Gender violence: Spain’s unending nightmare

OPINION

The allegations of sexual assault made against a far-right member of the Spanish Parliament have shone the spotlight once more on the country’s institutionalised problem with gender violence. For decades, activists have been clamouring for an overhaul of the political and legal approach to the question of sexual consent and the plague of gender-based violence in Spain. Progress appeared to come in March 2020 when the Socialist government approved a new law aimed at removing ambiguity in rape cases, adopting an ‘only yes means yes’ approach. But in a country which has reported a steady increase in the number of sexual assaults over the past five years, and where the far-right, anti-feminist Vox party is now the third force in parliament, many fear that this reform is too little, too late.

On 13th November 2020, Carlos Fernández-Roca Suárez, an MP for the far-right Vox party, announced from a now-deleted Twitter account his resignation: ‘On Wednesday, after learning of the complaint against me, I immediately and voluntarily made myself available to the police. Although I am innocent, I renounced my seat in Parliament on Thursday morning.’ The complaint in question was made by a young woman in her early twenties, who alleged that Fernández-Roca took advantage of her inebriated state and had sex with her whilst she was unable to consent, in an attack which left her bleeding. 

The now ex-MP has maintained the support of his party (Vox). Iván Espinosa de los Monteros, who holds a position in the far-right party second only to leader Santiago Abascal, took to Twitter to praise Fernández-Roca’s ‘exemplary reaction’ to the accusation and wished him ‘much courage’.

Given Vox’s abysmal track record on issues of gender-based violence, it comes as little surprise that they are continuing to support their ex-MP in spite of such serious allegations. In November 2019, Vox refused to sign an all-party declaration by Madrid city council condemning violence against women, drawing outrage from civil rights groups and embarrassing their Conservative political allies. Adding insult to injury, Vox’s Javier Ortega Smith, a member of both Madrid city council and the national parliament, defended the decision as such: ‘There are also men who suffer violence from women and are killed by their wives.’ 

In spite of Vox’s continuing to push a harmful anti-feminist agenda, Spain’s left-wing coalition government thankfully appears to be taking the issue of gender-based violence seriously. In March 2020, the Sánchez-led coalition approved a bill that would define all non-consensual sex as rape, acting on a pre-election promise to strengthen laws relating to women’s rights. According to a draft of the Sexual Freedom Act, as the proposed law is named, ‘consent does not exist if the victim has not clearly shown by conclusive and unequivocal outwards expression … her express wish to take part in the act.’ 

Combatting violence against women has been high on the political agenda in recent years. In 2017, the infamous la manada (‘wolf pack’) case rightfully provoked disgust around the world, when a Spanish court cleared five men of gang-raping an 18-year-old woman. As the victim did not fight back during the horrific attack, the court deemed that ‘no violence or intimidation’ had been used, which were requisites for bringing a ruling of rape under pre-existing law. Protests broke out across Spain when the men were found guilty of the lesser offence of sexual abuse, and public anger only increased in 2018 when an appeal court upheld the original ruling.

Spain’s Supreme Court eventually ruled in 2019 that the men had indeed committed gang rape and increased their sentences from 9 to 15 years. But a well-founded public anger at the draconian treatment of the victim remained. The preceding trials had been a cross-examination of the young woman rather than of the men who had attacked her. Perhaps even more jarring was a police report taken after the incident, describing the victim as maintaining a ‘passive or neutral’ attitude throughout the gang rape, and much court time was given to discussing how she had been dressed and how much she had been drinking.

Perhaps even more jarring was a police report […] describing the victim as maintaining a ‘passive or neutral’ attitude throughout the gang rape.

The la manada trials highlighted Spain’s systemic problem with gender-based violence: a woman is violated first by the man who attacks her, and then by a legal system ready to blame her for what she has endured and deny her any real justice. In spite of the newly elected Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, promising an immediate investigation into the country’s rape laws in 2018, just one year later a Barcelona Court acquitted five men of gang-raping a 14-year-old. In a case that became known as La manada de Manresa for its similarities to the 2017 case (Manresa being the Catalonian town where the attack took place) the court ruled that because the victim was in an ‘unconscious state’, the men had not used violence or intimidation. The very idea that rape can somehow be nonviolent is a dangerous falsehood and gross insult to survivors.

The very idea that rape can somehow be nonviolent is a dangerous falsehood and gross insult to survivors.

So, whilst we can look to the approval of the 2020 consent legislation as a welcome step in the fight to improve women’s rights, there is much to suggest that Spain’s problem with gender violence remains too deeply ingrained in its social fabric to be remedied by one new law. Although many took to the streets in protest against the rulings in the la manada trials, the success of the far-right and anti-feminist Vox party in the November 2019 general elections suggests that the issue of gender violence is far from at the forefront of the national consciousness.

Vox, campaigning on a nationalist, anti-immigration and anti-women’s rights platform, more than doubled their seats in the last election from 24 to 52, becoming the third force in the Spanish parliament. Vox’s problem with the question of sexual consent is not just apparent in their unequivocal support for their ex-MP accused of rape, but also in their opposition to the country’s new consent law. 

So, whilst we can look to the approval of the 2020 consent legislation as a welcome step […] there is much to suggest that Spain’s problem with gender violence remains too deeply ingrained in its social fabric to be remedied by one new law.

Spain, like much of Western Europe, has been unable to escape the rising tide of right-wing populism, which brings with it the erosion of rights for minority groups and women. In one of the most bizarre and blatantly untrue pieces of anti-immigration rhetoric, Vox leader Santiago Abascal asserted in February 2020 that almost 70% of gang rapes in Spain are perpetrated by foreigners. This is false.

Moreover, through whipping up hatred against minorities, Vox is leaving female migrants further vulnerable to sexual abuse. In recent years, horrific stories have emerged of systematic sexual abuse of female agricultural workers in southern Spain. Due to their undocumented status, these women are left with little legal recourse. Coupled with the current derisory state of the Spanish justice system in regard to women’s rights, it is unlikely that these exploited migrants will ever find justice. In appropriating the issue of gender violence for their own racist rhetoric, Vox is ensuring that such abuses continue unchecked.

The plague of gender violence in Spain is more endemic than ever. The interior ministry has reported a steady increase in sexual assaults nationally over the past five years. According to the latest figures from the human rights organisation Geoviolencia Sexual, there were a record 73 cases of sexual assault carried out by multiple offenders in Spain in 2019, compared to just 14 in 2017. Whilst the 2020 consent law is a welcome step, it is unlikely to undo overnight the damage caused by a age-old, systematic neglect of women’s rights. Political disinterest and an inept legal system has allowed rape culture to flourish unchecked in the home, in places of work, and in the political arena. Most importantly, as long as far-right movements like Vox remain an influential force in Spanish politics, we can expect women’s freedoms to remain forgotten, dismissed, and unheard.

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