The pain in Spain

Lee Clark is an experienced social work practitioner who
has worked for a number of local authorities. He is on secondment
from Westminster Council as the practice learning co-ordinator at
Goldsmiths College, University of London. He has a long-standing
interest in issues around domestic violence, child protection and
social work in Europe.

Earlier this year, public anger after the Madrid train bombings
brought to an end the rule of the Popular Party, which had
supported the US-led invasion of Iraq despite overwhelming
opposition from the Spanish public. The change of government has
also brought an unexpected change of emphasis on domestic

The new prime minister, Jos’ Luis Rodr¡guez Zapatero, has
placed combating domestic violence at the heart of the political
change sweeping through Spain. Social workers and women’s groups
have campaigned long and hard for change. And within the first week
of his government coming to power, Zapatero announced plans for
wide-ranging legislation to tackle gender violence.

It was largely because of Ana Orantes – her death by burning to be
precise – that domestic violence in Spain finally captured the
public’s attention. In 1997, aged 60, Orantes mustered the courage
to appear on television and testify to decades of violence from her
husband. She had been unable to win an injunction against him,
despite dozens of complaints to the police. Several days after the
programme was shown, she was dead. Her husband had beaten her, then
doused her with petrol and lit a match.

Six years later parliament passed a protection order that might
have saved Orantes’s life by giving women the option of a
fast-track injunction against a violent partner. Within the first
six months, 1,500 women had sought this protection. More recent
government figures show that about 20 women apply each day for an
injunction. Since 1997, the number of refuges for women suffering
violence has increased from 159 to nearly 300.

While Spanish social workers welcomed the measures introduced by
the previous Popular Party government of Jos’ Aznar, many say there
is still much to be done. The protection order, some say, was a
watered-down result of a broader initiative.

Proponents of more widespread protective legislation point out that
domestic violence is claiming the lives of ever more women: from
the 58 deaths in 1999 to 97 last year and51 already this year. Some
say this is a sign that Spanish women are starting to confront
their tormentors; others say the elevated figures are the result,
at least in part, of more women reporting violence in a society
where, until the mid 1970s, violence to women was not widely
regarded as abhorrent.

Many of the advances made by the previous Aznar government were
quietly reversed by other pieces of its own legislation, such as
the Grandparents Act, which, uniquely in Europe, has enshrined
grandparental rights to contact with their grandchildren. In Spain,
where family solidarity is strong, critics have seen this as a way
for abusive fathers to circumvent injunctions.

Even when the courts have the weapons to strike against domestic
violence, they are often used in minimal fashion or not at all. In
2003 an investigation was begun into a judge in Barcelona for
ignoring 13 complaints from Ana Maria Fabregas before she was
murdered by her husband with a hammer.

Around the same time a court ruled that a 13-year-old girl’s sexual
experience was a mitigating factor in her rape. And the all-male
supreme court cited the drunkenness of a woman’s violent assailant
as a reason for leniency in sentencing.

In the run-up to March’s election, Zapatero described Spain’s
domestic violence record as the country’s “worst shame”. Within a
week of taking office, the new prime minister made a gender
violence law a priority of his government, and new domestic
violence legislation is already in the pipeline. Spanish social
workers wait to see what new powers this legislation will contain
and whether they will lead to real changes.

Domestic violence, once a taboo in Spain, is finally the subject of
growing and widespread awareness. The best film award at this
year’s Spanish Oscars, the Goyas, was won by I Give You My
, about domestic violence. Television and print media now
regularly feature gender violence cases. There is a growing demand
for treatment programmes for violent abusers but there are only two
centres in Spain that work with men to try to change their

So Zapatero was tapping into public sentiment when, hours after
being sworn in as prime minister, he publicly visited a woman in
hospital who had been beaten and burned by her husband.

His government says the country’s problem is a wider one,
concerning the image of women in Spanish society in general. There
is talk of children having ethics and equality classes, a review of
how women are portrayed in the media and a wide-ranging improvement
of taxation, employment and housing provision for women.

Zapatero has promised to make gender equality “an emblematic task”
and has started with his own cabinet. Eight of the 16 posts are
occupied by women, including Spain’s first female deputy prime

The Spanish have a phrase: “I broke it because it was mine.” For
many Spanish women and their children, it sums up their experience
of domestic violence at the hands of men. Things may soon be


Coverage in the British media of the election of Jos‚ Luis
Rodriguez Zapatero’s government in Spain has centred on the
country’s involvement in the Iraq war and the aftermath of the
Madrid train bombings. This article considers the apparently
positive response of the new government to a growing national
debate about the impact of domestic violence and the hopes for
change among social workers.

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