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Awareness grows, but domestic abuse goes on

New laws aimed at combating domestic violence are having little impact on a long-running problem, though attitudes are starting to change and awareness is growing.


In 1994, Spanish television used to broadcast a reality show called Lo que necesitas es amor, which translates as What you need is love. On one occasion the presenter sought to reunite a couple who had fallen out and was discussing their problems with them in front of the studio audience. At one point she asked the young woman what she didn’t like about her boyfriend. “For example,” she said smiling: “he doesn’t beat you does he?” This prompted nervous titters from the audience, and the young woman squirmed slightly. “Well…” she began. The presenter turned to the hapless boyfriend, and with mock severity asked him: “you don’t beat her do you?” The boyfriend smiled a little shamefacedly and said: “Well, beat, as in really beat her up… no.” The audience collapsed in laughter, while the presenter beamed contentedly.

A decade later, the government of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero took office, and pledged to tackle Spain’s long-standing problem of gender violence. In December of 2004, it passed new legislation to deal with it, as well as creating special courts — and giving them more powers to protect women — while implementing measures such as tagging offenders under restraining orders. At the same time, the police have been told to deal more seriously with domestic violence complaints. These measures have been accompanied by an advertising campaign to increase awareness of the problem, and to encourage women to report assaults by their partners.

But the figures show that barely a quarter of the women who are murdered by their partners had previously reported abuse. Studies show that murder is almost always the final act in long-running story of physical and psychological abuse. So a big part of dealing with the problem is both getting help to women who don’t report violence, and encouraging them to do so. For example, it’s essential that the general practitioners and nurses who treat their physical injuries are aware of the problem and know what signs to look for.

The problem is that the very people who deal with battered women are general practitioners and nurses, and they are overloaded with work and may not take the time to talk to patients about their injuries, or have not been trained to spot the psychological as well as physical signs of abuse.

There are growing numbers of solidarity groups that create environments where women feel they can come forward and report the crime, but women who are being physically and psychologically abused are often isolated, and lack the resources to make contact with such groups.

In a bid to further crack down on the problem, since last year judges are now able to electronically tag men who have been placed under a restraining order with a device that sends out an alarm to a handset controlled by the woman, as well as to the police.

While domestic violence in Spain is becoming more and more visible, the country’s laws and justice system are proving weak instruments to fight it, according to experts from different fields.

One of the main problems of combating domestic violence in Spain has been the long time lag from when a woman denounces her partner and requests protection to when she actually gets protection. In fact, most deaths had been occurring while the woman waited for the authorities to act. Now, once a woman makes a phone call reporting her attacker, the police act immediately to protect her with specialist domestic violence teams.

But the courts are snowed under with cases and are short-staffed, so prosecutions drag on for years, during which time, women who have reported their partners are acutely vulnerable.

Progress in fighting domestic violence is also undermined by delays by judges and police in enforcing court sentences or orders, and the lenient treatment received by perpetrators in some cases.

Politicians support calls for heavier sentences on the men who commit these crimes and making changes to the penal code to ensure psychological harm to a victim — not just physical harm — counts more in sentencing. That said, Spain’s prisons are at bursting point.

Spain is not alone in facing a deep-rooted problem of violence against women, the number of women physically and psychologically abused at home is at alarming levels across Europe, according to a report published by the Council of Europe in March of this year.

Despite tighter laws and policies, domestic violence is on the rise in all levels of society in the developed world, says the report. The Council’s last report in 2006 shows that 12 to 15 percent of European women are abused by their partners.

To give an indication of the problem in Britain — which first began raising awareness of the problem of domestic violence more than three decades ago — two women are murdered every week in England and Wales (with a slightly larger population than Spain) at the hands of their partners or ex-partners, according to the latest report of Women Against Violence in Europe (WAVE), a European network of women’s shelters.

In Italy, violence against women is rising. According to the latest report by the National Statistics Institute, ISTAT, 6.7 million women are estimated to have been victims of physical or sexual violence during their lifetime, out of a population of 60.3 million.

In France, with a similar population, one woman is killed every three days in domestic violence, according to the interior ministry.

Have Spain’s new laws made a difference?

A report published by the Reina Sofia Centre Institute and the Valencian International University in January of this year show that between 2000 and the end of 2009, 629 women were murdered by their partners or ex-partners; that’s an average of 63 a year, and a 17-percent increase overall on the previous decade.

The average age of the aggressors is between 35 and 44, and just over two thirds are Spaniards. Around 10 percent of the men were subject to a restraining order.

The number of reports has risen sharply: in the three years between the creation of the special courts for violence against women in 2005 and the end of 2007, 69,400 men were prosecuted and 48,971 convicted. For the last three years, around 150,000 complaints have been filed annually. But the real scale of the problem is easily grasped by the fact that more than three quarters of women who are killed hadn’t reported any attacks previously.

It is too early to say whether the combination of new legislation and awareness campaigns is really working. The Reina Sofia figures show a 27-percent drop in 2009 on 2008, and an 8.3-percent drop since the government’s legislation was introduced in December 2004.

If the realities of countries like the United Kingdom and France are anything to go by, Spain will have to put huge resources into combating violence against women for a long time, and will also have to continue to keep the issue in the public spotlight.

Policing has a big role to play, as do the courts, but attitudes take time to change. This is where, for example, the media can play an important role. It would be nice to think that the television programme cited above was some distant relic of a long-forgotten approach to entertainment. But as recently as November 2007, daytime television show El diario de Patricia invited Ricardo Navarro as a “surprise” guest on her programme to propose live on television to Svetlana Orlova. Researchers had failed to find out that Ms Orlova had a court restraining order on Navarro after he had been found guilty of abuse. Five days after Ms Orlova’s timid refusal of his marriage request he murdered her.

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Published: May 13 2010
Category: Politics
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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