Can a Divided Coalition Government Reform Spain’s Sexual Assault Laws?

Can a Divided Coalition Government Reform Spain’s Sexual Assault Laws?
Women protest outside the Justice Ministry after five men accused of gang raping an unconscious 14-year-old three years ago were convicted of sexual abuse instead of assault or rape, in Madrid, Spain, Nov. 4, 2019 (AP photo by Paul White).

MADRID—After a series of gut-wrenching incidents of rape sparked a massive public outcry in Spain in recent years, the country’s new leftist coalition government has quickly focused on overhauling its sexual assault laws. It has public opinion on its side, as several high-profile trials, including the conviction last summer of five men calling themselves the “Wolf Pack” who gang-raped an 18-year-old woman during the annual bull-running festival in Pamplona in 2016, have galvanized support for tackling this issue. According to the Madrid-based Sociological Research Center, 93 percent of Spaniards find sexual assault to be a worrying problem and 71 percent believe that current legislation isn’t enough to address it.

But while Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s Cabinet approved a sweeping reform bill earlier this month, which it is calling the “sexual freedom law,” new divisions have emerged between Sanchez’s Socialists and the junior coalition partner, the far-left Podemos party. They lead a minority government, so the bill will need support from other parties in parliament to become law. And even if it does, many Spanish feminists say the bill in its current form does not go far enough.

A security alert issued by the U.S. Embassy in Madrid in early February highlights what’s at stake. The alert cited data from Spain’s Interior Ministry, which “reports a steady increase in the number of sexual assaults nationally over the past five years,” including “a rise in sexual assault against young U.S. citizen visitors and students throughout Spain.” The alert generated headlines in local newspapers and a response from the Interior Ministry, affirming that Spain has seen an upswing in reports of sexual assault but that it also ranks among the lowest in Europe in terms of sex crimes.

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