For anyone who has the misfortune of being connected with me on social media, it's no secret that I've been living in Spain since January. In some ways, the country is incredibly progressive and advanced—it has the seventh-best healthcare system in the world, according to the World Health Organization, and was one of the first countries to legalize same-sex marriage.
But, like so many other nations, it has a problem with women. Surrogacy is illegal in the country, abortions have restrictions after 14 weeks, and convicted rapists rarely serve a lengthy sentence. Under Spanish law, no one may be sentenced to more than 30 years in prison, regardless of the crime. Spain used to have an exception, called the Parot Doctrine, but courts have since overturned it. Upon the doctrine's repeal, a man who had served 20 years for killing two people, and sexually assaulting more than a dozen more, was released and later arrested for four more rapes he then committed. He is far from the only such case, but these offenders aren't given longer sentences upon rearrest.
These problems are hardly unique to Spain, but they are timely. Three major events related to women have occurred in the country in the last two months: massive protests on International Women's Day, Megyn Kelly's interview with the woman who was raped by a Spanish tour guide, and the acquittal of five men on a rape charge.
International Women's Day
March 8 was International Women's Day, and millions of Spanish women took to the streets to demonstrate. Leaders called for a boycott by women to show how much work they do. Unsurprisingly, they are paid less than men and have worse job opportunities.
Sign from the women's march in Seville, reading "we are the granddaughters of all the witches you could not burn."
Accusations against Discover Excursions
On April 11, on "Megyn Kelly Today" three women alleged that they had all been raped by the same tour guide on separate excursions. Discover Excursions is based in Seville, Spain, and offers low-cost trips to Portugal, Morocco, and more. Women who have come forward allege the owner drugged them, was pushy about drinking, and assaulted them. Rumors of sexual assault by the company's guides have circulated for years.
"In February, a friend from home who studied in Sevilla last semester reached out to me and sent me Facebook posts regarding the sexual corruption at Discover Excursions," junior Carolyn Rider, who is studying in Seville, said. "I advised my friends and others to be careful. This was right after I actually attended one of Discover’s events in Sevilla, which is the first I learned of them."
After Gabrielle Vega, one of the women who appeared on Today, posted her story on Facebook, nearly a dozen women contacted her sharing similar experiences. Now, more than 50 women have come forward, all assaulted by the same man, Manuel Blanco Vela, who is now under investigation by Spanish police. The allegations range from this year back to 2011.
The company has since closed
"[When I heard the allegations,] I was unfortunately not that surprised but was disgusted nevertheless," Rider added. "I stand with all of the people affected by this culture of sexual corruption and am glad the organization has shut down."
This story breaking was difficult for me, because I have met Vela. My friends and I went on a Discover Excursions day trip earlier this year; since we were in a group and it wasn't overnight, we figured we would be safe as, as we'd heard the rumors. We all made it home fine, but Vela was one of our tour guides. Despite being nearly twice our age, he was eager to have us meet him and a friend for drinks later that night.
"At first Manuel, seemed very charming and approachable," Madison Lattner, a junior from Saint Mary's College of California, said. "He genuinely seemed like he wanted all the students to have a good time."
However, Vela's behavior eventually grew worrisome.
"The second encounter with Manuel was at a coffee shop. There were a few things that seemed off when talking to him for the first time one-on-one," Lattner said. "He offered to buy my meal for me, which seemed odd for having met once, so I declined... Later that day he messaged me on Instagram to go out and I declined the offer. I found the conversation to be odd but nothing to be afraid of, but after this encounter I was sure I had a bad feeling about him."
We have since run into Vela at a bar, and he was insistent that a couple of my friends leave with him and go to a club. Thankfully, they did not. He bought two of them shots, telling them "you have to lick your hand for the tequila shot in a sexual way." When he finally left, one of the bartenders pulled Lattner aside and warned her about him.
"[She] comes up to me and says 'stay away from that guy,' Lattner said. "She said that Manuel comes into a lot of the bars on the street buying shots of tequila for young student girls and filling his shot with water."
When the Today interview came out, I somehow instantly knew it was the man we'd met. As soon as I read through the stories about the women who came forward and saw the name Manuel, my fears were confirmed. Knowing that you've interacted with a serial predator is difficult to process.
"I didn’t know for sure that the attacker was Manuel until the news showed his picture," Lattner said. "Immediately, I felt so stupid that I even let my guard down even after hearing rumors about the company."
Wolf pack acquittal
Last week, five men known as the "wolf pack" who were accused of gang raping an 18-year-old in 2016 were acquitted of the rape charge, convicted instead on charges of sexual abuse, and sentenced to five-to-nine years. According to the police spokesman in Pamplona, where the case was, more than 30,000 people took to the streets in protest following the decision.
As Spain's law currently stands, to be considered rape it must involve violence or intimidation. The protesters argue that five men throwing a woman into an alley counts as both, but regardless, that shouldn't be the standard. A spokesman for the government said it is reviewing whether the laws need to be updated.
Where does Spain go from here?
Cultural changes can come slowly, and Spain's problems with women won't be fixed overnight. However, a good first step would be the government ensuring that not only are tough laws in place against sexual and gender-based violence, but that those laws are fully enforced.