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Last Updated: Monday, 4 December 2006, 13:01 GMT
'Skirts on signs' in Spanish town
By Danny Wood
BBC News, Fuenlabrada

"It's all about respect," Domingo says
The town of Fuenlabrada on the outskirts of Madrid is taking a novel step in the struggle to achieve equality between Spanish men and women.

The local council is changing the town's traffic signals.

Half of the walking, stick figures on signs at pedestrian crossings and the little, green men that flash inside traffic lights are being given skirts.

Crossing the road in Fuenlabrada is now a gender-balanced experience.

"The fact that the image of women is seen appearing on something like this, even if it is just a traffic sign, is important because gender equality is a lot to do with the way we transmit information," says Rosalina Guijarro, the town councillor in charge of this project.

A generation ago Spain was a dictatorship and one of the most conservative countries in Europe - a chauvinist society with very limited opportunities for women where their main role in society was to find a husband and bear children.

Mixed opinions

Times have changed radically and the town signs in Fuenlabrada are another indication of this social shift.

Of course it's a good idea! There are so many trousers up on those signs!

On the streets of Fuenlabrada, there are mixed opinions.

Some say they never thought of the stick figures as necessarily being male. Others do not like stereotyping women as wearing dresses.

But most men and women, are surprisingly positive.

"I think it's for the better and it definitely helps gender equality," says Maria Jose.

After glancing approvingly at a stick figure with a skirt, 18-year-old Sayla comments: "Of course it's a good idea! There are so many trousers up on those signs!"

Rosalina Guijarro, the town councillor in charge of the project
Rosalina Guijarro has been leading the new project

But this is Spain, once the home of the macho man - that stereotype of the unreformed male who expects his wife to prepare all his meals and iron his shirts.

I cautiously approach Domingo, a stocky Spaniard with bushy moustache and open shirt displaying a hairy chest and a gold chain.

He is very pleased with the signs and says they are all about improving things between men and women.

"It's all about respect," he says.

'Profound change'

Could the wide acceptance of these female traffic signs in a small town - including by macho men - be a signal of a different kind. Perhaps Spain is on the cusp of achieving true gender equality?

Maria-Jose says the new measures "definitely" help gender equality

As director of Spain's national institute for women, Rosa Peris is responsible for recommending legislation and projects to promote gender equality.

"We've had two-and-a-half years of profound change. I can say that there has never been a time during our modern democracy when so much has been done to promote gender equality."

The government has drafted an ambitious gender equality law that aims to eliminate discrimination based on gender at every level of Spanish society.

For example, obliging large private companies to start dedicated programmes to increase their numbers of female staff. And setting aside 40% of the places in all public service training programmes for women.

There is already an anti-domestic violence law that means women facing violence from male partners now have a dedicated help service and specialist assistance at every level of the government.

"In the battle for equality, unfortunately women have felt very alone and we need men at our side to achieve equality," Rosa Peris says.

'Macho women'

Talking to young men, you get the sense that many are strong supporters of gender equality and do not identify with being macho.

But Joaquin, an office worker in Madrid, says it is not just males, women are also responsible for the continuing existence of a chauvinist culture.

"A lot of women who are bosses display 'macho man' behaviour. I think that shows that this problem is not an easy thing to solve. Real gender equality is only possible by educating children about these issues," he says.

Spain may not have yet achieved gender equality, but with the help of Fuenlabrada's traffic signs, it could be signalling the way there.

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