Spain gov’t split over sexual consent law before Women’s Day

Associated Press [New York NY]

March 7, 2023

By Joseph Wilson and Ciaran Giles

The unity of Spain’s first-ever coalition government faced its toughest test in three years in power Tuesday, with the two ruling left-wing parties at loggerheads over reforming a pioneering sexual violence law that has inadvertently led to the reduction of sentences for over 700 offenders and caused national outrage.

Both have said the coalition will stay intact and finish the legislature this year. But the wounds from the law’s fallout are so raw they could presage the ending of a successful partnership that has produced several progressive laws but risks being divided by its flagship cause.

The fight came the day before thousands of women, and men, planned to take to the streets of Madrid, Barcelona and other cities across Spain in what is annually one of the world’s largest rallies for International Women’s Day.

The Socialist Party of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and the anti-austerity United We Can movement are sparring over one of the government’s banner causes: a sexual violence law that increased support and resources for victims when it took effect in October. But it also inadvertently led to the reduction of sentences for at least 721 offenders — including the early release of 74 convicts, according to the judiciary.

The Sexual Liberty Law was supposed to be one of the government’s greatest achievements. Instead it has turned into a political liability that is pitting the two partners against one another in Parliament.

United We Can, which sponsored the new law last year, voted late Tuesday against Parliament considering a reform proposed by the Socialists to restore higher prison terms for future sexual offenders. But the proposed modification was cleared — on a vote of 231 for, 56 against and 58 abstaining — to proceed through the legislative process.

The Socialists pushed it through with the rare backing of the conservative party that leads the opposition. That alignment was considered a betrayal by United We Can, considering the conservatives’ record of opposing laws like expanding abortion rights.

The Socialists say the law is flawed and want to make technical tweaks to restore higher minimum sentences. For example, they want rape convictions to be punished by at least six years behind bars, instead of the four established under the new law.

But Equality Minister Irene Montero, a member of United We Can who championed the law, insists the problem is the endemic sexism of some judges.

She says the Socialists’ proposal would betray the essence of the law, which makes lack of consent by a victim the key to determining if there is a sex crime. The proposed change would reintroduce the importance given to whether force is used by an alleged aggressor.

The bitter debate in the Congress promises to widen the divide between the Socialists, who boast decades of leading the feminist cause, and the upstart United We Can, which belongs to the wave of more radical leftist politics.

Socialist legislator Andrea Fernández presented the proposed reform and chided her party’s junior partner, saying: “We are tired of boring speeches, sirs and madams of United We Can … (T)he law is not working adequately, and we must modify it.”

Lucia Muñoz of United We Can fired back that the reform would mean that judges would “have to again ask us if we did enough to close our legs” to prove that there was a sexual assault.

The Socialists insist consent will remain central to the law. United We Can disagrees.

The government, which has 14 women and nine men in its Cabinet, has passed a series of feminist laws, including laws on abortion, menstrual leave and improved maternity and paternity leave, among others.

But some leading feminists are concerned that the outbreak of public bickering over the feminist cause between the government partners, which are eyeing local elections in May and a general ballot later this year, can overshadow or even tarnish Wednesday’s rally for women’s rights.

“What is generating the noise is their need to make political gains and the fact that many parties want to be included under the feminist umbrella,” Marisa Soleto, director of the feminist organization Fundación Mujeres, told The Associated Press. “Those of us who have spent so many years in the feminist movement are a bit bewildered observing this.”

Sotelo said the feminist movement, both in Spain and internationally, has always lived with intense internal debate. But, she said, questions over the sexual liberty law are being “distorted” by the political jockeying, saying that there are much more divisive issues among feminist groups, including how to deal with prostitution and the Spanish government’s transgender rights law that allows teenagers as young as 16 to change their gender freely.

Timed to flaunt its feminist pedigree, the Socialist wing of the government presented a new Parity Law initiative earlier Tuesday to require that women, or men, make up at least 40% of the boards of directors of listed companies and private companies with more than 250 workers and 50 million euros in business. The same will also apply to Spain’s Cabinet. The bill also proposes to oblige political parties to have equality in their electoral lists, with names of men and women coming one after the other.

That initiative, whose drafting did not include input from Montero, the equality minister, has also split the coalition.

Economy Minster Nadia Calviño, a Socialist who has refused to participate in public talks or group photos where she is the only woman, said the new law would break the highest of Spain’s glass ceilings. Montero said that her priority is for “all women to get off the sticky floor.”