A persisting phenomenon
Sara di Pietrantonio was 22 years old when she was killed on her way home in the suburbs of Rome. It took her ex boyfriend only a few minutes to strangle her, douse her with petrol and set her on fire. Her mother, worried because she was late coming home, found her charred body. None of the drivers that passed by came out of their cars to help Sara.
Horror, fit of madness, frenzy... overused expressions that are not enough to explain a phenomenon that is deeply rooted in Italian society: femicide. In 2016, dozens of this kind of episodes have filled the news throughout the peninsula – every region, every social class, every generation – another confirmation of the spiral of violence that leads from harassment, psychological and physical abuse to the murder of women. The numbers speak for themselves: according to a report of the EURES Institute for economic and social studies, during the first five months of 2016, out of 55 murders, 43 happened within the family and 27 within a couple. This reality is a perfect reflection of the disconcerting toll of the past decade: 1740 women were murdered, 1251 of which within the household, 846 by their companion and 224 by their ex. These facts are striking: “How is it possible to destroy a life because of the inability to deal with the frustration of loss?”, asks Fabio Piacenti, President of EURES. “The subculture of possession continues to claim victims among women whose only fault is to seek social and emotional self-determination”.
A violent patriarchal society
It is no longer acceptable to read about these shattered lives in the miscellaneous news. Crimes of honour were banned from the Italian legislation on August 5th 1981, and there are two laws that deal with violence against women, but people still talk about passional crimes to avoid raising doubts about a violent patriarchal system.
“The family, elementary schools, textbooks, novels we have read, the Church, television, advertisements, all of these have instilled stereotypes and nurtured feminine submission”, says Silvia Acquistapace from the Rete delle donne per la Rivoluzione Gentile (Women's Network for a Gentle Revolution), a platform for women who fight sexist violence all over the country.
Silvio Berlusconi (and his political allies), who was in power until five years ago, has a great responsibility in the diffusion of this misogynous culture through the degrading representation of women's bodies on his private television networks, showgirls appointed to high political positions, sex scandals... Not long before the end of his term, nearly a million exasperated women took to the streets in most italian cities on February 13th 2011, crying out their outrage in demonstrations called for by the committee “Se Non Ora Quando” (If Not Now, When?).
Women lying on the square represent the victims of femicide in 2014.
Prevention, the key word
The movement itself did not spread at a national level, but a myriad of local initiatives against femicide have bloomed all over the country. “Our actions are grass-root, with precarious workers, migrant women, etc. Women's rights are significantly inadequate in our country. For example, a growing number of gynaecologists refuse to practice abortion with the excuse of conscientious objection. Education is what interests us most. We work mostly with schools, because that is where we can create the conditions to raise awareness and start changing behaviours. We work in suburbs rarely reached by adequate information”, explains Silvia Acquistapace whose network is closely involved with the “Se Non Ora Quando” organisation in Udine, where Andreina Baruffini works.
This lawyer, specialized in family law, created, four years ago, an original and fruitful initiative: “La voce del lupo” (the wolf's voice). Based on the observation that femicide primarily concerns men, Andreina Baruffini launched a forum that has been going on for 15 years. “We urgently need to understand this persisting phenomenon from the inside, because even though violent crimes have diminished and the fight against the Mafia is showing good results, femicide stays stable”. Every year, “La voce del lupo” brings together male sexologists, doctors, lawyers and writers who deal with abuse. Andreina Baruffini explains: “The objective of these exercises in awareness is to improve regional politics. There are some virtuous regions in our country, but the others must follow.” In fact, the 2013 law on violence agains women provides concrete measures but the Italian regions do not implement them with the same diligence.
In Piedmont, Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, Tuscany or Campania, combined actions between social services, hospital emergencies, police stations and prefectures have lead to concrete initiatives: a so-called “pink code” has been adopted in hospitals to appropriately assist women victims of violence; special training is provided for personnel who deal directly with violence, therapies are offered to molesters.
Laws against violence on women
There has been a legal framework since 2013, year in which femicide reached a peak. The law ratified the convention by the European Council on the prevention and fight against violence on women and domestic violence, approved in Istanbul on May 11th 2011. In the same impetus, on October 15th 2013, a new law was passed with tougher sanctions in cases of violence against women. Once a complaint is filed, legal proceedings are mandatory and criminals caught in the act of harassment or abuse are immediately arrested. Violent husbands are expelled from the family home, and victims are kept informed on the state of the prosecution against their aggressor (especially if and when he is released). Financial aid is provided for the victims and a residence permit for humanitarian reasons is offered to immigrant victims. However, this legal framework only partially resolves violence against women because it applies only to emergency situations.
Men against male violence
Some men are committed to the fight against these tragedies. The association Maschile Plurale (Plural Masculine) has been active for 10 years now in the main Italian cities and has initiated an individual and collective debate on the cultural change taking place in the relationship between sexes. Its first objective is to eradicate sexist violence on every level: in the family, at work, in school, in the religious communities, politics and the media. The association is dynamic and creative and works closely with feminist circles: they organize public meetings, debates, they produce documents on the theme of masculinity, they collaborate with rape centres, give lectures in schools and universities, organize theatre-forums and consulting.
As part of the prevention campaign financed by the European Union and the Italian government, Maschile Plurale participated in the creation of the web series against violence “Five Men”: five ten-minute stories about the lives of Davide, Nicolas, Massimo, Riccardo and Paolo who play on the same soccer team. These five very different players establish a friendship that goes well beyond the team. Thanks to their mutual support, they finally ward off violence towards the women they love.
The goal of the series is to avoid a representation centered on the female victim in order to study the mechanisms that trigger male violence in a normal situation. This is a precious tool that can generate discussions and promote awareness. “Five Men” was distributed in schools by the association D.I.Re (Donne in Rete, Women in Network). This is the most important anti-violence network in Italy and has 75 women's shelters and an active system of prevention and awareness campaigns throughout the country.
However, the fact is that social initiatives and existing laws are made inefficient by Italian political incoherence and bureaucratic stagnation. The D.I.Re (Donne in Rete, Women in Network) association must face this sad reality when assisting over 15,000 women every year. Three of their seventy anti-violence centres have shut down since the beginning of the year, and dozens are threatened to close. The state has allotted 18 million euros for the centres in 2015-2016 but hasn't made the payments. Nonetheless, money was allotted and paid for “Fertility Day”, a public awareness campaign launched by the Ministry of Health to encourage women to procreate. This campaign was highly criticized by women's associations and leftist parties and infuriated many women who, bearing the brunt of the crisis and of job insecurity, are forced to give up or postpone maternity. Another incoherence: more and more educational initiatives for the extirpation of sexist and gender oriented stereotypes have been launched in Italian schools at every level, yet the Vatican relentlessly continues its anti-gender campaign.