What life is like for the women and children in Spain under police protection due to gender violence
Two victims, one who uses a monitoring device that warns her if her abuser is close by and another who is monitored via WhatsApp, recount their experiences to EL PAÍS after they reported their partners
Alicia and Sandra remember the precise moment they decided to report their partners’ threatening behavior. “He chased me all over town with the car, he was ready to ram it into my daughter and me,” says Alicia. Sandra found an axe in her house and her husband told her he would be using it to detach her head from her body. Both Alicia and Sandra – not their actual names – went to the police. Their partners were given restraining orders, but the women are still being threatened and live in fear for their lives.
Sandra and Alicia are just two of the more than 53,000 women who are benefitting from police-surveillance measures as victims of violence carried out by male partners or ex-partners. At least 9,000 minors, similar to Alicia and Sandra’s children, are also being monitored to varying degrees. In 44% of gender violence cases currently on the radar, the women have minors in their care (30,226).
Alicia now lives with an electronic monitoring device that tells her where her abuser is at any given time and if he is close enough to harm her. Sandra is waiting for a call from the local council that will enable her to leave the family home for good and go to a women’s shelter. Every two days, she receives a WhatsApp message from a police officer asking her how things are going. When she informed the Civil Guard that she and her three children still run into her husband in town, she was told: “Call us if you see him again.” To which she muttered to herself: “If I see him again, he might kill me.”
The International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women is celebrated worldwide on November 25. In Spain, there are 53,111 female domestic abuse victims who are getting some form of police protection. This figure includes the 37,103 victims registered in October in the Interior Ministry’s VioGen system, which focuses on asking the women a series of pre-established questions to assess their risk, in 15 autonomous regions plus Ceuta and Melilla, plus another 10,954 in Catalonia, according to data from the Catalonian regional Mossos d’Esquadra police force, and 5,054 more in the Basque Country, according to figures from its Ertzaintza force. VioGen specifies 28,507 women at low risk, 8,061 at medium risk, 526 at high risk and nine at extreme risk. Catalonia and the Basque Country calculate risk levels differently from the state model, so the detailed data is not comparable. There are also 8,957 children in the VioGen system, excluding those recorded in Catalonia and the Basque Country.
In the most serious cases, such as those of the nine women at extreme risk, 24-hour police monitoring is established. In low-risk cases, police phone numbers are provided so the women in question can call at any time. With women at medium risk, police officers check in “occasionally” at home, work or at the children’s school, either in the morning or at the end of the day. The official protocol recommends giving the victim an electronic monitoring device, such as the one Alicia is carrying. When women are high-risk, they are transferred to a shelter and “frequent” checks at their place of work or children’s school are carried out as well as spot-checks on the abuser’s movements; whatever the nature of the case, it is made clear to him that he is being monitored by the police.
“Everything is standardized and done according to protocol,” explains María Jesús Cantos, head of the Interior Ministry’s Gender Violence department. “In each case, police officers talk to the woman and come up with a personalized plan for both self-protection and police protection, which depends on whether they stay at the family home, in which case it is recommended they change the lock, or they go to a shelter.” More than 27,000 police officers are involved in these monitoring measures in various capacities, according to data from the Interior Ministry, which does not include the Basque and Catalan regional police. But there are only around 2,100 National Police officers and Civil Guards who are specialized in domestic violence, together with 200 Catalan and 74 Basque officers.
When it comes to the cost of the police and other officials protecting victims of gender violence, there is no official figure, according to an Interior Ministry spokesman. Spain spends almost €16 billion on combating domestic violence, a sum that includes lost work hours, healthcare and forensic analysis, according to the report “Estimating the costs of gender-based violence in the European Union” presented in September by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE). The estimate is partly based on the report “The Impact of Gender Violence in Spain: an assessment of its costs in 2016,” which put the figure at between €256 and €534 million for policing alone, depending on whether it was calculated according to the ratio of police personnel involved or on the number of existing cases.
EL PAÍS interviewed Alicia and Sandra, who are not only benefitting from police surveillance measures, but whose abusers have also been given restraining orders. In both cases, details of their personal circumstances – age, address and nationality – have been omitted to avoid putting them at greater risk.
On constant alert
Alicia carries the tracking device in a blue make-up bag inside her backpack, along with her tissues, chewing gum and a pepper spray. She calls it “the little gadget.” It’s like an old-fashioned Nokia cellphone. And even though it sometimes beeps in the middle of the night, waking her up, even though she doesn’t know where to put it when it goes off among strangers, she would like to carry it around for the rest of her life. Or at least, until her ex is dead, which is what she sometimes wishes for. “Not out of hatred” but so that she and her little girl can live without fear.
The “little gadget” is the electronic monitoring device worn by 2,499 women in Spain by court order. The corresponding aspect of this monitoring measure comes in the form of a bracelet normally attached to the ankle of the abuser. If he comes closer than the stipulated distance – 500 meters in Alicia’s case – her device starts beeping and a message on the screen flashes, telling her that he is close. “The first time you read that message your hair stands on end and you’re scared shitless,” she says. “The next 200 times too, but as you start to see that the police call you right away and it works, it gives you peace of mind.” Alicia is over 40. She works from home for the financial department of a marketing company.
If the device detects that her ex-partner is within 500 meters, Alicia is called by a worker from Cometa, the security service in charge of the system, and that person is called by a policeman. “It gives me a sense of security,” she says. “I hope they never take it away from me.” The psychologist who treats her explains: “There is always the question of what will happen next, sometimes that is their fear. They imagine the day they won’t have protection, especially if the bracelet has been beeping a lot.”
Alicia’s ex-partner has been her only relationship. They started dating when she was a teenager and they were together for 30 years. “I was never happy,” she says.
She showed the police the messages he sent her, the record of insistent calls, the scar from an assault. The court issued a restraining order. Now he is obliged to live outside the municipality. He has gone but, in more than half a year, Alicia’s device has beeped around 200 to 300 times, she says. His family still lives in the same place, near her house, so the alarm can go off a lot. “My daughter doesn’t get scared anymore when the device goes off,” she says.
A specialized policewoman from UFAM, the police unit for women and family matters, calls Alicia every 15 days unless she gets a beep, in which case she calls sooner. Alicia talks as if she were a friend. The officer reminds her that they can accompany her to the trials. These regular calls are very helpful for the victims, according to the psychologist: “They make them feel they are not alone.”
On days when her device beeps a lot and Alicia is out of the house, she calls the Cometa service before she returns home to ask how far away her ex is. “They can tell you whether he’s 550 meters away or 30 kilometers away,” she says. “My fear is not that he will come home, but whether we are far enough away to give me time to get home.” She never spends more time than necessary in the garage; and she always waits for the garage door to close before going into the house. If she is late, she leaves the car in the street: “You have to learn to protect yourself, there’s no alternative,” she says. Both she and her daughter feel safe at home. After Alicia reported her husband’s behavior, they put in a security door.
Home is also the only place in the world where Sandra and her three children feel safe. But at the same time, it has become their prison. They go out as little as possible because they are terrified of running into the man she has reported for abusing her and her children, sometimes in public. The order for a speedy trial that followed, stated the detection of “sufficient evidence of criminality” on behalf of her partner and he was investigated for threatening behavior and also for the habitual abuse of Sandra and her children, who made it clear to the judge that they no longer want to see him.
After the axe episode, Sandra took her children and fled to another town within the Madrid region – to a house given to her temporarily by the family she works for. “They are my guardian angels,” she says. “Without them I wouldn’t be here.”
The female judge ordered her husband to leave the family home where she and her children now live. Officers from the local police keep tabs on her via WhatsApp. Every three days, they send her the same text: “Good morning, how are you? Anything to report?” One day when she didn’t answer, they called her to find out if something was wrong. She was at the supermarket. On another occasion, Sandra’s response was, “I don’t have anything urgent. Just that, if he is in town, ask him not to go out so much so I don’t run into him.”
She and her children have already seen him at the pharmacy and at the bank. She also ran into him at the health clinic. The youngest child saw him one morning from the school window. On that occasion, she alerted the Civil Guard, which is when she was told to call them if she saw him again: “I shake all over if I see him,” she says. “I can’t even pick up the phone.”
Unlike Alicia, Sandra does not carry a device. She says her lawyer asked for one, but the judge argued that, since they live in a small town, it would be beeping continuously and she would be in a constant state of panic.
Judges have ordered the use of electronic monitoring devices in only one of every nine cases in which there are restraining orders. They are still reluctant to issue them and prosecutors and lawyers to ask for them, as sources from the General Council of the Judiciary (CGPJ) recognize. There are more than 3,000 devices currently in use, a figure forecast to rise to 8,000 in 2023. No woman with such a device has been murdered in Spain.
A different future
Sandra has been waiting for two weeks for a call from the social worker at City Hall so that she can go to a shelter with her children. She believes that she will only be safe if they leave the town. She has hardly any income – the Minimum Living Income granted to the family goes into her husband’s bank account. Since she reported him months ago, she has had to fight both panic and bureaucracy. She still speaks in hushed tones when answering the phone, as if he is still there, watching her. Her middle son winces every time the doorbell rings. “We’ll have a hard time getting back to normal,” she says.
Alicia, for her part, is used to the fact that she will be living in a state of angst for a long time to come. “I’m trying to find moments I can actually live until he stops existing or comes to his senses. I can’t spend my whole life in this state of anxiety. I’d rather live three good years than just survive for 30.” She plans to buy a dog to protect them. And in a few years she wants to move somewhere no one knows them. She would like to carry a gun, “but unfortunately here in Spain, it’s not allowed.”
Alicia enjoys going for walks and chatting to the new friends she has made. “I didn’t get together with anyone before, I just lived for him,” she says. She took a trip a few months ago, a short one, a weekend getaway like a teenager. She got a tattoo of the sea. “I know it sounds weird, but I’m happy,” she says. “I think every day about what will happen, but only for a few minutes. Then I forget.”