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SPAIN: No Turning Back from Path to Gender Equality

Alicia Fraerman

MADRID, Mar 15 2007 (IPS) - The approval of a gender equality law by the Spanish parliament Thursday and the signing of a United Nations convention to fight gender violence has set Spain firmly on the path to gender equality, despite the opposition of conservatives.

Parliament passed the law on equality between men and women with the unanimous support of all political parties except the main opposition force, the centre-right Popular Party (PP), whose lawmakers abstained from voting.

After the law was approved, socialist Prime Minister José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero said the aim was to transform Spanish society “radically, and for good.”

Zapatero’s administration is the first Spanish government to have the same number of female as male cabinet ministers (eight each). And government spokeswoman María Teresa Fernández de la Vega, the first vice president, plays an especially strong role in the executive branch.

Marta Ortiz, chair of the Spanish coordinator for the European Women’s Lobby (EWL), told IPS that despite the PP’s opposition to the law, it will even benefit the party’s own female members.

The party will have no choice but to live up to the new requirements, by naming, for instance, an equal number of women as men to its board, and by fielding at least 40 percent female candidates in elections.

Female PP voters and activists will also benefit in their jobs, thanks to expanded maternity leave, enforcement of gender equality in the workplace, and new efforts to fight discrimination and sexual harassment, she added.

Enriqueta Chicano, president of the Progressive Women’s Foundation in Madrid, told IPS that the PP is opposed to any move by the governing socialist (PSOE) party, even initiatives that are merely aimed at complying with European Union norms.

The sticking point for the PP was the idea of legislating parity, “because they believe we all are already equals, and that nothing has to be changed, which is simply not true,” said Chicano.

The activist said she was very pleased with the new law because it “rounds out a series of previously adopted measures, such as the law on gender violence, and modifies in practice 23 laws that are applicable in different spheres.”

Under the new legislation, companies with more than 250 employees will have to negotiate plans to achieve gender equality, for example, by setting a goal for the company boards to be made up of at least 40 percent women within eight years.

The law also provides 13 days of paternity leave for new fathers, which will gradually be expanded to four months by 2013. There will also be special social security benefits for mothers under the age of 21.

One of the aspects of the law opposed by the PP is that it stipulates that the lists of candidates for the forthcoming May 27 elections in the autonomous communities (regions) and municipalities must already include at least 40 percent women, except in small towns of less that 5,000 people.

Deputy Susana Camarero, a PP parliamentary spokeswoman on equality policies, said that this was the first time in Spanish history that an electoral law had been changed without the backing of both the largest political parties.

Camarero called Zapatero “an armchair feminist who does not listen to women,” and argued that the law is for the élite, because “it doesn’t confront the real problems,” which she did not specify, “and is not ambitious enough.”

After the vote in parliament, Zapatero joined about 50 women representing feminist organisations for a photo-op on the steps of the Congress building, while the women chanted “Ista, ista, ista; Zapatero feminista!” (Zapatero is a feminist!)

PP secretary-general Ángel Acebes, after describing the law as absurd and saying it fomented social exclusion, gave an example of why his party opposed it. He said that the PP would not be able to present an all-woman list of candidates in the Tenerife municipality of Garachico, as they had planned, because the law also states that at least 40 percent of the candidates must be men.

Some small parties that supported the law said they were not entirely happy about certain points, and argued that it will not solve all gender equality problems.

But this Thursday, women were in the forefront and were the centre of media attention.

As well as the passage of the law, Secretary of State for International Cooperation and former president of the non-governmental organisation Solidarity International Leire Pajín signed an agreement with the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) according to which Spain will contribute to the eradication of violence against women.

Spain became the largest contributor country in 2006, and this year it will donate three million euros (about 3.9 million dollars) to the U.N. Trust Fund to End Violence against Women. This fund received 16 million euros (20.8 million dollars) in voluntary donations during its 10 years of existence up to 2006, and supports initiatives in developing countries to prevent and eradicate violence against women.

UNIFEM executive director Noeleen Heyzer, who co-signed the agreement, said Spaniards have no idea of their country’s international reputation, and said that in recent months it is constantly mentioned at the U.N. because of its impressive progress.

Pajín said that the Spanish government would continue to work towards achieving gender equality, outside the country’s borders as well as within, and especially in the countries of the developing South.

“The feminisation of poverty has become a chronic feature in the countries of the South,” she said, and emphasised that it was “very important” for UNIFEM to continue to include “a gender perspective” in its actions.

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