Murdered for being women: Spain tackles femicide rates

Women are protesting as rates of violence against them rise, forcing the government to act.

Hunger strike held to show opposition to violence against women in Madrid
Candles, shoes and banners sit on the ground at a protest camp set up by women who are holding a demonstration to show opposition to gender-based violence in Madrid [Sergio Barrenechea/EPA]

Madrid, Spain – Hours before Ana Gomez was murdered by her husband, she had been sent home by the local women’s shelter in Lugo, Galicia.

She was told by workers there to ask for a divorce, but when she confronted 29-year-old Jose Manual Carballo on February 11, 2016, he refused to let her leave. He took a shotgun and killed her, later turning himself in to the authorities.

Gomez’s two children from a previous relationship, a 16- and 17-year-old, were present at the time of the murder – the youngest was wounded by a bullet that went through Gomez.

Today, the two brothers are under the custody of their aunt, Martina Gomez, 48. She says the system failed to protect her sister, who was 40 at the time of her death.

“Professionally trained people should know how to detect a dangerous situation,” said Martina. “They should have never let her return home that day.”

A bad year for women

This year started out with some of the worst figures of gender-related murders in Spain since 2008: as of March 2, according to official records, 16 women had been killed at the hands of partners or ex-partners.

And the public outcry echoes these figures. Seven women from the Asociación Vel-la Luz, a Galicia-based organisation working with domestic violence survivors, organised a 25-day hunger strike in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol that started on February 7.

For International Women’s Day on March 8, millions of women marched in cities across Spain, demanding an end to gender violence.

“The situation is getting worse,” said Gloria Vazquez, president of Vel-la Luz, who claims that one woman is murdered every three days in Spain as a result of gender violence.

“There may be other countries with worse figures, but we’re tired of having to stand for ‘not as bad’. We want the best situation.”

Their hard work paid off: as of early March, the Spanish central government has put into action a bipartisan sub-commission, which will bring together and hear input from politicians, activists, domestic violence survivors, judges, police officers and the community at large on how to combat gender violence.

Their goal is to make the issue a government priority, revising an existing domestic violence law and discussing how to use state funds more efficiently. The government will also hold a bi-monthly panel discussion, in which Vel-la Luz will take part, examining the 25 measures that the organisation presented as part of their protest.

“We were able to open up channels that weren’t there before,” said Vazquez. “We have a voice in the Senate now.”

‘Murdered for being women’

The issue of femicide in Spain – defined as the killing of a woman by a man on account of her gender – isn’t new.

In 2004, the Spanish government passed a law intended to reduce domestic violence cases, establishing a network of courts specialising in the matter and funnelling funds into programmes aimed at supporting survivors.

But while the law was initially regarded as exemplary, activists say it falls short. Since then, 796 women have been killed as a result of gender violence – although many claim the number is actually much higher, as the law takes into account only murders committed by partners or ex-partners.

“We need legislation that really addresses femicide, that really gives it the importance it needs,” said Isabel Muntane, director of the Master’s Program on Gender and Communication at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

“Women are being murdered for being women, and it seems that society is immune to these murders. We always say that if it were football players being murdered, there would be a social revolution.”

Documenting femicide

According to the activist-run site, which compiles an unofficial count of femicide murders not exclusive to romantic partnerships, the number of women killed since 2004 as a result of gender violence is closer to 1,500. So far this year, the site says 29 women have been killed, as opposed to the 16 recognised by the government.

“The official femicide count doesn’t include the murders of minors, sex workers, murders done by family members, trans-phobic murders,” said Muntane. “If we’re not aware of the reality of all femicides, we’re not aware of the magnitude of the problem.”

Domestic violence programmes have also been hit by cuts to social programmes after the 2008 economic crisis. Since 2004, government funds allocated to dealing with the issue of gender violence have seen a decline of 29 percent.

And activists say the current law isn’t doing enough to keep women safe from their aggressors: In 2016, almost half of the 44 victims of gender violence murders officially recognised by the government had previously gone to the police.

Organisations such as Val-la Luz and other women’s rights activists are hoping this year’s bipartisan sub-commission, which is expected to have legislative proposals on combating gender violence by June, will tackle a few issues in particular: a more comprehensive definition of gender violence, better legal assistance for domestic violence survivors and their families, and the expansion of educational programmes on gender equality.

A movement’s awakening

At the end of February, the Valencia City council launched a sub-commission of their own, bringing together politicians, organisations, feminists and community organisers to develop a plan for eradicating gender violence at the local level.

A couple of weeks later, on March 11, the president of the autonomous region of Andalusia asked for the nationwide bipartisan sub-commission, which was originally scheduled to wrap up its work by April, to be expedited. She added that the femicide issue in Spain “is not normal”.

“Public institutions will keep asking for the participation and involvement of all sectors of society, because there’s only one way to make the elimination of gender violence a reality, and that’s to make everyone conscious that we’re all responsible,” said Angeles Carmona, president of the Domestic and Gender Violence Observatory, a government entity that analyses gender violence sentences and suggests legislative modifications.

“We’ve been pushing for this sub-commission to take place for years,” she added.

But while the gender violence sub-commission begins to take shape, Vazquez says she isn’t counting on the Spanish government to solve the issue on their own. Vel-la Luz will continue to meet politicians, organise protests and ensure that their voices are heard.

“We’ve awakened something within young people, we’ve generated a movement,” she said of their February hunger strike, which gained international attention. “I keep getting calls from people saying, ‘Are you aware of what’s happening?'”

Muntane says the creation of a sub-commission on gender violence is something that has been building up for a long time.

“Women have gotten tired of what’s happening, because things don’t seem to be moving forward,” she said. “I think we’ve arrived at a critical moment, and it seems society is ready for this change.”

Source: Al Jazeera