Never touch a woman, not even with a rose petal.
“The turning point was 2004, with the new law on violence in the home. Violence against women was no longer a private matter.”
Who: Adolfina Prieto
What: Heads LIBRA, the special police unit which combats violence against women and also offers survival courses to women who have lived with a dangerous man.
We are led instead along gleaming corridors to the meeting room. Outside, the temperature is rising and through half-open windows we can hear the shrill chattering of the birds. All is quiet in the police station. Adolfina has already made duty lists for the LIBRA force, plain-clothes police officers specially trained to deal with violence against women. Two patrols are out at the moment driving victims to trials and making sure that no ex-husbands are nearby when the women leave the children at nursery school, or walk to work or to the shops.
In Cordoba, with 326,000 inhabitants, there are currently about 80 women living under the threat of violence and whose husbands have been ordered to stay away. The threat facing seventeen of these is so serious that they must be checked up on at least once a day.
It is an enormous police undertaking for a town which is not particularly big, and the explanation is Adolfina, the person at the centre of it all, an energetic mother-of-two with an intense gaze. “She’s got more balls than most men,” say the police who work under her.
The law guarantees the right to protection and a new home, and sets out how the police, lawyers and judges should work.
In the eleven years that she has been working with violence against women, Adolfina has experienced a revolutionary change.
“The turning point was 2004, with the new law on violence in the home,” says Adolfina. “It meant violence against women was no longer a private matter.” The law guarantees the right to protection and a new home, and sets out how the police, lawyers and judges should work.
In the past, a woman who reported an act of violence was forced to return home.
“And there she would usually be beaten again. We couldn’t protect her. It could take two months before the man was even questioned. Then he might be given a fine, which the woman herself usually ended up paying.
So before the new law, women didn’t report what had happened to the police …. They thought it just cost money!”
These days, things happen fast. The law means that a protection order can be issued within three days. On top of that, Adolfina pushed through the introduction of the city’s special unit, LIBRA, which has 28 specially trained police officers who are responsible not only for the emergency cases but also for making sure the protection order is followed.
“So even if an abused woman won’t come to the police station she is always given the correct information from LIBRA about what society can offer her,” says Adolfina.
“And didn’t you say you’d like to go out with a patrol?”
At 11 o’clock we are introduced to the next LIBRA team, which has arrived for the afternoon shift. The young men are called David Sanchez and Manuel Carrollo. Their pistols are tucked out of sight in the back lining of their jeans. The first duty on Adolfina’s list is to watch a house called ‘the Meeting Point’ where mothers and fathers who are in conflict with each other leave and collect their children so they can spend time together. For some reason, we are not told why, the team’s presence is required.
The macho culture might explain men’s violence against women, but what is more important are the social problems now that unemployment in Spain is high.
We park discreetly in a quiet street, and we see mothers, fathers and children pass silently in and out through a door, at fifteen-minute intervals and at the precise time they have been given. No-one need meet their ex-partner.
“But there’s a woman who wouldn’t allow the father to meet their children for three years.” David points out a woman holding a small boy by the hand.
They can see an increase in family problems. The macho culture might explain men’s violence against women, but what is more important are the social problems now that unemployment in Spain is high, about 20 per cent in Cordoba.
“It means the number of divorces is rising. The amount of drinking is increasing, as is the number of cases of depression. What I’ve learned is that a man can suddenly snap. So many men live in relationships where they don’t care about their woman, until she wants to leave him – and that’s something he can’t accept. It’s hard to understand, but his father was probably the same. And I think their mothers play a negative role too,” says David, restarting the engine. “They often insist that 'My son can’t do anything wrong'.”
Our journey takes us now to the poor districts of the city, where the Romany population live. There is increasingly more to do here. Romany women have not been in the habit of reporting violence to the police.
“But now they seem to be protesting more often against the way they’re treated.”
In a compartment in the car he has a file with photographs and car registration numbers. It is a tool in their surveillance work. A woman who has been granted a protection order against her husband or ex-husband is asked to provide pictures and details of times for all her, and the man’s, routines for work, school runs and other activities.
Adolfina uses the latest information she has to make a plan for LIBRA detailing which women need to be watched that day. She places each woman in one of three security levels. Level one means that the woman is checked every fifth day. Level two means the woman’s abuser drinks, has a criminal record and has attempted to commit suicide. These “twos” are followed up two or three times a week. In the most serious cases, where a man has tried to kill the woman and they can’t find him, the police have daily contact with her.
What resources we have always depends on how interested the local politicians are.
It is work which requires a lot of time, and Adolfina is concerned about resources.
“What resources we have always depends on how interested the local politicians are”, she says, “and really, I wish we could do even more. I’d like to see the women being given better financial support, so they could leave home. I wish we could carry out more surveillance. And that more women could take the courses.”
The self-defence courses are offered to the women who face the most serious threat of danger. The idea came from some members of the police force.
“It didn’t feel right that a woman who was being threatened didn’t dare go outside her front door,” says David Ruz Crezo, who designed the course together with his colleague Miguel Angel Parilla Romero.
Although they felt the work they were doing was important they began to wonder what else they could do. They saw that even when the woman dared to report the violence, she wasn’t free. She was afraid. The fear was her prison.
For the last two years, the women in the greatest danger have been offered the chance to take a five-day course in self-defence.
“It’s mainly so that the women can raise their awareness, so they feel empowered,” they explain.
The self-defence courses are offered to the women who face the most serious threat of danger.
They teach the women a number of small everyday things that can improve the safety of a woman who is being threatened. Things like keeping your keys in a part of your bag where you can find them easily and then hanging your keys by the door.
“And you can use a key as a weapon!”
The course includes some training in how women can defend themselves physically. They learn to use a self-defence spray, to ward off blows, and the best way to lie over the bonnet of a car if they should be run over.
“We teach the women to be more aware when they go out. When she sees a stone on the ground she should make a mental note of the fact that there is a weapon there should she need one.”
But the most important thing is to boost the women’s self-confidence. The course includes a thorough understanding of how her mental state has been changed by the situation she is in.
“Just the fact that she understands her feelings and reactions gives her confidence. The most important thing for the women has probably been meeting each other, identifying with each other and making friendships.
And our courses really work. We know several women who have started to go out again, and who have moved back to the town after living in hiding in other places.”
How LIBRA works in Cordoba
- The starting point is the special law on violence in the home which came into effect in 2004. The law meant that such crimes could no longer be brushed aside as private matters. It sets out in detail how the police, judges and doctors are to work with victims of crime. Death threats were made a criminal offence. Another important measure was that a protection order could be granted quickly. It also became compulsory for people who witness acts of violence, such as neighbours, to report them to the police. When a police officer has been a witness to a crime it becomes a matter for public prosecution.
- In Cordoba, two two-person teams who have been trained in matters of violence against women patrol the town continuously. One team uses an ordinary police vehicle and can arrest the abuser. The other team, known as LIBRA, is two plain clothes officers, who drive an unmarked police car and concentrate on the woman and her needs.
- When they do not have to deal with an emergency, the LIBRA team drives around following a schedule which is drawn up day by day, to check that protection orders are being followed. They keep an eye on women who are facing severe threats, to make sure they can travel safely to and from their places of work. They follow up tip-offs and escort women to trials.
- A woman who has been the victim of violence in the home cannot be forced to go to the police, station, but she is given detailed information from LIBRA about what help she can receive. If she does choose to go to the police station, she will see a specially trained investigator, and be offered a medical examination and help to care for her children. She is also entitled to a consultation with a lawyer free of charge when she makes a police report. (However, if she wants to have a lawyer beside her in a possible future legal process, this is not always free of charge, depending on her income.)
- The woman has the right to a court hearing on a protection order within three days. She also has the right to help to find a new home and a new job. This, too, is included in the special law from 2004. The court has the power to decide at the same time who has the right to the home and custody of the children until further notice. A breach of the protection order can lead to imprisonment.
- If the abuser has been arrested he can be held in custody for three days while witnesses are heard and a police report prepared.
- If the abuser has not been arrested and the woman is judged to be at risk, she is taken to safe accommodation. The police have a template for risk assessment to support them in their assessment.
- If the case comes to court, an abuser faces a fine or imprisonment of up to two years. The minimum sentence for murder is imprisonment from six years up to 30 years.
- The judge can also decide that the woman should have an alarm, and/or that the man should be monitored electronically with a transmitter attached to his ankle.
- If the woman retracts her statement during the court hearing, does not have any visible injuries and there is no confession, the suspected abuser is released.
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.