MADRID (AP) — A spate of gender-based violence, coupled with the early release of several sex offenders, has increased pressure on Spain's left-wing government, which strongly plays up its feminist credentials, to do more to protect women from abuse.
Following an urgent meeting Friday, the country's Equality Ministry proposed housing and income support for abuse victims but said there was no need to tighten a law that has allowed some sex offenders to review and reduce their sentences.
"We need to be able not only to make protection services available but also ... to effectively reach the victims without the need for long bureaucratic procedures,” Equality Minister Irene Montero said.
At least six women have been killed — allegedly by their current or former partners — so far this year, according to the latest records by the government's office against gender-based violence.
After studying these cases, the Equality Ministry found that some of the victims had been living with their alleged killers for economic reasons. Montero said she planned to provide housing services and a minimum wage-linked income to women who had suffered violence and remained vulnerable.
The proposal would require Cabinet approval but Montero said it shows the government's will to improve what she called an already very highly-functioning system against gender-based violence.
Official data show that at least 1,188 women have died at the hands of their male partners or ex-partners since 2003, when the country pioneered counting cases of femicides.
Statistics show a slight decline in the number of annual killings since 2000. Records have stabilized at just below 50 in the past years, but it's unclear how much further such crimes can be reduced.
Experts agree that there has been a significant drop in cases in the last decades after Spain’s strong commitment to targeting violence towards women, but more can still be done, particularly for victims who had already filed complaints against an aggressor at least once. In 2022, these accounted for 43% of female murder victims.
“We need to improve risk assessment because when women report their situation, the danger of attack by their partner becomes huge,” says Yolanda Besteiro, an expert on gender issues and president of the Progressive Women Federation.
Violence against women has increasingly become a social concern — and a political point of contention in a highly polarized debate.
Opposition parties have heavily criticized the government after it introduced highly contentious legislation on sexual consent that, ironically, has also allowed more than 200 convicted sex offenders to successfully appeal their prison sentences.
According to rulings shared by Spanish courts, at least 20 sex crimes have been released from prison since parliament approved the law four months ago after significant reductions in their prison terms were granted.
That's because those punished with the lowest prison term under the previous criminal code have the legal right to remain at the lower end of possible sentences under the new law; that has resulted in reductions of up to four years of imprisonment for offenses such as aggravated sexual abuse.
The spotlight is now on Equality Minister Montero, the sponsor of the law — popularly called “only yes is yes,” since it makes explicit consent in sexual relations a must. When asked Friday, she said she wasn't considering revising the law.
“We are busy doing all necessary to guarantee the correct enforcement of the law,” she said.
Montero argues that the new law protects women better than before, and the real problem is the way some judges apply it. That has earned her strong criticism.
A top official from her ministry, Victoria Rosell, said a majority of sentences that are being revised don't get reduced.
In the region of Madrid, the capital, such sentence reductions are one in ten. In northern La Rioja, one in 55, records show, although not all regional courts shared their statistics.
Many reached by The Associated Press didn't have available data or said that judges were still working on reviewing previous rulings.
The crime of sexual abuse, which does not imply violence, has merged in the new “only yes is yes law with the more serious sexual assault. The penalty ranges for both have also been combined, therefore increasing the maximum penalties for less severe abuse, but also lowering the floor for assault.
Experts are divided on the law. Patricia Faraldo, a criminal law professor at the University of A Coruña who was part of the experts’ panel in its drafting, said lawmakers were aware that the sentencing range could expand in both directions.
“Higher sentences don’t mean higher protection for the victims,” she said, voicing regret on how the controversy has overshadowed the law’s positive impact.
But José Luis Diez Ripollés, a criminal law expert at the University of Malaga, said the law had technical defects because the government tried to make a point of zero tolerance against all sexual crimes.
“(The government) decided to use the reform as a statement to society of an ideological program,” he said. “But it’s not all the same. And when putting it into practice, it’s obvious that it doesn’t work.”