February 23, 2011
MADRID — On a Saturday evening last spring, Juan, a short, wiry driver in his early 40s, met friends in a Madrid bar. When his money ran out, he went home for cash; his partner, watching television, refused to lend him any.
“I was fairly drunk and we started arguing,” Juan said, sweating even months later as he recalled his aggression against a woman he also said he loves. “I don’t exactly know why, but I suddenly grabbed the remote control, threw it and unfortunately hit her smack on the face.”
Juan’s partner got four stitches to her forehead. She did not tell the doctor what caused the wound but, alerted by the hospital, the police showed up and detained Juan because he already had a criminal record for domestic violence.
Juan, who agreed to speak only on the condition that his last name not be used, still awaits a court ruling. In the meantime, he has been ordered to stay away from his partner and is in therapy run by Asociación Aspacia, a private group pioneering efforts to help reinsert men who abuse women into Spanish society.
As Western societies try to combat social tensions, laws have driven investigators or regulators ever deeper into spheres like the workplace, school or church. Perhaps the most difficult threshold to cross has been that of the home, where violence against women seems to defy efforts to curb it.
Last year in Spain, 73 women died at home at the hands of their partners — roughly, one every five days. That was an increase over 2009, when 55 women were killed in similar circumstances. While there is a surprising lack of comparative statistics around Europe — some countries do not keep them, while others that do keep them use different criteria — the increase in such killings in Spain flew in the face of determined government efforts to tackle what many here see as an enduring and ugly feature of their society.
“Fatalities are sadly only the tip of the iceberg in terms of how much violence actually takes place, and never even gets denounced,” said Teresa Cavanna, a lawyer specializing in domestic violence and family issues.
The Socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero came to power seven years ago promising to shed Spain’s reputation as an ultraconservative and male-dominated society. He appointed equal numbers of men and women to his cabinet. Gay marriage became legal. Rules restricting divorce and abortion were loosened.
But efforts to protect women have fallen below expectations. “We are not doing well,” Interior Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba said in October, describing the number of 2010 victims at the time — 58 — as “horrible.”
To help combat gender violence, Spain overhauled its laws in December 2004 to make it easier for victims to seek legal redress: orders for abusers to stay away from victims were strengthened, and aggressive behavior like issuing death threats was deemed criminal.
Spanish courts have since passed 145,000 sentences against male aggressors; on average, those convicted have been sentenced to about two years in prison, Ms. Cavanna said. In the past six years, judges also awarded special protection to almost 141,000 women, or 73 percent of the requests.
But the number of women who have abandoned legal proceedings before a final ruling, generally in physical abuse cases, has soared 46 percent in the past three years.
Ms. Cavanna noted that one of her clients was still awaiting a ruling 20 months after starting legal action. “Changing laws does not solve the problem of malfunctioning courts,” she said, “nor does it change overnight attitudes in a society where the machismo ideology is still firmly anchored and in which many judges have not come to accept how serious a problem domestic violence is.”
Only a quarter of the women killed in 2010 had previously reported their attacker for abusive behavior. Even women who do file reports may not get action. On Dec. 18, for example, one of the latest victims, a 24-year-old woman allegedly stabbed by her 29-year-old boyfriend at their home in Ciudad Real in central Spain, had gone to the police three weeks earlier to complain about his violent conduct. She received no special protection.
Below the grim statistics lies an impassioned debate about whether this society can protect women — or, indeed, weaker men — from assault by someone physically stronger. Furthermore, should society try to help women by offering treatment to men like Juan?Aspacia, for one, struggles to persuade women’s organizations that helping aggressors is worthwhile — and has very limited financing. It hopes to treat 87 aggressors this year, thanks to a subsidy of €25,000, or $34,000, from the Health Ministry.
“Spain has made huge advances in helping the victims but very little in dealing with the men who are the cause of the problem,” said Andrés Quinteros, a psychologist who is program director of Aspacia.
To Ana María Pérez del Campo, president of the Asociación de Mujeres Separadas y Divorciadas, which helps abused women, that might not be such a loss. “It seems to me completely absurd to spend public money on such treatments,” she said.
She is very skeptical that a program can achieve anything, noting: “I’ve never met a converted wife beater.”
Mr. Quinteros said the therapy “is based on the idea that a psycho-educational treatment can achieve great results even in a short time.”
While Aspacia does not have sufficient data to establish how many abusers stop for good, it says that so far, 65 percent of the men who have sought treatment by Aspacia have completed the program. About 25 percent dropped out while the rest either had their application rejected or were dropped by Aspacia because it was proving too difficult to work with them. Mr. Quinteros noted that “changing somebody with a very serious identity problem requires longer than six months,” the typical duration of the treatment Aspacia gives to groups of 12, supervised by two psychologists.
But specific therapies do yield results, he said. Most men treated by Aspacia are convicted aggressors with suspended sentences. The course, which involves two-hour sessions and is split into three modules, starts with recognition of the problem, followed by therapy to control emotions and to avert relapses.
At a time of governmental austerity, women’s organizations are demanding that limited financing be reserved for what they see as more urgent issues, like adding psychological evaluation teams to help judges estimate the level of abuse suffered by plaintiffs.
Indeed, a government help line set up for possible male aggressors was shut down in December as an austerity measure. The government says the line had received 6,515 calls in its first year, at a cost of €822,000.
“There’s already not enough money to create much-needed evaluation teams,” said Amalia Fernández Doyague, a professor of criminal law and secretary general of the Asociación de Mujeres Juristas Themis, which offers legal counsel to victims of domestic violence. “So resources shouldn’t instead be spent on treatments that many men follow only in order to try to avoid spending time in jail.”
Juan, meanwhile, says he hopes that his treatment will allow him eventually to return to his partner, a mother of two with whom he was living for seven years until the remote-control incident.
After an assault in 2009 on the same woman, he spent four months in prison. “This course is helping me put things in perspective in ways in which a stay in prison certainly never did,” he said. Juan has three children from an earlier marriage, which lasted 11 years until he divorced his wife for his latest partner, who is also divorced.
“With my first wife, there was plenty of verbal abuse but nothing like this physical violence because she was just a lot more passive,” Juan said. He claimed that his violence was generally induced by alcohol. The temptation to drown his sorrows with drink had risen, he said, because of difficulties in holding down a steady job as a commercial driver.
Spain’s unemployment has soared to 20 percent as part of the global financial meltdown. “The crisis is far from being the main cause of the problem, but it can certainly help precipitate violent conduct by raising stress levels within a household,” Mr. Quinteros said.
Although at times sweating profusely when asked to detail past outbursts, Juan sounded determined. “I have to cure myself, because my behavior has put at risk everything I care about, including the woman who’s the love of my life,” he said. “Beyond my own personal problems, this is the cancer of our society, and we really need to get rid of it.”