania Castro

Over the last decade, 658 women in Spain have been killed by their partners or spouses, with the death toll for this year already at 17 after the most recent incident, which took place in Melilla when a 66-year-old man cut his wife’s throat and then took his own life. It was the fifth such death in as many days. Two weeks ago, four women were murdered by their partners in 48 hours, the worst spate of killings since 2008.

Ten years after the previous Socialist Party administration introduced laws aimed at combating gender-specific violence, there has been no reduction in domestic abuse: judges, police and NGOs all warn that Spanish society is still failing to grapple with the issue.

For decades, the problem of male violence against women was largely ignored in Spain, and it took the horrific case of Ana Orantes, who was burned alive by her partner in 1997 after she appeared on TV to detail the continual abuse she suffered at the hands of her partner, to prompt action. But the phenomenon shows no sign of diminishing, and has been exacerbated, say some experts, by the worsening economic situation in the country, which has sent unemployment soaring.

Susana Martínez, a lawyer and the head of a state-funded research commission into gender-specific violence, points out that the crisis has also meant a cut in funding to protect women: “It’s not just that many women are economically dependent on their husbands and partners, making it much more difficult to leave an abusive relationship; it’s also the fact that there are far fewer resources to provide them with the help they need.” Since taking office in early 2012, the Popular Party government has cut spending on preventing domestic violence by a third. Regional governments have also reduced the amount of money they spend on programs to help women escape the cycle of domestic violence by closing shelters and reducing legal and therapeutic aid. Begoña San José of the Feminist Assembly says the Health Ministry has halved the amount of money the Women’s Institute can spend on tackling domestic violence. There is no funding for any new projects, she adds, noting: “We are just about able to maintain current programs.”

Orphans and broken families

Since 2012, when official figures began to be collected, 52 children have been orphaned as a result of their mother being murdered by her partner or spouse. These children will already likely be emotionally disturbed, having grown up in violent households, and may even have been physically abused themselves. They are now facing a long and difficult process in overcoming the loss of their mother, and some may well copy the violent behavior they have been subjected to at home.

Recent government estimates suggest around 800,000 minors are living in violent households. Of these, around 200,000 are children of women under a protection order. Minors often play a crucial role in whether a woman decides to report her abuser: a woman may decide to stay in an abusive relationship to provide a home and stability for her child, or she may fear sufficiently for their safety and wellbeing to try to leave. In 2013, six children were murdered by their mother’s partner or husband.

The cuts are also creating a feeling among vulnerable women that they have nowhere to turn, says Laura Carro, a psychologist specializing in gender-specific violence, which means growing numbers of women are not reporting attacks to the police. There has been a nine-percent drop in reports of male-on-female violence over the last three years, which Martínez says has nothing to do with any reduction of abuse in the home.

Around 22 percent of Spanish women say they have experienced gender-specific violence at least once in their lives, yet the number of reports over the last decade has never exceeded more than 130,000 annually.

In extreme cases such as murder, only one in three victims had made a complaint to the police about the man who ended up taking their lives. Of the 17 women officially reported as having been killed by their partners this year, only five had told the authorities about previous attacks. None of the five women killed this week had reported their partners to the police over earlier incidents.

The Socialist Party’s number two, Elena Valenciano, brought up the recent spate of murders in Congress on March 18, describing the situation facing many women as “a national emergency.” Her party and others in opposition accuse the government of failing to make tackling male violence against women a priority.

The Health Ministry denies this, saying its Social Services and Equality Department is organizing a forum with a range of associations and experts on male violence against women to look at how effective current legislation has proved. Secretary of state for equality Susana Camarero is reportedly trying to improve coordination between the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for the police force, and the General Council of the Judiciary, which oversees the country’s legal system.

Ángela Cerrillos, president of Themis, an association of female jurists, says better coordination is key. She believes that one of the main problems in combating gender-specific violence is that the laws introduced a decade ago are simply not being applied as they were meant. “A great many requests for restraining orders against violent men are simply refused by the courts, while complaints are shelved due to lack of evidence. And this lack of response by the judicial system prevents a lot of women from lodging complaints. The thought of returning home head bowed is an important element that puts a lot of women off going to the authorities: this is the reality that many women see around them,” she says.

One way to encourage women to speak out about the abuse they suffer, say Cerrillos and others, would be for the media to give more coverage to the sentences handed down by the courts to men convicted of abusing their partners and wives.

“It is important that society understands that these are crimes that will not go unpunished. They also help to make some men think twice before lashing out,” says Carro.

Around 22 percent of Spanish women say they have experienced gender violence at least once 

As of January 31 this year, there were 5,461 men in jail for crimes of gender violence. Making this kind of information more widely known, argues Martínez, would help diminish the sense of impunity that she believes exists at the moment. She is also calling on the government to continue awareness campaigns in the media, and not just by telling women or children who find themselves in abusive relationships to go to the police – it should be remembered that only two percent of reports are made by the families or friends of abused women. The aim should be to strengthen the belief in society at large that violence will not be tolerated and that actions have consequences.

There have been fewer awareness campaigns in the mass media over the last three years compared to a decade ago, although Camerero is considering re-establishing them, based on the results of a nationwide survey. According to sources who took part in the poll, only 60 percent of the population is aware that there is a law covering gender-specific violence, although just over 70 percent of those surveyed knew that the 016 free helpline for abused women does not show up on telephone bills.

The experts say that other measures are required, particularly to protect older women, who must often overcome their own reluctance to recognize that there is a problem before they can begin to do something about it. Similarly, there are many women living in Spain who have come here from abroad to work, and have no friends to confide in, as was the case of the Brazilian woman murdered in the Basque Country on Monday, who was alone there with her two children. One suggestion is to begin using the social networks to inform women about the help available if they are stuck in an abusive and violent relationship.

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