Development & Aid, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Population

RIGHTS: Spain Has New Law on Domestic Violence

Alicia Fraerman

MADRID, Dec 22 2004 (IPS) - Europe’s first law specifically cracking down on gender-based violence was unanimously passed Wednesday in Spain, and received a hearty welcome from activists, although it did not escape criticism from the right.

The new law provides for the creation of special courts and integral rehabilitation centres, improved assistance to victims, and a series of procedures aimed at protecting women under threat.

Representatives of women’s associations, whose work was praised by the lawmakers, had a special place reserved for them in Congress Wednesday.

Enriqueta Chicano, president of the Federation of Progressive Women and one of the activists who has fought the hardest against gender violence, told IPS that the new law is “definitely positive.”

But she warned that patience would be needed until the law could be fully put into effect, because “this is not a miracle, but an instrument that we have to know how to use, and want to use, in order for it to be effective.”

The law is the final result of the first bill sent to parliament by the government of socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero after he took office on Apr. 17. By presenting the bill, he lived up to his campaign pledge of making the fight against domestic violence a top priority.

After the vote in Congress, Zapatero said the law would be “a powerful instrument to eradicate, once and for all, the domination that so many women suffer.” This is “a law of the women who have fought so hard and have defended so many women,” he added.

So far this year, 72 women have been killed in Spain, 69 of them at the hands of their partners or ex-partners.

The latest available figures indicate that in the first half of 2004, 47,000 complaints were filed for domestic abuse, only two percent of which were brought by men, according to the Observatory Against Domestic and Gender Violence.

The bill, which was approved by the lower house in October, was then amended by the Senate, and the final version was ratified by the lower house on Wednesday.

Among the reforms included in the new law are guarantees of equal rights for all victims, including economic aid regardless of the victim’s age, and the creation of a fund to help cover alimony and child support in the case of separations and divorces.

The legislators of the right-wing Popular Party (PP), the main opposition force, voted in favour of the new law, although the party argued that protection from domestic violence should be made available to all victims, not only women.

That stance has generated debate since the draft law was first introduced in May, because both the PP and the General Council of the judicial branch are opposed to legislation involving affirmative action, or positive discrimination, in favour of women.

The law should not have focused specifically on violence against women, and should not have taken into consideration the gender of the victims, they argued.

However, that position was rejected in both houses of Congress.

Gregorio Peces-Barba, one of the seven drafters of Spain’s constitution and the president of the legislature that approved it, criticised the position taken by the General Council, saying positive discrimination is necessary because it guarantees that “the social vulnerability of the victims will be addressed.”

But sociology Professor Amando de Miguel came out against the new law, saying it would aggravate the violence, and give rise to false charges of abuse. “Denunciations of mistreatment will be used to obtain advantages in cases of divorce or separation,” he argued.

In one of the speeches given before Wednesday’s final vote, Mercé Pigem, the parliamentary spokeswoman for the Catalan national coalition Convergencia i Unió, said she was voting for the new law.

She added, however, that domestic violence cannot be overcome by passing a law, but only “when equality becomes a reality that is internalised by everyone, and not, as is the case now, merely an ideal.”

Chicano said that two recent examples show that social awareness on the problem is not what it should be: the reduction of the sentence handed down to a man who molested a disabled girl, and the release from prison of a Muslim cleric who wrote a book that stated that men had a right to beat their wives.

The imam of the mosque in the city of Fuengirola in southern Spain, Mohammed Kamal Mostafa, was serving a prison sentence for providing advice for men on how to beat their wives without leaving marks, in his book “Women in Islam”.

The imam wrote that the blows should be concentrated on the hands and feet, and should not be administered with “too thick a rod so as not to leave scars”, and “shouldn’t be too strong or too hard, because the aim is to cause psychological suffering.”

Furthermore, sensitive parts of the body, such as the face, head, breasts or stomach, should not be hit, Mostafa added.

But the sentence was overturned on appeal on Tuesday in Barcelona, and the imam was freed on the condition that he attend a course on constitutional freedoms and human rights.

Chicano described the ruling as “an extremely serious step backwards, because (Mostafa’s) attitude is taken as normal, and because the decision indicates that a crime can be paid for by taking a course.”

Criticism of the ruling also came from the ranks of the government. Vice-President María Teresa Fernández de la Vega said Mostafa’s release “sets a bad example, and is an absurd” move that “does not contribute in the least to reinforcing the idea of zero tolerance that has been adopted by Spanish society.”

The government’s secretary of equality, María Isabel Montaño, stressed that the legal decision “left the perception that crimes against women can go unpunished.”

The Supreme Court, meanwhile, slashed the prison sentence handed down to a man who pressed a 13-year-old disabled girl against a wall, “kissing her on the mouth, introducing his tongue, and fondling her breasts and vagina through her clothes,” according to the original ruling.

During the 10-minute attack, he tried to rape her, until the girl, who was screaming, “was able to escape and run off, crying,” the decision adds.

But the Supreme Court cut the sentence from seven to two years and nine months on the argument that the case was one of “abuse” rather than “sexual aggression”, because neither violence nor intimidation was supposedly involved.

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