The unsafe house of Italy: violence against women does not break for summer

Italy has just passed a new law offering better protection for victims of domestic violence.  But will this be enough to work against the damaging effect of under-funded safe houses and public figures who still blame women for their abuse?

Heather McRobie
13 August 2013

On its last full day before closing for the summer, the Italian government passed new laws last week to combat the high levels of violence against women in the country.  ‘Femicide’ has become a topic much discussed in the media, as the last several years have seen significant media coverage of a series of brutal murders of women by their partners or former partners. 

The new law is a significant step forward in tackling violence against women and ‘femicide’, although whether Italy’s notoriously slow-moving legal system can implement it in practice is another question.  One significant change is making it illegal to harass or stalk current or former wives and girlfriends, a measure that would have helped more than half of the victims of femicide in Italy in the last three years who had called police to report harassment and stalking before they were murdered.  Previously, stalking and harassment had to be proven in a court of law before an injunction could be brought against the harasser, and with Italy’s notoriously inefficient court system in reality this was often of little practical use to those being stalked and harassed.  Another significant step forward is the provision of legal aid for any women who decides to prosecute her abuser, a particularly important step in a country where many abused women remain financially dependent on their partners. 

The new law builds upon the progress made in May, when Italy’s lower Chamber of Deputies ratified the Council of Europe’s convention on preventing and fighting violence against women.  The Council of Europe treaty, from 2011, is intended to create a framework to prevent, prosecute and eliminate violence against women.

But women’s rights activists are not convinced such measures will be sufficient to tackle the staggering levels of domestic abuse in the country, unless they work in tandem with public campaigns and attempts to change the broader cultural context in which abuse and the murder of women occurs.  The new law comes in to effect in a context where violence against women is at epidemic levels, with 81 women killed since the beginning of the year, and 2,200 women murdered between 2000 and 2012 according to a study by the EU agency EURES.  A UN report citing data from Italian statistics agency ISTAT found that a third of women in Italy had reported being victim of serious domestic violence.  Many of the law-makers passing the Council of Europe convention in May cited the high-profile case of Fabiana Luzzi, a fifteen year old girl who was beaten, stabbed and then set on fire by her former partner earlier this year.  The public outcry at Luzzi’s murder, as well as widespread shock at a series of recent acid attacks on women, indicated that the tide was turning on tolerance towards violence against women as a ‘private’ issue. 

But any such optimism that violence against women and gender equality will now be taken seriously must be held against broader cultural context.  Domestic rape in Italy only became illegal fifteen years ago, and less than a generation ago the phrase ‘crime of passion’ was still deployed by judges in acquitting men who had murdered their partners and former partners.  Financial dependence on abusive partners often traps women into abusive situations, a scenario reinforced by what a 2012 UN report noted as ‘deeply rooted gender stereotypes’ pushing women to carry a significant burden of household care, with contributions by Italian men to domestic chores being among the lowest in the world.  These tropes of patriarchal structures are enhanced further by statements by those such as parish priest Piero Corsi, who made headlines last year by pinning a bulletin board to his church arguing that modern women’s ‘independence’, ‘arrogance’ and ‘not keeping a tidy house’ were the reason for the rise in femicide.

Yet for all their supposed ‘arrogance’, women in the country still have to face a barrage of abuse if they enter the public sphere, as journalist and politican Laura Boldrini noted by reading out some of the daily threatening and abusive messages she receives as the Council of Europe convention was passed. The toxic interplay of racism and sexism evident in the recent abuse of politican Cecile Kyenge underline the findings of the 2012 UN report that analysed the treatment of women in the media, reporting that in 2006 only 2% of women on television were linked to issues of social commitment and professionalism, an imbalance also highlighted by documentary filmmaker Lorella Zanardo.

But if Italy has problems with women in the public sphere, the most dangerous place to be a woman in the country is surely the home. Whether the new law on violence against women will have any effect will be hampered by Italy’s stiflingly slow and fragmented legal system, as well as the broader cultural context in which abused women financially dependent on their partners are provided with few realistic avenues of escape.  The 2012 UN mission to Italy’s report on violence against women criticised the country’s provisions of domestic violence shelters, which depend on volunteers and have faced a surge in the austerity period.

And the new law, while welcomed by women’s rights organisations in the country, is also not without its problems.  One of the new provisions is that complainants will no longer be able to revoke reports of abuse after initially reporting them to the police – a well-intentioned effort to mitigate against women revoking their reports of abuse under the undue pressure of their partner, when combined with Italy’s sluggish legal system this may leave women in a vulnerable purgatory of having reported their abuse but without prosecution of their abuser, and is not sufficiently sensitive to the fact that the most dangerous and crucial period for a woman experiencing abuse is when she makes efforts to leave her abuser.

The new law is too late for the thousands of women who have been murdered by their partners or former partners over the last decade, and the many thousands more who have been beaten, stalked and terrorised.  And while it is undoubtedly a step forward and a clear signal that ‘femicide’ and violence against women is not tolerated in Italy, the law must be backed by concrete action, not least in the funding of safe houses and domestic violence shelters and public awareness campaigns aimed at reaching out to those caught in the isolating fog of domestic abuse.  As Laura Boldrini has argued, violence against women requires immediate institutional change, not only to the laws enabling the prosecution of abusers but in structural changes to lift the status of women in society to one of gender-equity.

After passing the law to combat femicide, Italy’s government broke up for summer recess, and life goes on. This Monday, a woman in Genoa was attacked with acid by a man at the hospital where she worked as a cleaner.  The new law has been passed, but the ongoing reality of violence against women continues in the vacations just as in work-time.

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