Dealing with sexual assault at festivals: what our local authorities can learn from Spain

Festivals and other public events will be held all over Scotland this summer. How can local authorities ensure the personal safety of their citizens at these events? Ivan Minguez Guillem blogs for us on how one city in Spain has approached this problem.

Summer festivals and other festivities are very important for cities. Summer events help to foster a sense of community in neighbourhoods and towns, and also offer a good opportunity to put the area on the map and attract tourists.

The downside of any festival, however, is that heavy drinking and lack of inhibitions can lead to uncivil (and sometimes dangerous) behaviours. Gender based violence and sexual assaults are widespread phenomena, affecting thousands of victims each year. However, local authorities usually don’t have systems in place to deal with such attacks, despite having special instructions and resources to tackle drunk driving or drug smuggling in the exact same scenarios. Why is this the case? In order to explain why local governments usually neglect this issue, and what can they do to fix the situation, we will use the example of the San Fermin festivities in Pamplona (Spain).

Every year, for seven days after July 7, the city of Pamplona becomes a big ongoing street party with music displays, food and drink in almost every street. The festival is famous worldwide for the bull run tradition the morning of each festive day. Sadly, it is also well known due to the amount of sexual aggressions reported during the festivities (both to local residents, and also foreign tourists).

In the past, local government and local police tried to ignore or minimise the problem, arguing that those were isolated cases and that giving them publicity could damage the image of the festival and the city. By doing that, local decision makers fed into a culture of impunity among the attackers, and alienated victims. This meant they were less likely to report the abuses. The situation was unsustainable.

During the last three years, with the increasing use of smartphones to record the aggressions, many attacks were reported by the national and international media. In the last local and regional elections, Pamplona’s city council changed political colours and the new local government decided to create a specific plan to fight against the assaults.

Their plan was as follows:

Organise an informative campaign during the months before the festival

Civic centres and educative facilities received conferences and print material with the motto ‘For a festival free from sexual aggressions’, in which the local police and women groups explained how to identify a sexual aggression and what resources were available to react against them.

Mobilise a special unit of the local police, specialised in gender-based violence and sexual aggressions

The local authority organised additional patrols with staff specialised in gender-based violence and sex offences. They also deployed translators (mostly English and French) trained to deal with cases of this nature. The quick response of the unit made it possible to collect evidence and rapidly detain aggressors in recent cases.

Pursue those who commit sexual aggressions in the courts

A political decision was made to present the City Council as particular prosecutors against sexual aggressors. They decided to prosecute the attackers even in cases in which the victim (sometimes foreign) cannot continue with the accusation for personal reasons.

Security plans are meant to prevent and react to, not to eradicate the problem. However, for the first time, the city council is an active part of the conversation. Well established attitudes of victim blaming are being questioned by the public and the press. The local authorities in Pamplona are convinced that their initiative will be effective in preventing new cases, making the festival enjoyable and safer for everyone.

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