The shocking case of a man who killed his children to get back at his ex-wife has thrown the spotlight on Spain's child protection efforts, which are a central part of its legal battle against gender violence.
Last week, José Antonio A. was sentenced to life in prison for murdering his 11-year-old son with multiple knife wounds to cause maximum "psychological damage" to his ex-wife, the boy's mother in April 2022.
The murder and trial was closely followed in Spain where it was presented as a case of "vicarious violence," or violence by proxy, in which a third party – most often a child – is hurt to cause the greatest pain to a partner or ex-partner.
Jordi – who was online with his mum when the attack happened – was the one whom his ex-wife "loved most in the world," the 49-year-old father told a Valencia court last month.
The phrase vicarious violence first emerged in 2021 following a similar case in which a father murdered his daughters, aged one and six, in the Canary Islands.
At the time, their mother described it as "the most monstrous act a person can commit" but expressed hope their deaths wouldn't be in vain, saying thanks to them, "we now know the meaning of vicarious violence."
Argentine therapist Sonia Vaccaro, who first coined the phrase, said such violence often happens after a woman has separated from her partner.
"It's a form of violence the abuser uses against a woman when he no longer has access to her, which generally happens when the woman gets divorced or separated," she told AFP. "He has to use an intermediary to hurt her."
Children at risk
Vicarious violence can be extreme, involving the murder of a child, but it can often be expressed in more banal "day-to-day" behaviours such as not giving a child their medication, not taking them to their favourite sports club or sending them home in dirty clothes, she said.
As well as gathering statistics on femicides, Spain's government also monitors vicarious violence.
Figures showing 52 children have been murdered by their father, or by their mother's companion or ex-companion since 2013.
And in January, a total of 1,444 minors were at "risk of [vicarious] violence," a figure which has jumped almost 40 percent over the past year.
For years, such incidents were not considered to be directly linked to gender violence.
But in 2011, the country was shocked by a case involving the murder of two children shortly after their mother had left their father, Jose Breton.
Breton claimed to have lost the children, aged two and six, in a park, but their burnt remains were found a year later on land belonging to his family.
In 2013, he was convicted for both murders.
But a year later, he was acquitted on charges of causing psychological violence to their mother.
"The justice system was saying: you are not a victim of anything," said Marisa Soleto, head of the Mujeres foundation, one of Spain's main feminist organisations.
"There was no judicial element linking the murder of the children with the abuse of their mother."
'An abuser can't be a good dad'
But that changed when Spain adopted the State Pact against gender-based violence in 2017, which suspended visiting rights if the child had witnessed any violence or the parent was serving jail time for such offences.
That principle took shape as a legal reform in June 2021 and within six months, the number of suspensions had shot up by 329 percent, justice ministry figures show.
That reform also banned any use in court of the parental alienation argument, whereby one parent seeks to poison the mind of a child against the other after a separation or divorce.
A controversial term, it has been used in custody battles in several countries with the father accusing his ex-partner of manipulating their child to block any chance of him seeing them.
Despite efforts to strengthen Spain's legal framework, "many judges prefer to rely on their own interpretations, meaning the children just get thrown under the bus", says Teresa Peramato, the public prosecutor for gender-based violence.
Soleto said Spain needed "legislation that moves away from the stereotypical Napoleonic civil code" of 1804 which became the basis of many legal systems and enshrined the power of the man of the house over his wife and children.
"An abuser cannot be a good father," she said, echoing a slogan that has been adopted by Spanish feminists.
by Marie Giffard, AFP