Spanish teenagers Ari and Kalus may still be in school but they are already part of a young feminist collective, organising talks, performances and protests to fight for gender equality.

At 17, they are among a growing number of teenagers at the forefront of Spain's new wave of feminism, fighting for change in the face of a backlash from far right politicians.

Like many of their school-age peers, they have joined the mass rallies for gender equality that began two years ago.

Initially triggered by a gang rape verdict that many saw as unjust, the protests have gained momentum, spurred by a range of issues, from sexual violence to unequal pay.

"For me, calling yourself a feminist is saying you're not invisible, that you are here, and you have something valuable to say," Ari, who asked to be identified only by her first name, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Both said young women their age faced pervasive sexism, from harassment in the street or on social media to being stared at or followed, the threat of possible attack and the sense their concerns are not taken seriously.

The feminist collective at their high school, San Isidro, in central Madrid, is named Sakmis after an ancient Egyptian goddess and has 68 members, some as young as 13.

They snatch meetings at break times and organise a range of activities around their studies, including a recent inter-school survey on sexual harassment.

"We are a small group that started in school, but I think we do more than that," said Kalus, who declined to publish her real name, adding that having a space to chat with female students helps her "find peace".

It was initially girls only, but three boys have recently joined, reflecting the growth of teen support for the movement.

A recent survey by the Reina Sofia Centre on Adolescence and Youth showed the majority of women aged 15 to 29 now call themselves feminists, as do more than a third of young men.

Other Western countries have shown similar trends: one 2019 study found more than half of young women in England and Wales identified as feminists.

In Spain, young women's anger over enduring cultural and institutional misogyny was ignited by the 2018 case in which five men who called themselves the "Wolf Pack", filmed themselves raping an 18-year-old girl.

Because she did not resist, the judges deemed that the accused had not used violence or intimidation, a prerequisite for rape under Spanish law, and they were jailed for the lesser crime of sexual abuse.

That decision was eventually overturned, but outrage was sparked again last year when five men escaped rape convictions because they were not judged to have used force against their unconscious 14-year-old victim.

Spain's new equality minister has promised fresh legislation on consent following major protests over the verdicts.

Lucia Gallego (left), 16, poses for a portrait with fellow teenage feminist Nuria Ardid, 17, in a cafe in Madrid, Spain on January 18, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation women men female male girls boys teenagers teens development gender gap parity equality diversity progress change feminine masculine woman man sex biology roles dynamic balance bias androgynous children kids child advocacy rights families policy law court courts lawyers court cases legal case argument politics democracy capitalism socialism fairness economics government govern administration system power voting votes elections electing faith trust electorate legislature omen men female male girls boys teenagers teens development gender gap parity equality diversity progress change feminine
Lucia Gallego (left), 16, poses for a portrait with fellow teenage feminist Nuria Ardid, 17.
Image: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Laura Mannering

'You have to fight'

Spain has made significant progress on women's rights since it transitioned to democracy in the late 1970s.

Half the ministers in the current left-wing coalition government are women and the country was a pioneer in introducing gender-targeted violence legislation. The World Economic Forum ranks Spain eighth globally for gender parity.

But some fear such progress is threatened by the rise of the ultra-conservative Vox party, which casts the feminist movement as a radical enemy of traditional family values and is now the third largest force in parliament.

Vox sees Spain's gender violence law as unfair to men. It also wants parents to be able to stop their children taking part in school activities on "socially controversial moral issues" or sexuality, a measure already introduced in one of its regional strongholds.

"Since the ultra-right has come up, not only in Spain but also in other countries, people have realised that you have to fight against this," said 17-year-old Nuria Ardid.

She and her friend Lucia Gallego, 16, both at high schools on the outskirts of Madrid, have joined student strikes to march for women's rights.

"There's more awareness and more people joining the movement, so people are more confident to say openly 'I'm a feminist'," said Lucia.

The surge in teen feminism also comes against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement and young people taking leading roles in social justice campaigns around the world, from gun crime to climate change, said women's rights campaigner Viviana Waisman.

"I've been in Spain for a little over 20 years and I've never seen this strong a teenage movement," said Waisman, founder of rights group Women's Link.

"I do think it corresponds to a global movement that's happening."

Waisman said debate and education on gender roles from an early age were critical to changing attitudes, a view shared by some teachers who are also calling for a fundamental shift in approach.

"There needs to be more focus on human rights within teaching and clearer more specific references to feminism, as women's rights are human rights," said Henar, an arts teacher at San Isidro who declined to give her full name.

More young men also want change, according to university undergraduate Pablo Caraballo, 18, who calls himself a feminist. But he has also witnessed how Spain's ideological divisions continue to play out in the classroom.

Pablo recalled a chat with a student from his high school who argued inequality did not exist because women are now government ministers and judges, a view he said is common among young people who disagree with the feminist movement.

"They see feminism as a lie, that feminists defend the superiority of women over men," he said. "They don't see it as about equality."