BARCELONA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A bitter court battle has ignited uproar in Spain, shedding light on the scourge of domestic violence after a convicted wife beater won custody of his two children and their mother was slated for child abduction.
More like a soap opera than a court case, the saga has split opinion in Spain, a predominantly Catholic country at the heart of Europe that struggles with 21st-century gender reform.
The story began when an Andalusian woman was ordered to hand custody of her children to her violent ex-husband, who had previously been jailed for abusing her.
Juana Rivas, 36, took her two young children back to Spain from the family home in Italy last year, without the consent of her Italian ex-husband, Francesco Arcuri.
Upon her return, she filed a domestic abuse claim.
However a Spanish court ordered her to hand over the children, three and 11, to their father at the end of July.
The court in Granada said the first born was evaluated by psychologists and would not be affected by seeing his father.
Rivas was due back in court in August, but in a dramatic turn of events, she went into hiding for nearly a month – with her two children in tow.
Women’s rights group across Spain condemned the court’s decision and a social media storm ensued, with sympathizers rallying around her cause with the hashtag #JuanaEstáEnMiCasa (meaning ‘Juana is in my house’).
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy voiced support for the missing Rivas, as did several high-profile female politicians.
But they faced steep opposition in high places.
The court’s decision was defended by Jueces para la Democracia, a professional association for lawyers, which said it had “carried out a diligent and proportionate action.”
Rivas subsequently came out of hiding, reappeared in court and the children returned to Italy with their father. She is now being investigated by the Spanish judiciary for the alleged crimes of child abduction and disobeying a court order.
The children live with their father on the small Sicilian island of San Pietro and have limited contact with their mother via phone and video chat, pending resolution of the saga.
The court in Granada has told Rivas the Italian authorities must now make any decision concerning custody of the children.
The controversy has re-opened old wounds in a traditionally Catholic country that – despite passing a landmark law against gender violence in 2004 – still struggles with reform.
Last year, 28,281 women in Spain were registered as victims of gender violence, up 2.4 percent on the previous year, according to the state statistics institute.
Critics say the Rivas case shows how Spanish courts and judges – apart from those that specialize in domestic violence – do not take abuse claims seriously.
The case has revealed “serious shortcomings” in the gender-related training of legal professionals in regular courts, Alba Alonso Álvarez, a researcher in women’s rights at the University of Santiago de Compostela, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
It also demonstrates the persistence of long-held beliefs that if a law is passed that makes positive changes for women, it will end up hurting men, she said.
“All this is in spite of the fact that the figures undeniably show that Spanish women are in situations of inequality in many areas,” she added.
Arcuri was imprisoned for three months in 2009, after a court found him guilty of repeatedly beating his wife after the couple had returned home from a party one night.
The couple subsequently reunited and ran a B&B together in San Pietro, until Rivas left him again last year.
“When she came to ask for help, we found a woman exhausted and desolate,” Francisca Granados, Rivas’ legal representative, told Spanish TV channel Telecinco.
Granados is also director of a women’s center in the small Andalusian town of Maracena, Rivas’ hometown. That center is now fighting the court’s decision to hand custody back to Arturi.
In a television interview last month, Arcuri denied abusing his wife and claimed Rivas had “invented” the allegation.
His fans say Rivas exaggerated and the media demonized him.
The case comes as the Spanish government is under increasing pressure to bolster state support for victims of domestic abuse.
In July, lawmakers agreed a deal to provide 1 billion euros ($1.17 billion) in funding to tackle gender-based violence.
The deal outlawed jailed abusers from visits by their children and pledged to beef up reporting of discriminatory content against women in the media, among other measures.
But there are worries that Spain is backsliding on its promise to tackle the abuse that happens in homes countrywide.
The government’s gender equality policies face legislative standstill and cuts, creating an “uncertain future” for them, the European Parliament said in a 2016 research paper.
Since 2008, there has been a “backlash” against the progress already made, because of government austerity measures adopted in response to the economic crisis, it added.
“In the last five years gender violence has ceased to be a priority in the public policy agenda,” Bárbara Sordi Stock, a researcher at the Andalusian Institute of Criminology - University of Seville, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“The cuts have been brutal and many of the programs and services have been harmed or simply extinguished,” she added.
Spain’s Ministry of Health, Social Services and Equality did not respond to requests for comment.
Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.