How the death of six-year-old Olivia is exposing Spain’s cruellest gender violence 

News that search teams have found the body of six-year-old Olivia, one of the missing sisters kidnapped by their father in Tenerife, is raising awareness about one of the cruellest types of gender violence in Spain: fathers hurting their children to get at the mothers. 

How the death of six-year-old Olivia is exposing Spain's cruellest gender violence 
Olivia (left) and her one-year-old sister Anna (right) were taken by their father on April 27th. Photo: SOS Desaparecidos

Spanish society is in shock following the tragic news on Thursday night that Olivia’s body had been found in a bag at the bottom of the sea off the coast of the Canary island of Tenerife, weighed down by an anchor from her father’s boat. 

Her one-year-old sister Anna and her father Tomás Gimeno are yet to be located, but given that the 37-year-old’s boat was found drifting the day after their disappearance and the discovery of Olivia’s body, search teams now fear the worst. 

Since news of the kidnapping of the two sisters by their father on April 27th broke, Spaniards have been following the rescue operation closely, hoping that the two young girls would be returned to their mother. Initial investigations pointed to the possibility that Gimeno may have tried to sail with his daughters to either South America or Morocco.

But suspicions that the father’s threats – who told his ex-wife the night of their disappearance  that she would never see the children again – have now been confirmed in the worst possible way. 

The Spanish press are referring to it as violencia vicaria, a type of gender violence by proxy which is aimed at harming a partner where it hurts most – by inflicting damage on their children. 

According to data by Spain’s Observatory against Domestic and Gender Violence, 40 minors have been murdered at the hands of their mothers’ partners or ex-partners since 2013 in Spain. 

Violencia vicaria has been included in Spain’s latest child protection law, la Ley Rhodes, named after the British pianist who pushed for the country to revise its protection of minors. 

A widely shared image posted on social media following the discovery of Olivia’s body, titled “Siempre juntas”, “always together”.

Experts refer to it as the cruellest type of gender violence, seen by the perpetrators as a form of vengeance which inflicts the worst possible harm on a partner after they deem that they’ve wronged them. 

“They don’t have any kind of psychological pathology, they’re extreme sexists, extreme narcissists who do not tolerate being upset because they did not want to separate from their partners and they don’t admit that there’s been a divorce,” psychologist Sonia Vaccaro told Spanish national radio RTVE.

“It is secondary violence to the main victim, which is the woman,” adding that the children are seen as mere instruments for this, and that verbal threats similar to Gimeno’s also count as violencia vicaria

This type of domestic violence by proxy is different from filicide, in which a parent murders their child, as its main aim is to hurt the partner or ex-partner. 

“The abuser knows that by harming or murdering her children, he is making sure that the woman will never recover. It is extreme harm”.

On May 24th, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez denounced as “unacceptable” a spike in domestic violence that saw five women murdered over the course of a week by their partners or ex-partners.

Spain has brought in tighter laws against gender violence in recent years but barely a week goes by in the country without the news of another murder or beating. 

“There is a deficit of awareness,” Miguel Lorente, former Government Delegate for Gender Violence, is quoted as saying by Spain’s Association of Families. 

“There are many debates about gender violence but they do not translate into awareness because the information is not adequate. 

“If we talk about 700 women murdered in the last decade in Spain, we also have to talk about 700 murderers. And we don’t”.

Olivia’s heart wrenching death may not be in vain if the wickedness of violencia vicaria in Spain is stopped in its tracks with greater protection for children trapped in the middle of situations of gender violence.

As a sign of optimism, the child protection law which comes into force on June 24th stipulates that the judge will now be able to suspend visiting right when a protection order for gender violence is issued, or if there are indications that the children have witnessed or suffered abuse.

Read more about gender violence in Spain 

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How interactive play gives teens in Spain insight into gender violence

An interactive theatre workshop in Madrid is immersing teens in dramatised scenarios of inequality and abuse to raise awareness about conflict and gender-based violence.

How interactive play gives teens in Spain insight into gender violence

The row started with something minor: ‘Edu’ was laughing at something on his phone but refused to show it to his girlfriend ‘Ali’. She got upset and they started arguing.

Angry words turned into shouting and insults and suddenly a furious ‘Edu’ grabs her phone and hurls it to the classroom floor where it shatters, the violent gesture shocking the group of watching teenagers.

The confrontation between the two characters, played by actors, is part of a play by Teatro Que Cura (The Healing Theatre) visiting a high school in the town of Parla near Madrid to raise awareness about domestic violence.

November 25th is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and in Spain, which passed Europe’s first law against it in 2004, experts agree education is key to reducing the problem.

In May, official figures showed gender violence was growing fastest among the under-18s, with the number of female victims up nearly 30 percent from 514 in 2020 to 661 in 2021.

It was unclear if this was due to an increase in violence or a rise in the number of incidents reported.

The play at El Olivo high school starts with the couple getting ready for their first date, Edu wining over the 15- and 16-year-olds with a humorous monologue worrying over his looks, what to wear and his chances of getting laid.

But the laughter dies as their relationship develops — and the teenagers are encouraged to reflect on their arguments and what they would do differently.

“The aim is to help adolescents build relationships based on equality and prevent domestic violence,” says Susana Martín Cuezva, a therapist who directs Teatro que Cura and moderates the discussions.

“The idea is that the students experience a situation of tension or conflict in the here and now and that they resolve it in a different way to how the actors are approaching it, which is always through violence.”

Teenagers take part in interactive theatre by El Teatro Que Cura (The Healing Theatre). (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

‘Pretty realistic’

“It’s good to show it like this. If you see it in the street, it’s just a couple fighting. But seeing it in this context you realise it is actually violence and that you can do something about it,” says 15-year-old Patricia Garcia.

As the plot develops, the audience is invited to voice their thoughts directly to Edu or Ali, with each actor improvising a response.

“I lost my head, I’m not really like that,” Edu explains to a student after the phone-smashing incident.

“Yeah right. First, give me some space and don’t try to intimidate me,” she says calmly. As he starts arguing, she walks off — to cheers and applause from the students.

What affected Mario Carmona, 16, most was the insults and the pushing and shoving.

“Unfortunately, it was pretty realistic, and it happens more often than you’d expect,” he told AFP.

“It’s not easy to understand what’s happening even though these arguments are pretty normal. But it’s good to have someone to support you, who can give you a wake-up call if things get a bit out of hand.”

Set up in 2017, Teatro que Cura uses interactive theatre to immerse teens in dramatised scenarios of inequality and violence to raise awareness about conflict and gender-based violence.

Over the past five years, they have worked with some 9,000 teenagers aged 14-19, mostly in the Madrid region.

Studies show education is crucial, with a 2021 Spanish government report finding sex education classes focused on equality and violence “reduce the risk of resorting to gender-based violence in boys, and of suffering it in girls”.

As the plot develops, the audience is invited to voice their thoughts directly to Edu or Ali, with each actor improvising a response. (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

‘Detecting cases of risk’

“Adolescents who are taught about gender-based violence are at less risk,” educational psychologist Maria José Díaz-Aguado told El País newspaper.

“If you get this sort of education at school, you can become aware of such things much earlier,” agreed 16-year-old Maryam Calderón.

Silvia Serrano Martin, El Olivo’s school psychologist, said the sessions were very effective.

“It’s really helped raise awareness about domestic violence because seeing it in such an experiential way reaches them more directly,” she told AFP.

“This is a useful prevention tool but it’s also good for detecting cases of risk.”

Sometimes students come forward to privately share their experiences, which in some cases has involved situations of “real urgency,” Susana Martín Cuezva says.

“Once a boy came to talk to the actor and said he identified with Edu, that he was starting to be violent with his partner. He was in tears and told us he needed help and didn’t want to repeat what was happening at home,” she said.

The case was immediately referred to a regional gender violence unit.

“I’ve learned I need to put myself first,” 15-year-old García told AFP when asked what she had taken from the session.

“If a relationship is starting to become aggressive, you have to walk away for your own good.”