If you break a girl’s rib she’ll grow 40 new ones.
“I said I had two other options: I could become a beggar or a prostitute.”
Who: Ana Maria Perez del Campo
What: Started a women’s shelter where the women stay for eighteen months. So far no-one has returned to her violent husband after her stay.
We park on the driveway of a large house on the outskirts of a quiet residential area. Women come here from all over Spain. We are signed in to the reception, which is well-monitored, and Ana Maria shows us round, glowing with pride. The women’s shelter was started in 1991 by the Asociacion de mujeres separadas y divorciadas, an organisation for women who were separated or divorced, led by Ana Maria. Now it receives a government grant.
The house is her vision of what a woman who has been the victim of violence needs in order to make a new start. Lawyers, psychologists and social workers work here. The children receive schooling. Each of the 22 women registered has a timetable for her day. It includes helping with the housework and looking after the house.
The most important thing, explains Ana Maria, is that the women stay for a long time. Some are ready to leave the house after one year, others stay for two years. Most stay 18 months.
Some are ready to leave the house after one year, others stay for two years.
“Many people believe that the most important thing for a woman who is the victim of violence is she leaves the home. But the hard work starts after that. Breaking away from relationship dependency with a violent man is hard work, and she needs time for that. A long time.”
How many women go back to their husbands after they’ve been here?
“None! When they have a problem they can always call us again. We follow up all our cases after a year. Many of the women find somewhere to live near us so that they can stay in touch. It’s worse at the ordinary state-run shelters, the poorest women are there and they don’t get any training in how to build a new life. That’s why they often go back.”
The women’s rooms are on the first floor. Most of them have their own colourful sign on the door. Several of the women face severe threats of danger, like Anhoia, who apologises because she can’t show her face in a photograph. She used to work as a lawyer, and she ran a restaurant with her husband, as a sideline. Five months ago she ran away. Her husband had thrown a glass table at their youngest child. That roused her from her apathy, and in two hours she packed the essentials after seventeen years of marriage. She was assessed as a high risk case and sent to Ana Maria’s shelter.
In court, her children have described strangleholds and violent beatings.
“But the judge thought it was alright to bring up children like that,” she says. “Of course it’s illegal to beat children, but the judge can judge any way he likes.”
The question of children’s rights is one where Spain still has a long way to go.
In Ana Maria’s opinion, the question of children’s rights is one where Spain still has a long way to go. Yet an enormous amount has changed in her lifetime.
Lunch is served in a large sunny room beside a green inner courtyard and Ana Maria tells us about her life. She was born in 1936 in a conservative upper-class family and sent to a strict Catholic school.
“But I was very rebellious. Once I washed the paint off a statue of Christ. I didn’t get any dessert for a month after that and had to read aloud to the others every evening.
I was determined not to be a nun. I wanted to be free, to study. To learn things. I was good at riding, both jumping and dressage, but they were always shouting at me: ‘Don’t ride too fast!’ ”
She met her future husband at a hunt party. She woke on her wedding day feeling sick and feverish, which she sees as a sign. They had three children, but the marriage was never happy.
“I had to ask my husband for everything, because that was the law. The woman was a slave. She couldn’t go to the bank and take out money she’d earned herself. I was constantly being criticised and ridiculed … I guess he was behaving like a man of his time. But I behaved like a woman of my time.”
After five years of marriage she went to the Catholic Church to ask for a divorce. It took nine years to get it through.
I had to ask my husband for everything, because that was the law.
Ana Maria was born in the gap between two systems. Spain was one of the first countries in Europe to give women the right to vote. When the dictator Francisco Franco came to power in 1935, that right was revoked. It became illegal for women in Spain to work, own land or property, open a bank account or travel without their husband’s permission. Contraception, abortion and adultery were also illegal. The law stated that ‘the husband must protect his wife and she must obey him’.
As recently as 1990, a woman was officially still required to ask her husband’s permission to travel freely, and for almost as long, a woman who stayed away from her home overnight without permission was breaking the law.
When Franco died in 1975 there was a pent-up need for justice and equality under the law. It exploded. That explains Spain’s current radical climate.
In the 1960s, Ana Maria herself was forced to fight hard for her right to be independent. When she found a job as a physiotherapist, her husband’s lawyer went to the hospital and demanded to see her written permission to support herself. He knew that her husband had not signed any such permission.
The nuns at the hospital went to Ana Maria and asked for the required certificate. She told them the truth: she didn’t have her husband’s permission to work.
“I said I had two other options: I could become a beggar or a prostitute. Then the nuns said no, that wouldn’t be necessary. They’d rather smuggle me in to work by the back door.”
Ana Maria laughs: “So I suppose you could say that at that very moment the nuns became feminists, don’t you?”
I suppose you could say that at that very moment the nuns became feminists, don’t you?
She later joined forces with other women who dared to talk about the injustices. They barricaded themselves inside churches and public buildings and voiced their protests. They started counting how many women had been killed by their husband or ex-husband and sprayed the words Judges and prosecutors – here are your murder victims on the court buildings
“But the political situation is different now, and we have been able to ask for things.”
Ana Maria is still a well-known and respected spokesperson for women’s rights. The price she has to pay is that she is still facing danger. She has to live with the fact that the tyres on her car are slashed from time to time. She receives anonymous phone calls, saying “I know where your grandchildren live”. She reports these to the police, but they never find any clues. She says, matter-of-factly, “Everyone who defends women’s rights lives with some kind of risk.”
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.