When she was 30, Mónica M. fled her violent husband, taking her two small children and only the clothes on her back. But leaving did not solve her problems. Stuck in the sludge of the patriarchal Spanish legal system, Mónica, who asked that her full name not be disclosed out of concern for her children’s safety, struggled for four years to get a divorce. She had a restraining order against her husband, but he continued to stalk her, driving her from shelter to shelter and job to job. He repeatedly threatened her family. While her legal protections were few, he seemed to have many, including twice-a-week visitation rights with their children. Mónica says that at these times her 3-year-old daughter would become so scared she would wet herself. In August her 8-year-old son went on vacation with her ex-husband and returned with a broken arm. “I feel impotent. I haven’t been protected at all, and neither have my children,” says Mónica from the relative safety of a women’s center located in an unmarked building in central Madrid. “I don’t want to hide anymore. It’s he who should be hiding.”
For decades women like Mónica were expected to suffer in silence, ignored by a society and a legal system that did not acknowledge domestic violence. That’s changing. Since sweeping into power in April, the newly elected Socialist government has been enacting an ambitious social reform agenda that will give new rights to women, homosexuals and immigrants, and will limit the role of the Catholic Church in public life. For this historically conservative country, which missed the Enlightenment and many of the social reforms of the twentieth century, what the Socialists are doing amounts to a revolution that is designed to leapfrog Spain to parity with the liberal countries of Northern Europe. That, along with the government’s renewed foreign policy alliances with Germany and France, will put the new Spain well to the left of the United States.
In making these changes the Socialist-led government is upsetting centuries of traditional control by the Catholic Church that were upheld through its alliance with Gen. Francisco Franco. The previous government, led by the conservative Popular Party, also a strong ally of the Church, was unexpectedly ousted in the wake of the March 11 terrorist bombings, which killed 192 people.
The new government marked its first success on October 7, when the first part of the reform package, a series of laws to combat violence against women, passed Parliament with a resounding majority. The laws not only increase the penalties for domestic violence but also shorten the time it takes to get a divorce from more than two years to less than six months. They also give more money to shelters; provide specialized training for judges, police, doctors and psychologists; and fund a public education campaign in the press and the schools.