Spain found itself in the media spotlight throughout much of the summer of 2023 for positive reasons. On 20 August 2023, the nation’s women’s football team won the FIFA Women’s World Cup Final against England. However, the spotlight turned dark almost immediately when Luis Rubiales, Spanish Football Federation President, grabbed Spain’s midfielder Jenni Hermoso and kissed her on the lips in response to the team’s victory. It was then that Spanish women took to the streets saying: ‘Se Acabó [it’s over].’

Rubiales initially claimed that the kiss had been consensual and was a simple moment of celebration. This was hotly disputed by Hermoso, who commented on social media ‘I did not like it’ and that the kiss had been ‘an impulse-driven, sexist, out of place act without any consent on my part’. Rubiales was also seen grabbing his crotch in celebration and carrying Athenea del Castillo over his shoulder following the historic World Cup win. He refused to resign and, adding insult to injury, claimed that he was the victim of a witch hunt due to ‘false feminists’. Spanish Football Federation threats of legal action against Hermoso did nothing to soothe the rising temperatures. Amid the controversy, Jorge Vilda, the Spanish women’s team’s head coach who had been facing allegations of sexist and controlling behaviour, was sacked. And his predecessor, Ignacio Quereda, had been dismissed in 2015 after Spanish female football players alleged similar behaviour. In 2020 Rubiales had faced trial for the alleged assault of a female architect who had worked on his home and was found not guilty.

In September 2023, Sweden joined Spain’s players in a show of solidarity ahead of their Women’s Nations League clash as the scandal surrounding Spanish football rumbled on. The Swedish team (pictured above) held banners ahead of the game with the phrase ‘#SeAcabó’, as well as ‘our fight is the global fight’.

Matters further escalated when Spanish journalist, Isa Balado was broadcasting live from the nation’s capital, Madrid in September 2023 and was approached by a bystander who touched her bottom and instigated talking to her, despite being repeatedly told that she was working and live on air. The stranger then patted her on the head before being confronted by the broadcaster’s in-studio colleague, who called the perpetrator an imbecile.

On 30 October 2023, Rubiales was eventually banned from all football related activities for three years following a FIFA disciplinary committee investigation into his conduct at the Women’s World Cup final. But Rubiales’ responses and the public’s reaction to Balado’s incident were just snapshots of a much greater issue.

Legal history and large-scale protests

These aren’t the first instances to bring into question Spain’s approach to sexual and gender-based violence. The conviction of five men for the gang rape of a young woman after the nation’s infamous Pamplona festival in 2016, sparked public outcry as well as responses from celebrities linked with the #MeToo movement such as actresses Rose McGowan and Jessica Chastain.

On 26 April 2018, the Provincial Court of Navarre sentenced the five accused, (who had dubbed themselves ‘La Manafa de lobos’, meaning ‘the wolf pack’) nine years in prison for continued sexual abuse. Controversially, the court did not find them guilty of sexual aggression, which would have resulted in a possible 12- to 15-year prison sentence, which prompted large-scale protests across streets in Spain.

On 21 June 2019, the Supreme Court of Spain recategorised the five men’s convictions to that of continuous sexual assault and handed down 15-year prison terms. The sentence stated that the victim was ‘intimidated’, she was ‘overcome by fear’, and ‘could offer no resistance’, concluding that the crime was a rape.

The decision set legal precedent amid the backdrop of Spain’s appointment of its new centre-left government which contained a two-thirds female contingent, a welcome change and one which set a record in Europe.

#SeAcabó exposes Spain’s problematic past

While the #MeToo movement gained momentum around the world, it didn’t quite manage to launch in Spain, despite the movement taking place at a similar time as the ‘La Manafa’ case.

The #SeAcabó movement is indicative of something greater and highlights Spain’s problematic past entrenched in machismo and misogyny. The European Union’s 2022 gender equality index may have ranked Spain as the member state with the sixth best score, following recent legislative changes with the Spanish government rolling out a consent-based rape law and statutory menstrual leave, but Spain’s recent history has left a damning and lasting legacy.

Spain was subject to almost 40 years of fascist dictatorship led by Francisco Franco. With the aim to re-establishing staunch traditional and conservative values, the Franquista regime meant that without a husband’s approval, a woman was prohibited from almost all economic activities, including employment, ownership of property, or even traveling away from home. The law also included definitions of crime such as adultery along with the desertion of a husband by his wife. Reforms began shortly before Franco’s death in 1975. The husband’s permission rule was abolished that same year, laws against adultery were revoked in 1978, and divorce was legalised in 1981.

Spain’s gender-based violence today

But despite Spain’s efforts to tackle gender-based violence in recent years – including broadening the definition of femicide in 2021 to include the killing of women and children by men regardless of whether there was a prior relationship between victim and killer – the statistics tell a different story.

The rates of murders of women reached a 20-year high in 2022, with 11 women being killed in December alone. Records indicate that the latest deaths bring the number of women murdered by their partners or ex-partners to 1,188 since 2003, when the government began recording such murders. Over the same period, 49 children have been murdered in domestic violence attacks. In 2022, 49 women were killed by their partner or ex-partner, while 43 women died in such attacks in 2021.

The figures prompted the Spanish Ministerio de Igualdad (Ministry of Equality) to assemble its crisis committee. In a further meeting to address the continuing increase in such murders, Spain’s government is reviewing proposals that would permit the authorities to inform women who are victims of domestic abuse of their partners’ previous convictions.

But the issue has not been met with a unanimous or even majority view to be tackled but rather with denial from some groups. Prominent figures in Spain’s far-right Vox party (who carried 12% of the overall vote in the July 2023 election) have denied the existence of gender-based violence and been critical of government initiatives to address the issue. Prior to the 2023 elections, Vox had proposed to roll back decades of progress by blocking abortion access, repealing legislation on gender-based violence and shutting down the Ministry of Equality. Instead, Vox offered policies to replace it with a ‘family ministry’, which would be responsible for promoting higher birth rates and a ‘traditional’, narrow vision of family life.

But Vox’s hardline policies may be turning voters off. The party saw a drop from their 15% vote count in 2019. This may be an indication as to how far the nation’s voters’ attitudes towards curtailing the long-fought-for progress of women’s rights on domestic abuse and gender-based violence will be pushed.