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Women suffered gender-specific violence during the Spanish Civil War and Franco's dictatorship, says archaeologist and forensic anthropologist Laura Muñoz-Encinar in a recent publication. The researcher excavated mass graves to find new evidence about the specific forms of repression that women suffered during this period of the Spanish contemporary history.

Objects from mass graves
Objects found next to the bodies of female victims from the mass graves of the cemetery of Fregenal de la Sierra (photo by Laura Muñoz-Encinar)

From earrings to hairpins and high-heeled shoes: Laura Muñoz-Encinar (postdoctoral fellow at the Amsterdam School for Heritage, Memory and Material Culture) found a great variety of female elements in the mass graves that she excavated in southern Spain.

The small personal items are the silent witnesses of the violence against women that took place during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and Franco's dictatorship (1939-1975). In this era, many anti-fascist women suffered torture, rape and other forms of gender-specific violence. Women were physically and psychologically harassed, shaved, or exposed publicly after having ingested castor oil (which caused them severe diarrhoea, allegedly ‘in order to throw communism out of their bodies’).

Execution of pregnant women

Many authors have written about gendered violence in Spain, but  Muñoz-Encinar's research is the first one to address this topic through the study of the mass graves, in addition to the analysis of female victims’ stories. She excavated and analyzed the contents of 35 mass burials, in which the remains of 25 women were documented. This approach allowed her to compare the archaeological and anthropological  data obtained with the information contained in documentary and oral sources. These findings, provide new evidence of the gendered violence that women suffered as part of Franco’s repression.

‘Probably the most disturbing evidence I found’, says Muñoz-Encinar, ‘was the body of a pregnant woman in a mass grave in southwestern Spain. During the excavation, we documented the skeletal remains of a seven to nine months old foetus in her pelvis. Numerous authors have written about the execution of pregnant women during the Spanish Civil War and Franco's dictatorship, but this was the first time we documented it archaeologically. It was a remarkable  moment for us.’

Matilde Morillo Sánchez
Photographs of Matilde Morillo Sánchez, one of the victims (photo by Laura Muñoz-Encinar)

A mechanism to terrorize the enemy

As the researcher points out, gendered violence has long been used as a war strategy in many parts of the world. ‘In wars throughout history, as well as in the case of the Spanish Civil War and the Franco dictatorship, women have been used as a weapon, and the mistreatment of their bodies has been deployed as a mechanism to terrorize and punish the enemy.’

The recognition of the victims of Franco's repression and the exhumation of mass graves have been the main unresolved issues of  Spain’s contemporary traumatic past, says the researcher, and are still a central topic in Spain.

Publication details

Laura Muñoz-Encinar (2020) Unearthing gendered repression: an analysis of the violence suffered by women during the civil war and Franco’s dictatorship in Southwestern Spain, World Archaeology, 51:5, 759-777.