Irene and Carmen are 16 and 12 years old, respectively. There is a full moon tonight in Santurtzi, a port town in the northern Spanish province of Bizkaia, in the Basque Country, and it is just before 2am. The local fiestas are in full swing, and concerts from the music groups EraBatera and Sidecar have just finished. It’s time for the two youngsters to head home.
It’s really sad that it’s come to this, but I wouldn’t dare walk to the car on my own
24-year-old woman from Zamudio
They are neighbors, and live a few kilometers away from the festival site. The two of them, along with several other girls, are waiting for a couple of local police officers to take them to their homes. “We don’t dare to go alone, it’s dangerous,” says the elder of the two. They are going to make use of a nighttime accompaniment service that the local council is offering during the celebrations, aimed at protecting attendees from potential sexual assaults, intimidation or other risky situations.
“It’s really sad that it’s come to this, but I wouldn’t dare walk to the car on my own,” says a 24-year-old from Zamudio. “It should be the other way around. The police should have more control over the assailants and ensure the streets are safer, but as that is not happening, we have to have an escort,” she continues.
Juan Núñez, the head of the local police in Santurtzi, leads the first group, made up of women, only one of whom is over 18. They are taken to a 22-seat minibus, which will drop them off at their destination. A security guard accompanies a youngster to her front door, and waits to hear her voice via the intercom to confirm that she is safely inside. “We have to ensure that they are completely safe and that they haven’t suffered any kind of incident on the way to their door.”
The operation is repeated several times during the night, with the service on offer between 2am and 6am. According to the local culture councilor, Danel Bringas, the aim is to “avoid minors being caught up in dangerous situations, in particular in the case of women who live in remote areas where they could be subjected to threats, propositions, unpleasant insinuations or violent situations.”
The service was put in place for the first time last year. A total of 388 people made use of it, 57% of whom were minors and nearly all of whom were women (97.5%). “I have to go home with the municipal [services],” explains Carolina, who is under 18. “If not, my mother won’t let me go out at night.”
“After a certain time of night this all gets crazy,” says another user of the service, in reference to the fiestas. “People don’t know what they are doing and anything could happen to you.”
“The minibus has made the job a lot easier,” explains the head of the security staff. “We’re not a taxi service, we are helping people who feel vulnerable.”
High-profile sexual assault cases
A series of high-profile sexual assault cases have left Spaniards shocked in recent years, including the so-called "Running of the Bulls" case, which saw an 18-year-old woman raped at the 2016 edition of the world-famous Sanfermines fiestas in Pamplona, northern Spain.
Meanwhile, a total of six men are facing trial in Manresa, Catalonia, for allegedly taking it in turns to rape a 14-year-old girl during an open-air gathering of young people, also in 2016.
A second case of alleged gang rape emerged in Manresa last week, with a 17-year-old reporting to police that she had been attacked in a building in the historic quarter of the city. Police have arrested four men aged between 18 and 25 in connection with the case.
And just last Friday, three people were arrested on suspicion of having kidnapped and raped a 25-year-old woman in Barcelona. The alleged victim claims to have been sexually assaulted in an abandoned warehouse in Poblenou after having been abducted from the Nord de Barcelona bus station. A fourth suspect was reported to have been arrested on Monday.
The Cármenes de Santurtzi, as the local fiestas are known, last nine days, and finished this past weekend. The concert area saw as many as 300,000 people attend on certain nights. “No one can be free of the risk of something happening when there are so many people,” explains culture councilor Daniel Bringas. “On the first day of the event there was an arrest for groping. But nothing else has happened since then.”
The minibus makes around seven journeys a day. One young girl has used the service every night, because, she says, she has to use “streets with no lighting” to get home.
“You are doing the right thing by catching the bus, that way you won’t go through what I did,” says a 34-year-old, who opts not to give her name nor details of the incident that befell her in nearby Barakaldo.
Four young men aged 22 and 23 are walking home by themselves, at nearly 3am. They have not opted for assistance on the journey. “I don’t think anything will happen to us,” says one, offering his opinion on the service. “It’s great because lately you hear about some terrible things happening to girls.”
“We’re not trying to establish a model for anyone,” says the head of the security team, but the reality suggests otherwise. The scheme has been put into action in Sestao and Leioa, which are also in Bizkaia. And in the southern province of Cádiz, the local council in Jerez de la Frontera hired the services of the same security company used in Santurtzi in the summer of 2018, to offer the same scheme for its fiestas in May. A total of 233 women opted to be accompanied to their homes.
English version by Simon Hunter.