Fighting for Their Lives

Eight women camped out this February and March in the Puerta Del Sol, one of Madrid’s busiest squares. They were on a hunger strike, consuming only liquids. By the 21st day, four had been hospitalized, and doctors demanded that the remaining four eat. They refused.

Santi Burgos

This is Asociación Ve-la-luz (See the Light Association), an independent group of women who’ve risked their lives in a tenacious fight against gender violence.

“Each hunger strike takes a toll on our bodies,” says the group’s president, Gloria Vasquez. “Whether we plan more should be answered by those who claim to represent us. Our objective is to break the comfort zone in which society lives.”

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Founded in 2009 and less known outside of the country, See the Light has become an unwelcome gadfly to provincial and national Spanish governments and even to established women’s groups. “Our road has been filled with obstacles not only from the different political parties but also with organizations we thought were fighting for the same goal,” Vasquez says. “We have suffered multiple aggressions typical of the patriarchal system, [to] our personal belongings and property, [as well as] investigations and denunciations.” Vasquez herself has been detained by the police.

The women of See the Light have persisted. For nine years, they’ve been calling for a 25-point comprehensive national law that covers gender-based violence, and demand aid for survivors comparable to that received by victims of terrorism.

The group’s first hunger strike in 2013 in the northern region of Galicia lasted a month and resulted in the establishment of a parliamentary subcommittee to explore gender violence. Subsequent strikes have focused on such different priorities as lack of protection for minors suffering abuse and the absence or minimizing of programs for gender violence. The strikers note that legal definitions of gender-based violence are unclear, and existing and proposed laws lack many procedural steps for prosecution. Laws also omit programs that protect survivors, ensure child support for divorced mothers and aid families in reestablishing their lives.

“Every time a woman tries to escape gender violence, she finds herself trapped—discredited, condemned, ruined,” Vasquez says. “Women sharing custody of their children are especially vulnerable, as abusers perpetuate the violence through the children. Also, when men violate the restraining order, there are no realistic measures to control them or protect the women. In many cases, victims are murdered by husbands or boyfriends; some women have been driven to suicide when the judicial system dismisses their cases.”

On July 28, the government initiated a new law on violence against women. Most of See the Light’s proposals were included, though in a somewhat diluted form. Speaking to the Spanish press, Vasquez said that the group feels satisfied—for now. But they intend to continue their work and to be vigilant regarding transparency of the allotted funds. Vasquez insists, “We will continue the struggle for our lives and for other women’s lives.”

Isel Rivero y Mendez is a Cuban-born poet who who has also worked extensively as an international civil servant. She was previously a political consultant with the U.N.’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations and director of the United Nations Information Centre in Madrid, where she sponsored several activities related to women’s human rights and poetry. She was a contributor to Robin Morgan’s anthology Sisterhood is Global. In 2006, the Spanish Federación de Mujeres Progresistas presented her with the Julia Mayoral Prize for her work for women’s causes.

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