Spain works to change 'machismo' culture of abuse

After a high-profile case drew attention to domestic violence,killings by partners dropped by half last year.

"I killed her because she was mine," they used to say in Spain, where women have long been used to second-class citizenship.

But in the past year, an unprecedented campaign against terrorismo familiar, as domestic violence is known, has reduced by half the number of women murdered by abusive partners.

The catalyst for action was the December 1997 killing of Ana Orantes, who was set on fire by her ex-husband in a case that drew nationwide attention. It later emerged that three weeks earlier, Ms. Orantes had appeared on a TV talk show to describe in detail the abuse she had suffered while married. When he saw the show, her former husband told friends he would kill her.

In 1997, 91 women were murdered by their partners or former partners in Spain, a country of 40 million people. In 1996, the number was similar, at 97.

But in 1998, the figure dropped dramatically, although there is a dispute over the exact numbers. Police record 33 women killed by partners in the first 11 months of 1998, while women's groups put the total at 53.

"I believe the fall in numbers came about because of pressure from the women's movement on society and on the judicial system," says Isabel Gutierrez of the Madrid women's group We Ourselves and a founding member of an antiviolence forum in the city. "Until then, judges were not really punishing men for domestic violence, they were not applying the law rigorously."

In the US, with its population of 271 million, 4,000 women are killed each year by their partners.

Mercedes is typical of women in abusive relationships. On their first wedding anniversary, she and her husband went out to celebrate. He drank too much, she insisted they take a taxi home, and he hit her. The next day he sheepishly begged her forgiveness.

"I didn't press charges because I wanted to give him a chance," says Mercedes, who never once spoke her husband's name during our interview. "I wanted to see if he would change. But I think he changed for the worse."

During the next year the couple began to lead almost separate lives until he returned home late one night and hit Mercedes because she had not made the bed. She abandoned their apartment and is staying with her sister. "I haven't seen him since," she says.

But statistics compiled by women's groups show she may return: 75 percent of women who leave for the first time go back to abusive partners.

"It's easy to forget something fundamental," says Rosa Trapaga, who runs a shelter in the northern city of Oviedo. "The attacker is not some stranger off the street but her husband, the father of her children, the man she fell in love with."

It was not so long ago that women in Spain were unable to travel abroad or to open bank accounts without the permission of a husband or father. Such laws were the norm during the 1939-1975 Franco dictatorship, and there was no legal impediment to mistreating your wife until the late 1960s.

SPAIN has undergone fundamental changes, however, since its return to democratic rule some 20 years ago. It joined the European Union in 1986 and saw its economy swell. Women are guaranteed equality by law although inequities still continue, in salaries, for example. Economic dependence still inhibits many women, particularly those in low-paying "female" jobs, from leaving abusers.

The government, meanwhile, has approved a three-year, $60 million action plan led by the Institute for Women within the Social Services and Labor Ministry.

Concepcion Dancausa, the director-general of the institute, says the priorities are to pursue cases where women withdraw charges, to encourage prosecutors to take a more active stance, and to introduce restraining orders where women are at risk. In addition, emotional and psychological abuse will be made an offense.

In Spain, "machismo still exists, and what is worse, subliminal machismo still exists," Ms. Dancausa says. "But many Spanish stereotypes are no longer recognizable. The changes here have been spectacular for many years."

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