The new Spanish Cabinet: on the road to female empowerment?

Spain’s new Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez poses with new government members at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid, Spain June 8, 2018. REUTERS/Susana Vera

The push for women’s rights and gender equality might be on the brink of a major transformation in Spain. The country’s new leader, Pedro Sánchez, formed a cabinet which has drawn international attention for its high number of female ministers: 11 out of 17 positions, or 64.7 percent. Whether this cabinet reflects real change for women in Spanish society remains to be seen.

Spanish former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, leader of the conservative Popular Party (PP) and the politician who led Spain through its worst economic crisis in living memory, was ousted on June 1 (The New York Times). A previous court ruling condemning his party for fostering and allowing corruption at a national level led a number of parties to push a no-confidence vote that led to his demise. The opposition party, “el Partido Socialista” now has a constitutional mandate to finish this term if it can manage to govern with only 84 MPs out of a total of 350.

Much like the rest of the world, 2018 has witnessed a great sense of feminist advance in Spain. Fostered by a worldwide trend and galvanized by two major events at the national level, the feminist movement in Spain is on the rise. Fighters for gender equality all over the country called for the first general women’s strike on March 8, which saw massive demonstrations all over the country (El País). Madrid and Barcelona took the lead, with  around 200,000 people taking to the streets to denounce the huge gap that exists in Spanish society between men and women’s rights.

Under the long rule of Francisco Franco, women lacked rights. Divorce, contraception, and abortion were forbidden – although prostitution was permitted. The “macho” male culture was often cited.

Women are still paid much less on average for doing the same jobs as men: the wage gap lies at around 23.2 per cent. Most managerial positions are still held by men, although over the last 10 years there has been a small and steady increase in the number of women who become bosses. More women still struggle (El Mundo) to find jobs than men (the male employment rate is 53.3 percent, while the female is 42.2 percent) and pensions, where women receive almost an average 38 percent less in compensations. The massive support for the strike on March 8 was seen by many women around the country as an awakening, a new era for women in Spain.

However, if there has been one event in 2018 that has marked Spanish society and crystallized women´s anger and discontent it is the famous case of “la Manada”. In the famous festivities of San Fermin, in Pamplona, a young (and very inebriated) woman was forced into a small room by five young men who had sex with her and filmed the encounters. She later went to the police and claimed that she had been raped by these men, while they argued it had been consensual sex. The case became the epitome of sexual abuse cases in Spain and garnered huge media and societal attention.

Such was the level of expectation that the whole Spanish judiciary system and the legal framework that sustains it where put under considerable strain. The final court ruling, which sentenced each of the five young men to nine years in prison for sexual abuse, led to an uproar of anger throughout the entire country. The majority of Spanish society was expecting a higher prison sentence based on a ruling condemning the young men for rape, not sexual abuse. Thus, many feminists and gender equality activists considered the sentence to be an example of a whole legislative and legal system designed to protect men and neglect women. Massive demonstrations which lasted for days on end took place in plazas around the country.

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If there is something that 2018 and these recent events in the southern European country have made clear is that the fight for gender equality is here to stay. 2018 has witnessed a huge increase in feminist awareness and organization, making the struggle for women’s rights in all levels of Spanish society more visible and cohesive than ever before. Whether the Socialist cabinet and its 11 female ministers are a reflection of this feminist zeitgeist or just a political gesture within the center-left political establishment will mark the rest of this term and the future years to come in Spain.

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