Olivia was six years old. Anna, just one. Yaiza, just four. The first two were killed by their father in Tenerife and thrown into the sea. Yaiza was suffocated by her mother with a bag in Sant Joan Despí, in Barcelona. They are the last three minors murdered by their parents in 2021, crimes that Spain does not analyze or account in depth. Between 2011 and March of this year, 78 minors have been murdered at the hands of their parents or their partners. This information, provided by the Ministry of the Interior, does not allow knowing if the mother or father did it, nor does it delve into the motives for the crime. There is a little more light in cases in which the murderer is the father, because minors who live in homes where sexist violence occurs have been considered direct victims of this since 2015 and their murders have been officially counted since 2013 by the Delegation of the Government against Gender Violence: there are 41 with Anna and Olivia. But it is impossible to know how many their mothers killed, there is not a single official figure. The new law for the protection of children provides for an end to this information blackout, something that specialists demand in order to have a real photo of the situation and design policies designed to better protect them within their family.
Beatriz Zimmermann, Anna and Olivia’s mother, asked for it after the tracking boat found the eldest’s body at the bottom of the sea: “I hope the laws get tougher protecting children. They don’t have to carry that backpack, and if love ends, the most important thing is the well-being of the children, ”he said in an open letter. The expectation created by the case, in which more than a month passed from when the girls disappeared until it was learned that they had been murdered, increased its media exposure. Other murders, committed by both fathers and mothers, do not receive the same attention. In the case of the Yaiza girl, her father has regretted in a letter to the media that the institutions have not “unanimously condemned the crime.” Until this Thursday, a minute of silence has not been called in the Sant Joan Despí Town Hall, almost three weeks after the murder. Let no other girl suffer at the hands of her father or mother. And that no other victim falls into oblivion ”, he has written. “I would like it to be remembered that the victim is her. Her name was Yaiza and she was four years old ”.
The murders of children or filicides, as they are known in the scientific literature, are part of the brutal tip of the iceberg that involves violence against minors, of all kinds of crimes, from sexual abuse to physical abuse or harassment. “Right now we only know the data of complaints, which in 2019 were more than 40,000, for crimes that had a child as a victim,” explains Cristina Sanjuán, child policy technician at Save the Children. “But we estimate that only 20% of the cases are reported,” he warns.
The law for the protection of children and adolescents, approved in May, provides for the creation of a unified registry, which will allow, on the one hand, to track cases and, on the other, to make a statistical compilation. There, the age, sex and relationship of the aggressor with the victim must be specified. It is not a list of aggressors. The focus should be on caring for the victim. “The data is very necessary to be able to carry out adequate policies, the more and of higher quality, the better,” continues Sanjuán.
Precisely the absence of these data prevents having the complete drawing. But there is a part of that reality that is better known than another. In Spain, 41 minors have been murdered by their fathers or their mothers’ partners since 2013. With the case of the girls in Tenerife, the concept of vicarious violence has been used again. In general terms, it is a violence that is exercised against someone through an interposed victim. The clinical psychologist Sonia Vaccaro coined the term in 2012 with this definition: “That violence against women that the violent man exerts using his daughters and sons as objects, to harm her. Sometimes, it is displaced on significant people in the life of that woman, such as siblings, father or mother ”. Vaccaro insists that, in these cases, the murders are “the end point”, the “extreme expression”. She only considers it in the context of gender violence, that is, when men do it over women, although on that point there is no consensus among experts.
Beatriz Zimmermann, the mother of the girls from Tenerife, recalled in her letter that her terrible case had served to make this term known, which includes the gender violence law without citing its name, and is explicitly cited in some regional laws later and in the State Pact against Gender Violence, of 2017. There is also no clear official data on how many of those 41 cases were vicarious violence and in how many mothers were also murdered along with their children. In a sample drawn up by the General Council of the Judiciary, with 17 cases sentenced between 2016 and 2018, 13 of the murderers killed the children and left the mothers alive. The average age of these minors was 5.9 years. Six of the killers committed suicide after killing the children.
Vicarious violence is a concept that is only used in Spain. Vaccaro points out that he coined it because it was another of the unnamed acts of violence: “The abuser knows that damage to daughters and sons is irreversible damage to that woman. He knows that she will never recover. ” “It is a very functional concept”, admits Antonio Andrés-Pueyo, professor of psychology and expert in psychology of violence at the University of Barcelona: “These murders already had and will be, now there is a new framework of explanation, which is gender violence ”. The coroner Miguel Lorente, former delegate of the Government against gender violence, criticizes in a recent article that vicarious violence is a term that highlights aggression and “not the context of the violence that arises”. That aspect, he considers, “facilitates confusion” when the murderers are the mothers and is used interchangeably, as in the case of Yaiza. He believes that the term does not highlight “the daily violence suffered by boys and girls within gender violence.” For this reason, he asks to speak of “vicarious violence in gender violence”, because “anyone can kill, a mother too, but not under the protection of a whole series of circumstances that define” sexist violence.
Noemí Pereda, director of the Research Group on Child and Adolescent Victimization at the University of Barcelona, argues that there is not only little data on violence against children, but that it is a “little studied” reality. It specifies that “there are very few children murdered in the Western world”, but “when it happens, it happens by both fathers and mothers.” “I start from international studies that show that the mother is the main murderer, especially when it comes to babies with a few hours of life,” he continues. This has an explanation, he says: “Generally the children are with the mother, they are the caregivers, they are desperate women, there is no partner in many cases.”
One of the works that Pereda talks about, a review of international studies, points out that the greatest risk occurs during the first 24 hours of a baby’s life. And it indicates a greater involvement of women in these crimes when the victims have not yet reached two years and that, from that moment, the risk is more related to the father figure.
Andrés-Pueyo, who directs the master’s degree in Forensic and Criminal Psychology at the same university, explains that there are more differences in the way of killing children than in the motivation for these crimes. “There are parents who kill their children because they believe that a bad future awaits them, they are known as altruistic crimes; there are deaths that derive from mistreatment, an assault that ends with the death of the minor, and there are both fathers and mothers who commit the crime out of revenge ”, indicates this expert. “Yes there is a difference in prevalence, there are more cases of the latter in men than in women,” he says. Pereda, on the other hand, cites an international study in which 62 crimes for revenge are analyzed “which concludes that the proportion between men and women is similar.” The summary is simple: data is missing.
The child-adolescent psychologist proposes to put aside “polarization” and analyze the cases. “The ideal would be to study the murders of minors in Spain one by one, in order to improve prevention. If child abuse is really a problem, which can lead to deaths, let us design policies aimed at this, if depression of the parents is a risk factor, we must be vigilant in these cases ”, he says. Andrés-Pueyo points out, however, that since there are few murders, “the probability of it happening is so extremely low that most of the time you will be wrong when associating risk factors with the prevention of a possible crime.” But it is convenient to study these cases more, in that both coincide. Being rare, they are the worst of murders, inexplicable crime.