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Women on the edge?

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Democracy and EU membership have transformed the face of Iberian society. And that of their women.

At 33-years-old, Ana is separated from her violent partner and lives alone in Madrid with her four-year-old son. After completing her law degree, finding herself alone and pregnant, she opted for a series of casual and part-time jobs that had little to do with her qualifications; “more attractive jobs” that above all allowed her time to both look after her child and to be an active member of a charity for battered women. Having terminated two previous pregnancies, she claims to be satisfied with her life as a single mother and as a “modern” working woman. A far cry from the example set by her mother, who was married for 30 years and raised four children. Not a radical feminist but simply a woman who is proud of being what she is, Ana is no different from any other Spanish and Portuguese females of her generation.

More than half of women are employed

Certainly, prejudices abound regarding the ‘macho’ tradition embedded within the Spanish and Portuguese societies. However, the statistics show that both countries actually follow the European norm: professional equality, domestic violence and abortion have gained an important space in political and social debates, which have gained momentum with their strong presence in the media. Just over 56% of Spanish women aged 16 to 64 are employed, compared to the 61% average of the 25 EU member states. In Portugal, the female employment rate has risen to just over 60%. However, although the Spanish Constitution of 1978 and the Portuguese equivalent of 1976 may guarantee the equality of men and women, in reality much remains to be done.

Mentalities evolve much more slowly than social reality. And in societies with a strong Catholic tradition, the idea that women should have control over their own bodies is not always easily accepted. In Spain, progress has been rapid since the death of its dictator, Franco: divorce was legalised in 1981, abortion in 1985… In Portugal, the law shows a far less liberal attitude. Abortion, for example, is still illegal - except for medical reasons. And women who turn to it as a solution are liable to find themselves behind bars, as are the doctors who help them. In 2002, 43 women were accused of that very crime, the midwife at the centre of the case being sentenced to more than eight years in prison. In 1998, the Portuguese rejected a proposed revision of this law by a majority of 51%.

Domestic violence still rife

And so it is that, despite impressive advances, on 25 November last year Spain celebrated the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The national figures, despite a recent decrease, reveal the true extent of the problem of domestic violence inn Spain: nearly 7,000 charges were made in 2005 and 6 women were killed every month by their partner in 2004, according to statistics from the Instituto de la Mujer. However, these figures lie within the European average and are below those recorded in the Scandinavia. In the European Union, one in five women claim to have been the victim of violence at the hands of their partner. According to Amnesty International, domestic violence is the principal cause of death or disability for European women aged 16 to 64, before cancer or road traffic accidents.

Furthermore, women continue to be more affected by unemployment and insecurity than their male counterparts. In Spain for example, the unemployment rate for women is twice as high as that for men (14.39% compared with 7.55%) and is among the worst in the Union. The lack of infrastructure and adequate support needed to help balance family and professional life is another obstacle.

Step by step

But the fight for professional equality has begun. There are numerous feminist organisations and political parties working towards this objective. And the authorities are increasingly conscious of their grievances. In Spain, the socialist government of Jose Luis Zapatero has been addressing the problem of domestic violence since its rise to power in 2004, introducing the most advanced European law against gender violence. And in Portugal, Jose Socrates’ left-wing government has promised to hold a referendum on the legalisation of abortion.

In 20 years, the Iberians have finally challenged the stereotypical and controversial image of the housewife dominated by her husband. There is even talk of abolishing the Salic law that still governs the succession to the throne, to allow little Dona Leonor, born at the beginning of November, to one day become Queen in her own right.

Translated from Femmes au bord de la crise de nerfs