In 2019, Spain hit a dark milestone: 55 women were killed by either their partners or ex-partners. The total number of gender-based murders has exceeded 1,000 since the country began keeping official records seven years ago – surpassing the former record held in 2015.
This increase follows the 15th anniversary of the Organic Law of Comprehensive Protection Measures against Gender Violence, a piece of groundbreaking legislation pushed forward by the PSOE government of former Spanish President, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. The law serves several purposes, but most notably, has made it appropriate to bring issues, once solely addressed in private, to courts and authorities, and has also succeeded in decreasing the number of victims. But as the far-right continues to solidify its place in the Spanish government, the strength of this law and the social perceptions of gender-based violence appear to be changing.
Spain is not the only Southern European country struggling to combat gender and domestic violence. As of November 2019, there were 95 femicides in Italy, with the country also seeing an uptick in domestic abuse, rapes, and stalking cases. In the first two months of 2019, there were eleven reported murders in Portugal – the highest number in a decade – and even though France has committed to addressing domestic violence in upcoming years, government figures indicate that a woman is killed by a partner or ex-partner every three days.
The reason behind this violence is complex, but there are usually a few factors at play, such as the enduring stereotype of women being considered second-class citizens, belonging at home and in “caring professions”, including healthcare and education. Many reported cases involve a woman attempting to leave a partner, with some succeeding, but being hunted down after speaking out.
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Throughout Southern Europe, institutions are widely unable to protect those looking for help from the state. Octavio Salazar, a legal expert specialising in gender issues, points to Spain’s faulty risk-detection systems, and Pilar Llop, the government’s delegate for gender-violence issues, agrees: “The risk factors are not being properly assessed…Our current police and forensic-based tools are either non-existent or insufficient or deficient”.
The reporting process states that an initial assessment must be conducted by the police via a questionnaire for victims that then goes through a computer system. The system assigns a risk level and this result goes to judicial authorities, where judges can request expert units go out in search of more information. It is commonly found, however, that these units may not exist in certain regions, and most likely do not have sufficient resources to conduct a proper investigation.
But one of the strongest factors at play in Spain is the rhetoric of its government. Its emerging far-right party, Vox, has argued that “violence has no gender”, and according to coroner and former government delegate for gender violence Miguel Lorente, this argument has some staying power in the country: “You can’t say that the rise [in gender violence deaths] is exclusively down to the messages against the protection of women that are being put out there by the far right, but it is clear that it’s a factor that is having an influence”. Even after protestors in 250 towns and cities across the country declared a “feminist emergency” in September, Vox has been unrelenting.
Now the country’s third-largest party, Vox has made calls to repeal laws protecting women, and has demanded that funds for combating gender violence be lessened. In November 2019, the party was the only one in Madrid to refuse to sign an all-party declaration against gender violence. While this drew the ire of affiliate parties and civil rights groups, Vox has not slowed down in its insistence that these pro-women marches and protests and the resulting legislation is one-sided.
Rocío Monasterio, prominent female Vox member, has said, “I thought all Spaniards were equal before the law, but it turns out that women have privileges, which seems to me unfair for the man”. She also has claimed that men have little recourse to defend themselves in these cases: “To have a law that does not respect the presumption of innocence seems to me to be worthy of a third-world country”.
Spain is far from the only country whose government is failing to address the concerns surrounding domestic violence. Italy’s Minister for Equal Opportunities was abolished after 2013, and the only person currently in charge of policies to combat gender violence is a man who works as the undersecretary for equal opportunities. Lack of government participation in the issue has created some startling statistics; in Italy, approximately 150 women are killed by their abusive partners yearly, which is one of the highest rates in Europe and ranks with Germany and the United Kingdom, even though Italy’s population is smaller than both those countries.
In France, marches have compelled Prime Minister Édouard Philippe to increase awareness of gender-based violence in schools, hire specialised social workers in police stations, and increase measures to avoid repeat offenses with violent partners (among other policies). But funding may not be enough to cover all these increases, and many advocacy groups say they don’t go far enough.
Despite widespread marches, collective silence at all levels – often coupled with a deeply ingrained fear of speaking out – remains the biggest issue. Protests have popped up throughout European countries in the past year, but without government policies and financial backing to support them, the remonstrations largely fall upon deaf ears, with women continuing to pay the ultimate price.