} Samuel Loewenberg - Journalist
Samuel Lowenberg - Independent Journalist biography articles articles

Domestic violence in Spain

The Lancet  February 5, 2005

Spain's new socialist government has made tackling violence against women a priority. New legislation promises harsh penalties for offenders and extra training for doctors. But the country's real achievement is recognising the importance of prevention. Samuel Loewenberg reports.

Last year, 67 women were murdered in Spain by their current or former husbands or boyfriends. 3 weeks into 2005, four women have already been slain.

Nobody knows how many thousands more suffer regular abuse from their partners, since many Spanish women, fearing for their lives and their livelihoods, may never come forward.

It is this situation that the newly elected Spanish government plans to change. At the end of last year, the Socialist-led parliament enacted a farreaching series of laws to combat violence against women. The laws not only increase the penalties for domestic violence, but also shorten the time it takes to get a divorce-from more than 2 years to less than 6 months.

The government has also pledged more money to shelters, to improve training for doctors, psychologists, and judges, and to fund a public education campaign in the press and schools.

The laws are among the first of their kind in Europe, not just because they penalise perpetrators, but because of the emphasis on prevention. One of the key components of the legislation is education of health professionals.

Spain's medical community had long ignored the problem of domestic violence, says Francisco Orengo, a psychiatrist who specialises in treating abused women. "Until fairly recently, doctors saw it as a personal problem. They thought they were responsible for gastroenteritis or cardiac arrest, but not for social problems. At most they would send the women to social workers." With the passage of the new laws, the Ministry of Health will help doctors and other medical professionals recognise signs of domestic violence, such as eating disorders or depression. It will also teach them how to intervene and seek specialised social and legal help.

Currently, the Ministry of Health is considering proposals on how to develop specialised training programmes and how to make facilities and counselling more accessible to abused women.

Additional training in domestic violence is voluntary at the moment, but it could be mandatory in a few years, says Francisco Toquero Delatorre, the Vice Secretary of the Spanish Medical Association. "About 4 years ago there was not the sensibility there is today among doctors. These days doctors recognise it is a public-health problem." Spanish society as a whole is only just beginning to recognise the problem, says Enriqueta Chicano Javega, president of the Progressive Women's Foundation in Madrid. Chicano, who worked with parliamentarians to craft the legislation, says that under the Franco regime domestic violence was dismissed as a "crime of passion".

Women could not even have a bank account or travel without the permission of their husbands. Women gained rights in the 1980s, says Chicano, "but the rest of society hasn't moved on".

The Spanish Church, one of the most conservative Catholic establishments in the world, has vowed to fight the Socialists' reforms. Church representatives attribute domestic violence to sexual liberation and the fact that so many women are now working. "This is the opinion of our bishops, that this constant increase of violence against women is due in good part to the decline of the traditional family", says Agustín del Agua, a spokesman for the Bishops conference. Legalising abortion, he says, is "unthinkable".

Supporters of the new laws emphasise that domestic violence should not be dismissed as a particular product of Spanish machismo. "This is a problem of chauvinist culture, but it's not only here. It is happening in other European countries", says María Virtudes Monteserín Rodríguez, the Socialist party spokesperson for the Parliamentary Committee on Women's Rights. She cites a recent survey by the EU that found that despite their long histories of gender equality, some Nordic countries have equivalent rates of spousal abuse as Spain.

Meanwhile, there is growing public recognition of domestic violence in Spanish popular culture. Last year, the best picture award in the Goyas, the Spanish equivalent of the Oscars, went to Te Doy Mis Ojos (I Give You My Eyes), a story of a battered woman who confronts denial in her family, the authorities, and in herself.

Orengo, who trains doctors and nurses to recognise signs of domestic violence, says that his first goal is to explain to his pupils that domestic violence is a public-health problem. Then, he says, he wants to help expose affected women to the new treatment centres, and "give them the sensation they can do something". Samuel Loewenberg

By Sam Loewenberg