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Gender violence ‘by proxy’: kids in the firing line

The shocking murder of two Spanish children by their father has thrown a spotlight on “violence by proxy” and how far a spurned partner may go to make their ex suffer.

“Vicarious violence is doubly savage and inhumane because it seeks to cause pain not only to the woman but also to her children,” said Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez as Spain reeled over the deaths of Olivia, 6, and her one-year-old sister Anna.

Following a six-week inquiry, the investigating magistrate said the father had likely planned to kill them and hide evidence of their deaths in order “to inflict on his ex-partner the greatest pain that he could imagine, an inhuman pain”.

In Spain, 39 minors have been killed since 2013 by their fathers or by their mother’s partner or former partner, government figures show.

“We’re talking about violence inflicted on the children of a woman victim when the perpetrator no longer has any hold over her life,” says Carmen Ruiz Repullo, a sociologist who specialises in gender violence.

“This is usually when she has decided to end the relationship and the abuser sees he can continue hurting her through her children.”

In highlighting and giving a name to such killings, the authorities were starting to identify such cases, she told AFP.

“When you cannot identify what is happening, it often dilutes the meaning of the situation and you don’t have the tools to root it out.”

– ‘Where it hurts the most’ –

This violence “by proxy” seeks to harm a woman’s children in order to hit her “where it hurts the most”, says Victoria Rosell, head of the Spanish government’s taskforce against gender violence.

With Olivia, whose body was weighted down on the ocean bed, and Anna, whose body has yet to be found, the aim was to inflict maximum pain on the mother by hiding the girls “where they’d never be found, in the most obscure place”, says Angeles Carmona, head of the Observatory for Domestic and Gender-based Violence.

In an open letter, the girls’ mother said it was “the most monstrous act a person can commit: killing their own innocent children”.

“It is thanks to the girls that we now know the meaning of vicarious violence,” she wrote.

Olivia and Anna’s deaths have not yet been included in the official count.

In rare cases, such murders have also been carried out by the mother, gender violence activists say.

Earlier this month, a 28-year-old woman went on trial in Germany accused of smothering five of her six children in the bath.

Although the motive remains unclear, prosecutors say it was linked to her estranged husband who had just found a new girlfriend.