The Ms. Q&A: Vanessa Mendoza Cortés is Demanding a Better Future for Women in Andorra

Located in the Pyrenees between France and Spain, the Principality of Andorra is a European microstate that is equally well-known for its ski slopes and natural landscapes as it is for its reputation as a tax haven flocked to by foreigners in search of duty-free goods. What most people do not know about Andorra, however, is that it also happens to be extremely prohibitive in terms of sexual and reproductive rights, the curtailment of which implies, by its very nature, a detrimental impact on women’s human rights.

According to a December 2017 publication by the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, there are only eight countries in Europe that have highly restrictive abortion laws: Ireland, Northern Ireland, Malta, Monaco, Liechtenstein, Poland, San Marino and Andorra. Of these countries, only Monaco and Andorra have disallowed it under all circumstances (according to certain unofficial accounts, Andorran Social Security has, on very rare occasions, paid for women to have abortions abroad).

This prohibitive posture stems from the fact that one of the country’s co-princes, the Bishop of Urgell, is against its legalization, prompting some Andorrans to argue that to permit it would lead to the Principality’s dissolution. Furthermore, Andorra’s 1993 Constitution ambiguously states that it “[…] recognizes the right to life and fully protects it in its different phases” without conclusively specifying where life begins, therefore allowing some to argue that abortion is unconstitutional. Political will to pass a law allowing women ability to choose to terminate a pregnancy, even only under specific circumstances such as rape or health risks for the mother or fetus, has been complicated by the Andorran government’s unique configuration. Only as of 1993 does its elected head of government have more power than the long-standing office of its two co-Princes: the Bishop of Urgell, currently Joan Enric Vives, appointed by the Pope, and the French President, elected by the French people.

When I first met Vanessa Mendoza Cortés, founder of the Andorran women’s rights group Stop Violències, at a conference on sexual and reproductive rights in Barcelona last October, she fiercely denounced the situation faced by her fellow countrywomen. Many of us in attendance were in utter disbelief—how could women so close to us, at least geographically, be faced with a situation so different to our own? On the other hand, famed Salvadoran women’s rights activist and former FMLN fighter, Morena Herrera, was rather amused by this situation as she light-heartedly joked that she had finally found a European country comparable to those in Central America.

Mendoza Cortés, who has been described as “Andorra’s pasionaria” in a country where activism is uncommon, does not shy away from broaching sensitive subjects—including the events that took place during her formative years as an undergraduate student in Barcelona. When she was 18 she sexually assaulted by an underage boy who forced her into the entrance of a building and proceeded to rape her. Despite this, she still describes herself as being fortunate, since the people who treated her following the assault did so appropriately and her assailant was caught—although he has since re-offended. As a minor who was also a ward of the state, the Catalan government was found to be at fault and she was awarded a hefty sum. With this money, Mendoza Cortés began taking as many classes as she could to help her learn and heal from that experience, including lessons in self-defense or about Bach Flower Remedies.

After completing her undergraduate and graduate studies in psychology, Mendoza Cortés began a successful career in Barcelona as a psychologist for the municipal and provincial governments, specializing in gender-based violence—or, as she puts it, “violences,” since they come in multiple forms. She has spent over six years working with women who have suffered abuse as well as giving talks on the subject both in Spain and abroad. Feeling that there was still important work to do be done in her home country, Mendoza Cortés moved back to Andorra, where, in 2014, she founded Stop Violències with the aim of campaigning for women’s rights—including but not limited to the right to have a safe and legal abortion.

Mendoza Cortés and I met up in Premià de Mar in Barcelona where we discussed Andorra’s socioeconomic and political reality—and how it hashas forged the current state of women’s human rights. Below is a translated from Catalan and shortened transcript of this conversation.

What shapes Andorra’s political and social reality?

We have a small population of roughly 70,000 people. Of these 70,000 people, about 11,000 are children, meaning that out of the remaining 59,000, only 20,000 can vote since the rest are foreigners. We have a significant migratory influx over the winter because a lot of people come to work during ski season and become residents, thereby increasing the overall population. As a result, we have policies that are made for people without actually including them in the political process at all.

Ours is a spectacularly neoliberal society where the working class’ social needs are overlooked. Because we live off of tourism, people justify savage working hours: the person who opens the store at 10 in the morning will most likely be the same person closing it at 10 o’clock at night; there are no laws promoting work-life balance. Women and the working class do not really have any rights. We have severe economic problems, but this reality is not talked about much.

We also have a big problem with alcoholism and many accidents occur because of people driving under the influence. We do have a public transport system, but it is not very good. If you leave work at 8 PM and large groups of tourists also happen to be moving about at the same time, two or three packed buses might go by before you can actually get on one to go home.

Andorra doesn’t look after the working class’ rights nor does it worry about the kind of society it is creating. Things are only half done, playing to the gallery.

In addition to this, we have a serious problem with violence at all levels—from bullying at schools to street harassment to gender-based violence. There are forms of violence everywhere, but as far as the state is concerned, we only have one public unit that deals with gender-based violence for the entire country. This is clearly not enough for 70,000 people. Now there is more coordination between the unit dealing with women and the unit dealing with children because they have finally begun to realize that there are often children behind a woman who is suffering abuse.

Unlike other countries, civil servants in Andorra do not want to specialize in any specific domain because the wider their reach, the more money they can earn. Because of this, we don’t have courts specializing in gender-based violence, nor do we have specialized lawyers or psychologists. Everyone does a bit of everything.

A [single] working woman in Andorra can earn an average of about €900 or so. An apartment will cost her from €400 to €500 a month. Daycare, even public daycare, for her young child will cost her around €400 a month, meaning that after that, she will not have enough money to eat. But when she goes to Social Services they don’t seem to understand that she’s not asking for charity, but for assistance that has been paid for by all of us.

We don’t have a universal health care system in Andorra either. If you stop working, you either lose your health benefits three months later or you have to become someone’s beneficiary in order to keep them. I wonder just how many women have health benefits through someone else. Because if you don’t earn €900, even if you can only work part-time, you do not have the right to public health care. And, of course, there have been no studies that look into how many people don’t have social security or how many women in relation to men are in this situation of having to be someone’s beneficiary.

How does this impact women’s rights in the country?

Women in Andorra are used to not having rights. There are even some women who think that women are worse off in Catalonia because political misinformation is rampant.

However, and thankfully, we’re currently living a great moment where people are working many hours, but doing so is no longer worth their while economically or emotionally, which means that the working class is starting to question the status quo.

How would you qualify the general public’s attitude towards women’s rights? Is there still a need for raising awareness?

A lot of awareness-raising is needed, but on top of that, the main issue is that people are very tired. Sometimes, I think people are worked to exhaustion intentionally so that they can’t think. If you have a child to look after, after you’ve been working for 10 hours at a store, a restaurant, at the ski slopes, you already have so much more work in the form of household duties when you get back home that you don’t have the time to think about whether you have rights or not. People don’t realize they don’t have rights, not because they’re stupid, but because they simply don’t have the time to. You can’t think about anything when you’re exhausted.

Andorra does have labor laws, but employers are often the friends or family of people in power, so what difference does it make if you report someone for breaching these laws? This doesn’t only happen in Andorra, but you see this more clearly there than in bigger places—Andorra is so small that everyone knows everybody. For example, the grandson of the owners of Andorra’s largest perfume chain of stores, Perfumeries Júlia, is the Minister for Social Affairs, Justice and Labor. Who is ever going to tell them that they are doing something wrong?

What does an Andorran woman do if she needs to have an abortion?

Leave the country or look for a solution online, maybe—we don’t know if there are women who look up abortion methods online and have abortions by using drugs that aren’t explicitly abortive, but that still have the same effects. The only documented case we’ve been able to find of an abortion in Andorra is of a woman in 1986 who shot herself in the stomach because she didn’t want to have a child and was then put in jail for homicide.

Everything is swept under the rug so that people don’t realize there’s a need for legal abortions in the country. Andorran women who need one have to go to either Spain or France and pay somewhere between €300 and €1,000 depending on the particular health complications they may present. Some women have told us that they’re registered at the clinics they visit abroad, but others have told us that they’re not and that they’re simply asked to give an envelope with the money in it to the doctor attending them, who then pockets it. Which makes you wonder, who exactly is benefitting from all of this?

Do you think the recent criticisms that were brought up by Council of Europe in terms of sexual and reproductive rights in Andorra will help change this situation?

It’s good for creating further social pressure and it makes people talk about the issue. It has also forced people to learn about their country’s reality because there were a lot of women in Andorra who didn’t realize they couldn’t actually have an abortion in Andorra. Because in Andorra we tend to think that because in Catalonia women can have legal abortions, somehow, we’ve been magically granted that right too. If there were women who didn’t know that they couldn’t have an abortion in Andorra, now they know.

The Council of Europe’s Commissioner of Human Rights is an ally of ours, and we think this also helps us in terms of demanding, from within, that Andorra fulfill its obligations as a country. Rights aren’t won from the outside, they’re won by the people who are fighting for them from the inside. It also helps us talk about sexual and reproductive rights since people didn’t even know what they were.

Because they’re not taught about them at school?

We know that students are taught “sex ed” at school, but we also know that there are some schools that teach students about the internal part of the male and female reproductive systems and only teach them about the external part of the male system, so students learn about male pleasure, but not about female pleasure.

I must say, however, that the morning after pill is sold at pharmacies. But it also depends on the pharmacy, because some won’t sell it to you if they declare themselves to be conscientious objectors. Therefore, we do have contraceptive methods, but a less than ideal sex education being taught at schools.

What measures does the government promote to prevent gender-based violence as well as to assist women who have experienced it? 

In Andorra, gender-based violence is understood to be intimate partner violence and people think that men can also be victims of gender-based violence. They passed Law 1/2015 against gender-based violence and intimate partner violence, and when you read it you see that it constantly refers to “the person”—it’s not a law that protects women.

At first, I naively thought that maybe some sort of study had been carried out in Andorra that found that men’s violence towards women was the same as women’s violence towards men, but this wasn’t the case.

This law can be used against women. In fact, it is used against them. We can see a very clear example of this on the police’s webpage, where they post information on what they’ve been up to every week. A week ago, they published something about how they had to intervene in a couple’s home because the woman had scratched the man to the point of making his face bleed. Was this woman crazy and had no reason for her actions? What comes to my mind is that this woman was possibly defending herself because, maybe, her partner was somehow hurting her. But the police have no interest in knowing what her reasons were. I know that the public department that deals with equality policies is doing a great job, but the Andorran police force is full of sexism, misogyny and people who have never left the country.

Furthermore, at the public hospital they still haven’t understood that a woman who is experiencing gender-based violence does not need to be placed in the psychiatric ward. Sometimes, these women get to the hospital suffering from panic attacks and they’re forced to sleep in the psychiatric ward. Gemma García Parés, the head of psychiatry, used to think that if a woman developed a psychotic episode after having been raped, the rape in and of itself was not enough to have triggered it since the woman was supposedly already mentally predisposed to have one. After arguing with her for a while, she finally understood that the rape has to be treated too. If all you do is make psychiatric zombies you won’t end up reintegrating anyone!

In 2016, the psychiatric ward treated people almost 13,000 times. In a population of 70,000! But we have no background information on these cases, such as how many of these are women, their ages, or their disorders, even though we have asked for this information.

There are no official protocols that are followed when someone is raped. We have been told by some women that they have had forensic experts and police officers measure their vaginal opening to confirm whether they have, indeed, actually been raped. Andorra does not have any public units that specifically deal with sexual violence, and according to the police, hardly any reports are filed for rape in the country. But we also know that they sometimes don’t let women file them. If you’re a young woman who has been drinking, they might ask you something like, “So, why did you get in his car?”

There are also a lot of women who suffer domestic violence who have been judicially incapacitated as if they were mentally disabled. The people in the team that treats you at the hospital are the same people who are at court to determine whether you are psychologically fit. You’re screwed if you lose it after having been assaulted by your partner or ex-partner because they’ll medicate you against your will. Anyone around you can force you to be evaluated by the Conava, and in the meantime, while your mental state is being assessed, you can be locked up in the psychiatric ward.

How did Stop Violències come about and what are its goals?

Stop Violències was founded in December 2014. I had gone back to Andorra two years earlier to help someone very close to me leave her home because she was suffering intimate partner violence and I saw what the situation in the country was like. I had to fight to get the police to come over after her former partner had torn apart her apartment. It took two hours for them to get there, and one of the police officers even told me that he wouldn’t get in the way of a man. I told him, “What’s going on here is that this woman has been abused by her partner,” to which he asked me, “Did he hit her?” No, he did not, but there are a lot of other things besides hitting that constitute violence.

I have learnt a lot from my years in Barcelona and I have a lot of professional experience in this domain, but I’d go home to visit and feel like a hypocrite. It was like going back in time. Having to see all of that suffering up close and seeing how hard it was because there was nobody there that was able to speak to this woman with the slightest bit of empathy… So, I left everything I had going for me in Barcelona, where I was working as a psychologist specializing in gender-based and sexual violence, and I went back to Andorra to see what I’d encounter and to fight for women’s rights.

I have had unpleasant episodes. Andorra is home to a mistreated men’s association that is full of men with an incredible amount of hatred towards women. One of its members called me once and told me that he wanted Stop Violències to assist him and said that I had to help him because his ex-girlfriend had keyed his car. I asked him, “What must you have done for her to do that to you?” after which he started shouting at me violently.

The actions of these men who say they have experienced violence at the hands of women do not actually suggest that they have, in fact, suffered this kind of violence. Men who have experienced this do exist, but they are an exception, and we should not make a rule out of an exception. It should also be noted that the men who have suffered violence at the hands of a woman have not suffered it solely for the sake of being men.

In any case, Stop Violències’ goal is to fight for women’s human rights. We carry out workshops, awareness-raising and violence-preventing projects as well as classes in self-defense. But above all, we fight for rights and assist women who are in violent situations. Lately we’ve also been working as an observatory, calculating statistics and doing what we can to make this issue more visible.

Could you tell me about some of Stop Violències’ successes?

One of our greatest victories is to have people understand what we do. At first people wanted to label us feminazi destroyers of the universe, but now we are succeeding with our important educational role since plenty of young women come to us and seek us out. University-aged women in Andorra generally study abroad, but there are girls who are between 15 and 18 or 19 years old who find us and end up calling themselves feminists.

The government is starting to understand what we do too, because on the one hand they could not award us any grants, but they still give us quite a lot of money. I think that they’ve understood that one thing is our job as militants fighting for women’s human rights, and another altogether is the social labor that we carry out. We have allies in Europe. The fact that the Commissioner for Human Rights knows who we are and mentions us is a huge success for us.

There are also people who devote their time and energy discrediting me as a person. I think that the fact that people still come up to me, despite all the harmful speech that is spewed about me, is a success, as is that they haven’t been able to pigeonhole us into some macho stereotype to destroy us.

What about a specific case that touched you?

When I was still working in Barcelona I encountered a 40-something-year-old woman who had never had anyone tell her that they believed in her. “Can you believe that when you said that to me something inside me clicked because no one had ever said that to me before.”

It made me think of how simple things are. Sometimes we like to come up with complex psychological theories, but all you really need to do is to reach someone’s heart. We need a lot more love for ourselves and the women around us because we feel what others think about us. We internalize it and then recreate it.

What do you do on a personal level to take care of yourself emotionally?

I practice a non-competitive martial art, Budo Taijitsu, that helps me both physically and emotionally. It’s great—it’s almost as if every worry disappears after a training session.

I am also very sure of who I am and what I’m doing in Andorra and why I moved back. I have a lot of self-care spaces, such as those where I can play music or work on Radio Concha. I’m also starting to have a feminist group of people to surround myself with, which makes me happy because after some years of being at it, I have finally been able to find women who are also involved. In order to make Stop Violències work, we work around each person’s limitations in terms of time or children they may have to look after.

I try to meditate whenever I notice that I am unhappy. I relax, and some feminists may not want to mention it, but I do have a good partner who soothes many of my worries. I don’t believe in solitary activism and us feminists are not alone. I also know women who are braver than I am, like the ones in Central America.

I have a very well-constructed self-esteem that does not depend on someone telling me “oh, you’re such a good girl!” and it doesn’t depend on the job I have, which is very important for an activist. As a professional in Barcelona I’d be earning a certain amount of money, but I am considerably poorer in Andorra. Economic self-esteem is very important, and the lack thereof is a tool of institutional violence. But I also realize that we adapt to and normalize the situation in order to survive; whenever I leave Andorra I am able to see that I do this.

Cristina Tomàs White is a Barcelona-based freelance journalist with a special interest in women’s rights and issues surrounding inequality. Her latest project, Casas sin familias, is a short film about the housing crisis in her city that was made in collaboration with documentary filmmaker Samantha Keon. She holds a BSc in Politics from the University of Bath and an MA in Citizenship and Human Rights from the University of Barcelona.

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