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Spain Pioneered Laws Against Gender-Based Violence. A New Government Could Upend That

9 minute read

Veronica remembers feeling enraged when she heard José María Llanos, a leader from Spain’s far right Vox party from Valencia, openly declare last month that “gender-based violence against women doesn’t exist.”

The 42-year-old has spent the past decade embroiled in a tense legal battle against her ex-husband, whom she divorced in 2014 after he subjected her to years of abuse and violence, she tells TIME. Even after she separated from him, she says he once punched her in public and threatened to “destroy her life,” according to court documents seen by TIME.

Veronica, who wanted to conceal her identity because her case is ongoing, now lives with her 12-year-old son in the city of Elche, known for a vast palm grove near the Mediterranean coast in Valencia. “I’ve already faced so much blame and doubt in the past,” she says. “My previous lawyers even told me to drop my case because it was about gender-based violence.”

Veronica is now represented by a progressive law firm that advocates for women and the LGBTQ community. Her lawyer, Isaac Guijarro, along with his colleague Rocío Moya, has since managed to get her case heard in a dedicated gender-based violence court in the capital, Madrid, which she says has been life-changing. “I finally felt like someone was listening,” she adds.

These courts were created after Spain passed a world-first gender-based violence law in 2004 that made the survivor’s gender an aggravating factor in assault cases. They have dealt with nearly 2 million complaints and convicted at least 700,000 people—72% of whom were men—according to a 2021 study by the Institute of Labor Economics.

But Veronica now worries about what Spain’s general election on Sunday could mean for women like her. Polls suggest the conservative People’s Party (PP) will beat the current socialist government and come to power—but only with the support of Vox. The far right party wants to repeal gender-based violence laws, block abortion access, shut down the Ministry of Equality, and revoke the solo sí es sí (“only yes means yes”) law.

Read More: She Spearheaded Feminist Laws in Spain. Now the Government Is in Crisis

Valencia, a region home to 800,000 people and Spain’s third-largest city of the same name, has already offered clues as to what a PP-Vox alliance could mean for one of the most feminist countries in Europe.

When the two parties took the reins in Valencia following local elections across Spain in May, they signed a controversial agreement that promises to “preserve the quality of education by removing ideology from the classroom”; abolish gender equality officers in several cities; and replace the phrase “gender-based violence” with Vox’s preferred term, “intra-family violence.” (Vox’s local office in Valencia declined an interview request, citing the busy election campaign.)

“If you don’t name something, then it doesn’t exist,” says 46-year-old Beatriu Cardona i Prats, a member of Valencia’s Feminist Coordinator, a national organization of feminist activists. “This is why it’s important that we identify the problem as ‘gender-based’.”

As part of the power-sharing agreement in Valencia, Vox now controls the justice department, which administers gender-based violence courts; the education department, which has overseen gender-affirming school curricula; and the culture department. These developments—and the fact that Vox’s leader in Valencia, Carlos Flores, was previously convicted of gender-based violence—are alarming to many Valencians at a time when registered complaints of gender-based violence have sharply risen. In the first three months of 2023, the number of registered gender-based violence complaints in Valencia was 17% higher than at the same time last year.

“It’s a very worrying situation for us,” says Chelo Álvarez Sanchís, the president of Alanna, an association that works with survivors across Valencia. TIME sits down with Sanchís at Alanna’s office inside a big yellow house in Empalme, a suburb on the edge of the city. Sanchís estimates that two to three women come here each day to seek assistance or sometimes “just to talk to someone.” She says that Alanna’s funding comes from existing government contracts that are now at risk of not being renewed next year.

While Valencia offers a blueprint for what a PP-Vox government could look like across Spain, it also serves as a model for how many women are pushing back against the far right’s policies toward women.

On Thursday, Álvarez and Cardona i Prats were among the people who gathered in Valencia’s Plaça de l’Ajuntament, or town hall square, to protest against the PP-Vox government. More than 350 groups gathered in solidarity to promote feminism, gender, and LGBTQ rights, not to mention a range of other progressive causes related to the environment, migrants, public services, and unions. As the sun was setting, they convened under the slogan, “For our rights, not one step back.”

Thousands of protestors gather in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento in Valencia, Spain, on July 20, 2023.
Thousands of protestors gather in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento in Valencia, Spain, on July 20, 2023.Jorge Gil—Europa Press/Getty Images

The mood was somber, sometimes angry, about the new PP-Vox government in Valencia following 8 years of a progressive one under the left coalition Compromís. For 28-year-old Claudia Gonzalez Morono, the PP-Vox government represents a brake on years of improvements. “Employment got better, people started to have their basic needs covered, women were being heard,” she says.

“But now we’re back to how things were during the Franco regime. It feels like politics is just a cycle,” Morono adds, referring to Gen. Francisco Franco, Spain’s former dictator, who ruled the country from 1939 to 1975. If the PP forms an alliance with Vox at the national level following Sunday’s vote, it will be the first time a far right party enters government since the Franco years.

Read More: What to Know About Spain’s Most Important Election in Decades

Within an hour, the protestors at Plaça de l’Ajuntament had swelled to thousands, and shortly after the batucada, a musical ensemble, arrived with drums and flutes to liven the mood. The demonstrators marched across the square and through the city streets with vim, before landing at the Plaza de la Virgen, where Cándida Barroso, one of the organizers, read out a manifesto defending public services, social rights, and the fight against gender-based violence. “On July 23 you have to go out and vote for these rights,” she urges the crowd, adding that the threat was not in the future but “already here.”

In several municipalities in Valencia and elsewhere, the PP-Vox government has restricted feminist and LGBTQ-friendly flags, plays, movies, and books. That compelled a group of artists under the “Free Arts Platform” to issue a statement in May that denounced Vox for “attacking freedom of expression.”

The censorship has also riled up Lola Sanhermelando Julian, a 39-year-old psychologist at the demonstration. She runs a weekly support group for survivors and says she was attending the protest for them. “They have fought to get even a little bit of anything in this life,” she adds, “and now, [Vox] wants to tell them what to do with their lives.”

Vox’s extreme positions have proved uncomfortable for the PP. Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the PP leader who polls suggest will be Spain’s next Prime Minister, has had to distance himself from the rhetoric of some Vox leaders. Shortly after Llanos, the local Vox politician in Valencia, denied the existence of gender-based violence, Feijóo tweeted that “gender violence exists and our society is profoundly shaken every time a woman is murdered. The PP will never take a step backward in the fight against this scourge. We will not abandon our principles, whatever the cost.”

But on other matters, observers say that Feijóo and his party have adopted some of Vox’s talking points and tapped into a sentiment in Spain that the government has gone too far in promoting a feminist agenda. Earlier this month, when Feijóo suggested he would eliminate the equality ministry, he told reporters, “We aren’t here for that.”

The Minister of Equality, Irene Montero (center), and the Secretary of State for Equality and against Gender Violence, Angela Rodriguez Pam (right), in the Congress of Deputies in Madrid, on Dec. 15, 2022.
The Minister of Equality, Irene Montero (center), and the Secretary of State for Equality and against Gender Violence, Angela Rodriguez Pam (right), in the Congress of Deputies in Madrid, on Dec. 15, 2022.Jesus Hellin—Europa Press/Getty Images

What worries many voters is how much ground the PP will cede to Vox if it needs it to form a government, as most polls suggest it will.

Pablo Simon, a political scientist at Carlos III University of Madrid, says that if the PP and Vox come into power nationally after Sunday’s vote, it’s likely that Vox will push for having portfolios that impact gender-based rights. “They will try to change laws, or at the very least in a more noisy and symbolic way, the government’s position concerning gender equality,” he says.

Álvarez, the president of Alanna, says that prospect only makes her more determined to keep doing her work. “There’s clearly a problem when it comes to gender-based violence, you can see it in the statistics,” she says. “Every day, I see more and more cases of violence, rape, and sexual abuse.”

“We hope to work with PP and Vox,” she continues, “but we existed for a long time even without government funding, and we will find a way to reach the women that need our help.”

As Veronica continues to fight her case against her ex-husband, she says that she hopes a new government won’t usher in an end to laws that have protected her so far. But she, like many Spaniards, will not forget what Vox has said. “Gender-based violence does exist,” she says, “and all the suffering I’ve been through is real.”

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Write to Astha Rajvanshi / Valencia, Spain at astha.rajvanshi@time.com