It was 2001 in Ponferrada, a provincial city where the economic boom and urban development made headlines daily in the local press. They were political rivals. Nevenka Fernández, councilor for the Treasury of the Popular Party, who held the absolute majority in the City Council, and Charo Velasco, head of the opposition to the PSOE.
They were used to fighting hard in plenary sessions for purely political issues until one day Fernández went to Velasco to tell him that he was going through an ordeal of sexual harassment perpetrated by then-mayor Ismael Álvarez. As Fernández explained, the relationship with his boss went from companionship “to wanting to go much further and it is from that moment that hell began.”
To the surprise and shock when hearing Fernández’s words, the then socialist spokesperson made the decision not to use the issue at the political level. He meets with the rest of the group of councilors and asks them, “although he cannot tell much”, not to attack Fernández or use what is going to be announced in the next few days to obtain a political profit.
Something that may seem simply common sense, but in politics it is completely exceptional. A clear example of sisterhood. After the case was made public and after the mayor’s conviction, the councilor decided to leave Spain due to the impossibility of finding a job and having a normal life. Fernández was 26 years old at the time of the complaint. Alvarez, 50.
Two decades after the case and before the premiere of the Netflix documentary Nevenka , Charo Velasco, away from politics after a long career – where she has become vice president of the Nuclear Safety Council – and about to rejoin her position as a pediatrician in El Bierzo Hospital, recalls those crucial days when the first MeToo in the history of Spain was uncovered.
How did you first find out what was happening to Nevenka Fernández?
She is the one who tells me everything. This happens before the press conference.
Why did he come to you?
She needed to talk to someone. And I was at that time the spokesperson for the opposition.
How did you feel when you told him about the problem you were experiencing?
I think I felt like any woman. It was a shock . I felt tremendous solidarity and eager to help, to see how she could get out of that situation. At that moment, I felt part of the problem and absolutely sympathetic to what was happening to him, which was very different from what was being said in the circles of his attacker.
It was said that he was undergoing a detoxification treatment, that he did not attend the plenary sessions because he was in Madrid being treated …
Had the initial version of events been believed?
No, I didn’t believe it. I had seen that she was not well. The last days that we had met in plenary sessions, she had noticed that something was not right and, although I never believed the official version, I also never imagined what was happening, until she told me herself.
Were you later surprised by how harsh her story was at the press conference?
No, because I really already knew what he told reporters. What seemed to me was a very brave woman, who was telling what also happened to many other women in Spain and in the world. It has a lot of merit to have the courage to do it. I was not surprised either because I was aware that gender violence existed, although 20 years ago there were many fewer instruments.
Later, in the period that José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero is president, people start talking more, the Law against gender violence is approved and legal and health instruments are provided to be able to face this issue and to protect women. But when this happened, there were almost no instruments to address the issue.
That is why I think Nevenka was a very brave woman. Before and also now. Because telling your story can serve as a reference for many women. So that they are encouraged to denounce what so many others are enduring in the world.