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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 April, 2004, 04:33 GMT 05:33 UK
New man tackles Spanish machismo
By Katya Adler
BBC Spain correspondent

Domestic violence (posed)
There is growing awareness of domestic violence in Spain
Spanish men, portrayed as insensitive, insufferable and even aggressive towards women, have traditionally been the butt of macho male jokes.

But the new Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, does not find the situation very funny.

He recently described Spain's domestic violence record as the country's "worst shame" and an "unacceptable evil".

On Friday his government made a draft "gender violence" law the very first of the not even week-old administration.

It aims to bring new domestic violence legislation before parliament by the summer.

At least one woman dies every week in Spain at the hands of her partner. Thousands stay in abusive relationships because, they say, there is nowhere else to go.

Sadly, these figures are not uncommon in Europe. But there is a growing awareness here of the problem.

Democracy in Spain is only 25-years-old. Before that, during the 40-year-long dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, domestic violence was not considered a crime.

What it was, though, was taboo.

There is a Spanish phrase, using the feminine article that says: "I broke it because it was mine".

This attitude towards women is now changing fast, especially among the young.

The Spanish Oscars, the Goyas, were won this year by a popular film called I Give You My Eyes, about domestic violence.

Cases of domestic abuse feature on the evening news almost daily and Spain's TV chat shows, which are on morning, noon and night, regularly discuss the issue.

Public sentiment

Earlier this year, Roman Catholic bishops caused an outcry with a report suggesting that sexual liberation since the 1960s had led to more men beating their wives.

Although the majority of Spaniards still describe themselves as Catholic, Church attendance levels are dwindling.

So Mr Zapatero was certainly tapping into public sentiment when, just a few hours after being sworn in as Spain's new premier, he visited a woman in hospital who had been beaten and burned by her husband, as well as victims of the 11 March train attacks who were on the same ward.

Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero and his deputy, Maria Teresa de la Vega
Maria Teresa de la Vega (left) is the first female deputy PM
But it would be unfair to suggest that the previous conservative government ignored Spain's growing domestic violence figures.

The problem appears to be the implementation of the laws it passed, such as the enforcement of restraining orders, for example.

This is something the new government wants to improve.

Women here have also complained that the Spanish judiciary is ruled by conservative, older men who, they say, often rule against women's interests.

And there is a growing demand for treatment programmes for the abusers. At the moment there are only two institutes in Spain that work with violent men to try to change their behaviour.

Women's image

According to the new Spanish government the country's problem is a wider one, concerning not just the way abusers treat women but the image of women in Spanish society in general.

The Spanish Minister for Work and Social Affairs, Jesus Caldera, says Spain needs a general "change in behaviour towards women", which should be impressed upon school children through the study of "ethics and equality".

He has called for a debate on the way women are portrayed in Spanish advertisements and has announced the government's intention to break women's "chains of dependence" on their male counterparts by improving employment and housing provisions for women.

Mr Zapatero has promised to make equality between the sexes "an emblematic task".

And where better to start than within his own cabinet? Eight of the 16 posts are occupied by women, including Spain's first ever female deputy prime minister.

Mr Zapatero says his government will initiate a system of tax and other incentives to encourage Spanish businesses to employ more women, especially at managerial level.

At the moment the proportion of women on boards of directors does not reach 10% - and is less than 2% in the biggest companies on the Spanish stock exchange.

The government wants to ensure sexual equality from the lowest to the highest echelons of Spanish society.

Royal reform

It has proposed changing the constitution as regards the succession to the Spanish throne, where men are favoured over women.

Any new legislation would not come into effect until the next generation, however.

Spaniards demonstrate against
Spaniards have demonstrated against "sexist" violence
Spain's Prince Felipe will become king after his father, even though he has two older sisters.

Other proposed changes in gender legislation include the official recognition of homosexual partnerships (68% of Spaniards said in a Gallup poll last year that they were in favour of gay marriages), and debating the rights of gay couples to adopt children.

Mr Zapatero also intends to alter radically Spain's abortion laws which, he says, are completely outdated.

Abortion in Spain is illegal except in three cases: If a woman has a deformed foetus, if she has been raped or if her physical or mental health is in danger.

The way Spanish women get around the situation is to sign a piece of paper testifying that if they do not abort, they will suffer psychologically.

The new government wants to legalise abortion in all cases for the first twelve weeks of pregnancy.

The public response to these proposed changes has generally been favourable.

It is interesting to note that more women than men voted for Mr Zapatero's Socialists.

The gay community and Spanish students also favoured the Socialists over the previous conservative administration.

Yet the appetite for dramatic social change in Spain in questionable.

Surprise result

The Socialist party had not been predicted an election victory in the public opinion polls.

Spaniards remains divided over whether the Socialists, taken by surprise by the election results, are actually ready to govern.

Significantly, election day came just 72 hours after the multiple train bombings in Madrid which killed 191 people and injured more than 1,800 others.

Many people said they used their vote less in favour of the Socialists, than against the former conservative government.

Mr Zapatero's government also faces another obstacle in its ambitious reform agenda. The election left it short of a parliamentary majority so it will have to look for outside political support when passing new legislation.

One thing is sure, though. Sceptical or not, most Spaniards want this government to succeed.

After these last weeks of terror and of tears, they say, Spain needs some stability and a fresh start.


SEE ALSO:
'Smart dresser' loses abuse case
21 Jan 04  |  Europe
Spain swears in new government
18 Apr 04  |  Europe


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