Spain's lesson on fighting spousal abuse

As European leaders convene in Madrid to tackle the problem, many in Spain feel legislation alone may not be enough.

Margarita's partner – a university ethics professor – had abused her from the beginning of their 14-year relationship. But after she got pregnant with their first daughter, the violence became intolerable. Still, she didn't file her first police complaint for six years.

"Domestic violence kills your self-esteem, and I needed help," says Margarita (not her real name). "But there's not much of a tradition in Spain of protecting women or of punishing offenders."

In 2005, the country seemed ready to chart a different path when its newly elected Socialist government introduced sweeping domestic-violence legislation. Yet almost two years after the law went into effect, Spanish courts are flooded with spousal-abuse cases and the number of women killed by their partners has risen.

Indeed, as officials from around Europe convene at a Madrid conference Monday to kick off a continentwide campaign against domestic violence, many in Spain have realized that legislation alone can't solve the problem.

"The law was a big step forward," says Eva Suarez, head of Amnesty International's domestic-violence project in Spain. "But a lot remains to be done before the rights that women have on paper become a reality."

Last Thursday, the number of women killed by their partners this year reached 61, surpassing 2005's total of 60. That number is lower than the 95 women killed so far this year in France, or the roughly two women killed each week in Britain. It also falls proportionately below rates in Denmark, Finland, and Sweden. But the problem is severe enough that Spain approved unusually comprehensive legislation to combat it.

The Law for Comprehensive Protection Against Domestic Violence, which went into effect in January 2005, stiffened penalties against abusers, provided greater social assistance to abused women, and created special courts and a government delegation dedicated to combating "gender violence." Unlike legislation in other European countries that treats prevention, punishment, and aid to victims as separate concerns, Spain's law does everything from appointing special prosecutors to providing victims with financial support to calling for less sexism in advertising.

That holistic approach was singled out in a report this year to the Council of Europe, the body organizing Monday's conference. In the latest of its efforts to secure the rights of women across the continent, the council is using the conference as a springboard for its "Campaign to Combat Violence against Women, including Domestic Violence." Through the campaign, which will run through March 2008, the council hopes to raise awareness, urge member states to deliver concrete results, and promote the implementation of effective measures for preventing and combating violence against women. Is the Spanish law one such measure? To be sure, it has had its successes.

"Before, there were no specific resources for domestic-violence victims. Now, there are," says Ana Herranz, a social worker who administers the Program for Abused Women under the direction of the Women's Institute in Madrid. "The fact that you can now denounce your abuser and get a restraining order, and that the man has to leave the house is an important change; it diminishes the degree to which women have to hide."

Better awareness of the problem has also dramatically augmented the numbers of women who report abuse; more than 100,000 have done so this year.

"We've seen a fourfold rise in the number of complaints filed by women in the past decade, yet just a small increase in the number of deaths," says Ángeles Álvarez, director of the domestic violence task force at Madrid's Women's Foundation. "So the situation has actually improved."

Nevertheless, there are clear failures. Thirty percent of the women killed this year had filed complaints against their partners. And the fact that Spain's death toll this year surpasses that of prelegislation years (50 victims in 2001; 54 in 2002), has many suggesting that the law has not been adequately enforced. Speaking at the Women's Foundation offices, which buzz with activity as staff members work phones at shared desks, Ms. Álvarez contends that the legal, social, and medical workers provided for by the law have not been adequately trained.

"We haven't seen real enforcement of the restraining orders," she adds. "And without enforcement, the orders are worthless." The jump in the number of legal complaints has also overwhelmed the 27 courts created to deal with domestic violence. "It's hard work taking care of this avalanche of abused women," says Ana Eisman, one of 260 court workers who earlier this month protested "intolerable" labor conditions.

"The government didn't foresee all the problems that would be involved in applying the new law, and we workers have been exploited," she says. "Our shifts are supposed to end at 3 p.m., but we usually have to stay until 7."

Yet this scarcity of resources may be less an obstacle than entrenched attitudes toward women. "We have to educate and reeducate an entire society," said Soledad Cazorla, prosecutor in Madrid's domestic-violence court, in an interview with El País newspaper. "We have to learn to believe in equality."

Ana María Pérez del Campo, president of the Foundation for Separated and Divorced Women, adds that Spaniards still resist taking domestic violence seriously. "Women here are denied credibility. For years, women have been denouncing domestic abuse, yet only 10 percent of their complaints are processed [in the courts]."

Margarita, who has lived free of her partner's abuse for three years, agrees that there is much to be done. "Domestic violence is a crime now," she says. "But that doesn't resolve the problem. The law is more talk than reality."

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