Thu, Jul 15, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Spain takes aim at violence against women

'WORST SHAME' Once not allowed to open bank accounts without their husband's permission, Spanish women are speaking out amid a spate of killings by male partners

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , MADRID

The men, it seems, are killing their women.

On June 30 in Pamplona, a 67-year-old retired factory worker shot and killed his ex-wife, then turned the gun on himself. A court had ordered him to pay her overdue alimony.

Four days later in Madrid, a 76-year-old man drove a knife into his wife's neck, killing her. The next day in the Canary Islands, a 39-year-old cafeteria worker stabbed to death the mother of his three children, while in Murcia, an 18-year-old man tortured and beat to death his 15-year-old girlfriend with a chain, an iron bar and a jar of jam. He had discovered, some said, that she wasn't a virgin.

The day after that in Barcelona, a 49-year-old man identified as Antonio chased his ex-wife from her car and stabbed her to death.

Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has called violence against women his country's "worst shame." He identifies himself as a feminist, has given half of the jobs in his Cabinet to women and has vowed to stamp out what he calls "criminal machismo."

To that end, his first bill presented to parliament since assuming power in April is a sweeping measure to protect women by toughening punishment for male abusers. The proposed legislation will criminalize violent threats against women, provide more money to protect battered women, create work-training programs for victims and lay the groundwork for a nationwide prevention and education project.

If newspaper front pages and unofficial figures are any guide, the country has been struck by an epidemic of violence against women. According to the Federation of Divorced and Separated Women, 51 women have been killed so far this year by the men in their lives, compared with 77 in 2002 and 58 in 1999.

No one can quite figure out why.

One explanation is that women who have had their consciousness raised or who have the means to support themselves are emboldened -- both to stand up to their husbands and to demand protection from the police and their rights from the courts. Their very empowerment may have provoked a backlash against them.

Another explanation is that the Socialists have trained the spotlight on the problem, which in turn has led to heavy press coverage that then has strengthened women's resolve to act.

A third is that crimes against women, which were previously classified as ordinary homicides or assaults, are now listed separately.

"All of us are convinced that the phenomenon is increasing, that more women are dying as result of their relations of affection," said Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, the first woman to hold the post. "But there's no pat explanation."

unconstitutional

Whether the violence is increasing is not nearly as divisive as the question of what to do about it. A report on the pending legislation by the General Council on Judicial Power, a conservative advisory body, has branded it unconstitutional because it deals with only half the population and does nothing to protect children or the elderly from family violence.

"It's constitutionally objectionable that threats and the use of force become a crime only when the victim is a woman," wrote Jose Luis Requero, the report's author. Women, he argued, "usually remain capable of reacting," while children and the elderly "have zero capacity for defending themselves or reporting the violence."

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