Never touch a woman, not even with a rose petal.
“We see a lot of trifling matters here at the same time as other victims don’t even report serious crimes such as incest.”
Who: Paloma Mari
What: Is a judge in one of Spain’s specialised courts for violence against women.
She picks up a thick pile of papers. As usual, she has not had time to read through everything; who was first again today?
“An ordinary case of assault,” she says looking at the pile of papers. “The woman was going to say good-bye to her child who was sitting in his car and he pushed her out.”
Paloma hurries out unto the corridor towards her small hearings room, with us hard on her heels. A silent group of women and men are sitting on plastic chairs outside. The room is the size of a classroom for about thirty children.
This is just one of sixteen courts for crimes against women in greater Madrid. In eleven of them, a single judge handles the ‘simpler’ crimes of violence. Five courts handle cases like the ones Paloma has in her pile, crimes that can lead to up to five years imprisonment.
We are the only members of the public.
He was trying to stop her from pulling the child out of the car, that’s all, he didn’t hit her, definitely not.
The woman, a slight woman wearing jeans and a summer top, puts forward her case. Her story is that she was pushed violently out of the car, and she is claiming damages.
The man sits listening carefully, with his hands on his lap, his thumbs pressed hard together. Then he stands as he gives his account, says in a steady voice that the accusation is false, his ex-girlfriend is just out to destroy his life. She knows that if he is found guilty he will lose his job as a security guard and be banned from carrying a gun. He was trying to stop her from pulling the child out of the car, that’s all, he didn’t hit her, definitely not.
He holds his hands behind his back. We can see the sweat pouring from his palms.
His defence lawyer speaks, turned to face the woman.
“Your concern, was it really for the child? Wasn’t it rather the fact that he has a new girlfriend?”
Paloma looks tired. The lawyer puffs himself up: this woman comes out with accusations every time his client is supposed to meet his child. She wants to wreck everything! It’s obvious! But why? They’d only been together for two months when she got pregnant …
“My learned friend must keep to the subject,” Paloma interrupts, “You’re talking about everything but the matter in hand, about the child and the relationship. It’s the incident in the car we’re talking about here. And please keep your voice down!”
He’s clearly used some degree of violence.
There is a break before the next case. Paloma stands up and stretches. She will pass judgment within 15 days. It will be a conviction.
“He’s clearly used some degree of violence,” she says. “He’s pulled and pushed to get her out. So I have to give him something.”
Then she stops and laughs.
“But she wanted six thousand euros in damages and she’s not getting that, it was pretty obvious that it was money she was after.”
It is a normal day in Paloma’s court. Hearing number two does not take place, because the man’s lawyer has not shown up, for the second time. The third trial concerns a young couple looking rather the worse for wear; a witness has reported an assault, but they themselves say they’re sorry but their ID documents have disappeared. Again. So there cannot be a trial.
“You’re wasting our time,” Paloma says curtly.
The young couple leave the courtroom hand in hand.
They’re sorry but their ID documents have disappeared. Again. So there cannot be a trial.
This is the most common obstacle in Paloma’s court: the woman refuses to co-operate. She has gone back to the man and has the right not to have to give evidence against him.
“But we have to have a hearing. If a crime is reported to the police, it has to be followed through all the way up to me.”
A young man in flip-flops is also sent away, because the woman’s lawyer has not arrived. Another man with a ponytail shakes and clears his throat, as if gasping for breath. His girlfriend sits silently with her chin up and her handbag on her lap. She refuses to say a word. The police are unable to help either, they do not remember and have not been able to read up as they usually do before they testify. There was a problem with the computers.
Eight out of ten women choose not to give evidence against their accused partner.
Before lunch, yet another young woman explains that she is not a crime victim, whatever her friend and her own mother say.
Eight out of ten women choose not to give evidence against their accused partner.
“It’s terrible that it’s like this”, says Paloma. “These are hang-overs from the past, when a woman really didn’t have a voice. She doesn’t see herself as a victim. For her, family comes first, and it’s her duty to show she has been well-brought up. Our law can only regulate fragments of the big problems – and they do exist. But the women are silent. Even when a father has abused a daughter. We see a lot of trivial matters here, at the same time as other victims don’t even report serious crimes such as incest.”
Over one hundred special courts in Spain handle cases of violence against women.
In Paloma’s courtroom, eight out of ten cases end in a conviction. The woman’s participation is not necessary if there are convincing witnesses. The law also allows the prosecutor to ‘lump together’ a number of accounts of violence, although she really should have exact dates and details of times.
Few men admit to the crimes. Their lawyers advise them not to, despite the fact that a confession would increase the chance of being sentenced to community service instead of prison.
Over one hundred special courts in Spain handle cases of violence against women. They work on three levels. In one type of court they work as investigation courts, dealing with everyday ‘less serious’ violence and protection orders, and everything is dealt with by a single judge. On the second level – as in Paloma’s – crimes (not just crimes of violence) which can lead to up to five years imprisonment are handled. A third type of court deals with the most serious crimes, such as murder. These are tried in front of a jury.
Paloma has worked as a judge for fifteen years. She enjoys her work, but her workload is huge.
“I could manage three hundred cases a year, but in six months I’ve had four hundred. There’s too much paperwork. It’s terrible, and we need more specialised courts or our work will collapse. We should have three times as many courts, and that’s what we’ve been promised, but …we’ll see.”
She cannot see any indication that the queue to her court is decreasing; on the contrary. At the same time she is convinced that the women’s courts have a purpose, in the long term.
“Because I’m sure we do act as a kind of brake. We see the men’s surprise: Oh, they sent me to prison because I hit her. That has to have some implications for the future.”
She cannot see any indication that the queue to her court is decreasing; on the contrary.
Spain is probably the toughest country in the world with its extensive laws on equality and its work to combat violence. No other country in the world has, for example, reliable figures for the number of women who are killed by their husband or ex-husband each year. All the Spanish courts report continuously on violence against women and murdered women to a government agency, Observatorio contra la Violencia Doméstica y de Género.
Something known as ‘state feminism’ paved the way for this. The term ‘state feminism’ describes a system where change is driven from the top, where strong political parties create institutions and special equality agencies in order to be able to implement changes effectively. That is what happened in Spain.
Spain is probably the toughest country in the world with its extensive laws on equality and its work to combat violence.
The women’s courts were an important part of the work for change. But there is also criticism of the courts, which only deal with cases of men’s violence against women. The law is not gender-neutral. There are also concerns regarding the men’s legal rights in the quick trials.
Neither does the violence appear to be decreasing. The number of women killed each year, on average 65 each year for the last ten years, has not changed. In 2010 the figure was 73. But this is a low figure compared with other countries in Europe.
But are specialised women’s courts absolutely necessary?
We asked this question to Inmaculada Montalbán, head of Observatorio contra la Violencia Doméstica y de Género, the only place in the world which is carrying out such research, based on the court reports.
“Definitely”, she replies. “We need the courts because violence in the home is different from other forms of violence. The crimes are more difficult to present in court and we need specially trained judges who understand the cycle of violence, the relationship between the abuser and the victim, and how relationship dependency works. They need that knowledge so that they understand what the woman needs if she is not to go back. She needs full protection, socially and economically. She shouldn’t need to undertake three trials at the same time, one for the violence, one for the divorce and one for custody of the children.”
Why are eight out of ten Spanish women still silent in the courtroom?
“I think there are a number of reasons. It might be that she has not broken the emotional dependency, that she is still financially dependent, or that she believes he can change. Or that she doesn’t trust the legal system. This last is what worries us. The woman must be given better information the first time she comes into contact with the authorities. She must be strong before she goes to court.
80 per cent of the women who are killed have not previously reported violence, and the challenge is to find the women in the danger zone. It’s also worrying that women who have immigrated are over-represented: 38 per cent of the murder victims last year. We must make an effort to reach them.”
We don’t always know how dangerous the woman’s situation is, if she only tells the judge a little bit of what happened.
Why is it important to keep a count of murdered women?
“So we can learn, so we can make a diagnosis and be able to assess what risks the murdered women have taken. Above all, why she has so often failed to report the violence, even though it becomes apparent afterwards that she was subjected to it before she was killed. We have realised that the way we treat women must improve; the woman needs a long time to tell her story to the police. She needs to have a lawyer at her side and she shouldn’t have to have so many different points of contact with the authorities.
The police can improve their risk assessment. We hope to have a medico-legal practitioner tied to the court, who will be able to make a proper assessment as to how dangerous the abuser is.
We have also understood that more electronic monitoring is needed. It’s effective in the most dangerous cases. But we don’t always know how dangerous the woman’s situation is, if she only tells the judge a little bit of what happened.”
Maternal deaths: 6 deaths per 100,000 births.
Number of children/woman: 1.47
Abortion legislation: Right to abortion up to the 14th week of pregnancy
Law against rape within marriage: Yes
Violence against women in close relationships: 400 incidents of violence against women are reported each day. 73 women were killed by their partner/husband during 2010.