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SPAIN: Nowhere to Turn – Immigrant Women Especially Vulnerable to Domestic Violence

Alicia Fraerman

MADRID, Nov 25 2005 (IPS) - Immigrant women are the least protected against domestic violence in Spain, since they often have nowhere to turn for help, civil society groups underscored Friday, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.

Nevertheless, activists say the situation has begun to improve.

The estimated 700,000 undocumented women immigrants in Spain face the risk of being deported if they file legal complaints, do not qualify for the economic assistance extended to victims of domestic violence, and are denied access to battered women’s shelters, according to the Spanish branch of Amnesty International.

The state thus not only fails to live up to the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, approved by the United Nations in 1993, but also violates its own commitments to fighting domestic violence, says a new Amnesty report.

Teresa Martínez, director of the Emergency Centre for Women Victims of Gender Violence, told IPS that Spanish society has not faced up to the problem, and that immigrants are not taken into account in government media campaigns. “They are not given visibility” nor is there any explicit reference to them, she said.

Sonia, a Colombian immigrant who has no residency permit and who shares an apartment with two other women in a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Madrid, described the lack of protection faced by immigrant women.

“I was working as a domestic a few months after I came to Spain in 2002, when I met Miguel and we got together. That’s when the suffering began, because he started to hit me, more and more frequently. One day he beat me so badly that he left my body and face full of bruises, and I couldn’t even move one of my arms, so I went to the police station and filed a complaint,” said Sonia.

But the police “didn’t do anything to him, and only sent me to police headquarters because I was undocumented. There I was given a deadline to return to my country, which I haven’t done, and that means that if I ever go to a police station again or am stopped in the streets, I could be deported,” she added.

Nevertheless, the situation has improved somewhat, said Martínez. To illustrate, she cited the case of an undocumented immigrant who she helped to file a complaint.

On that occasion, Martínez successfully invoked Spain’s new law on aliens, passed in late 2004, which recognises that undocumented migrant women have the same right to assistance as Spanish women and legal residents, and the woman obtained the aid offered by the state to victims of domestic violence.

However, there is still much to be done, like overcoming the hurdles thrown in the way of immigrants who attempt to seek refuge in battered women’s shelters, “although progress has been made,” she added.

María Naredo, one of the heads of Amnesty International Spain, said “the Spanish state has subordinated the human rights of women who are victims of domestic abuse to their immigration control policies, which without a doubt will accentuate the invisibility, lack of protection and vulnerability of immigrant women.”

But in Spain, domestic violence cuts across all social sectors.

In December of last year, the Spanish parliament adopted the first specific law in Europe against gender-based violence, which provides for the establishment of specialised courts and other measures to offer greater legal, economic, social and psychological assistance for the victims, as well as a series of procedures to protect women who face the threat of violence.

Despite the new legislation, however, 55 women – including both foreign nationals and Spanish – were murdered by their partners or ex-partners as of Nov. 15 this year, bringing the total since 1999 to 419, according to statistics from the Spanish government’s Women’s Institute.

In August 2003, the government established the issuing of immediate protective orders for victims of violence who fear for their lives. In the first quarter of this year, judges granted this special police protection to 15,302 individuals, of whom 97 percent were women.

But women’s groups say legal action is still too slow-moving. The Observatory against Domestic Violence, which reports to the General Council of the judiciary, has called for the creation of new courts with exclusive jurisdiction and the reinforcement of those already established, with additional human and material resources.

The Family Planning Federation of Spain stresses that around the world, gender-based violence kills or incapacitates more women between the ages of 15 and 44 than cancer, and causes more health problems than car accidents and malaria combined.

For its part, the World Bank estimates that rape and domestic violence account for five percent of the healthy years of life lost to women of reproductive age.

The Spanish government has pledged to provide more resources to the specialised judges and police, and has emphasised the importance of education and raising public awareness to combat violence.

Encarnación Orozco, the government delegate for the elimination of violence against women, announced that in pursuit of this goal, a new subject is being introduced in Spanish schools, called Civic Education and made up of two modules: Education in Equality and Peaceful Resolution of Conflicts.

The new subject will be taught in all grades of both primary and secondary school.

In the meantime, a number of well-known athletes and actors have been recruited to appear on billboards and in television, newspaper and magazine advertisements to demand respect for the human rights of women.

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