Violence against women in Italy

Violence against women has made the headlines in Rome several times since the beginning of the year. The media gave considerable coverage to a number of rapes and attacks on women in the city’s streets (one involving an American tourist), while Rome mayor Gianni Alemanno also unveiled an initiative “Mai più violate” (Never again violated). The fanfare launch for this campaign saw the upbeat slogan “No alla violenza” projected onto the Colosseum.

But then on International Women’s Day, just hours after the public announcement of the campaign, the mutilated and as yet unidentified corpse of a young woman was discovered in southern Rome near Via Ardeatina – a depressing reminder that, without the funding and infrastructure of social services, words have little effect. The brutal and frightening attacks on women in public places do not give the whole picture of violence against women, however, because 95 per cent of all attacks on women take place within the family.

The perpetrator is usually the woman’s husband, partner or ex-boyfriend, a “friend” or relative. A 2006 study of 25,000 women by Istat, the Italian national institute of statistics, found that one-third of Italian women aged between 16 and 70 had experienced male aggression. The study said this represents 6.7 million women in Italy who have been subjected to physical or sexual violence and rape.

So are the government and local authorities doing enough to protect women from the killer in the home? It is a story heard time and again from those working in Rome’s social services, that funding is simply inadequate. There are numerous help centres for victims of domestic abuse in Rome, but they are woefully underfunded and unable to give the necessary support to all women who come to their door. Differenza Donna was the first women’s centre against domestic abuse in Rome and it now has five centres offering counselling and advice to 2,500 women each year.

They also have 30 hostel places for women escaping violence – again, the number in need is far greater, so there is a waiting list for beds. As the association’s president Emanuela Moroli says: “The women who come to us are just the tip of the iceberg.” The vast majority of cases are never reported to the help centres, let alone to the police. Moroli goes on to explain: “We only have resources to see the most extreme and serious cases: these are women who have suffered physical violence from their partners for years and years. Some women are referred to us because they have ended up in hospital. Maybe some haven’t been physically abused, but their lives are nevertheless made hellish by their partner – by psychological threats, bullying or economic oppression.” Donna e Politiche Familiari is another association of professionals offering legal advice and psychological support to women.

From her office at Casa Internazionale delle Donne, Teresa Dattilo, a psychologist and president of the association, reiterates that there just aren’t enough services in Rome: “We have three offices, but we can’t meet the demand. We can only treat the most serious cases that come to us, others may have to wait a month to be seen.” So while public violence against women accounts for just five per cent of male attacks on females, domestic abuse is not given the same sensational media coverage and goes unreported nine times out of ten.

A short news item in La Repubblica newspaper on 6 April reported that a woman, seven months pregnant, was admitted to hospital having been viciously beaten by her 34-year-old husband in the Acqua Bullicante district of east Rome. The Carabinieri had been called by neighbours who heard her screams – not for the first time – late at night. Why don’t women come forward sooner instead of suffering, in some cases for years? Dattilo explains that the woman is often not able to admit or accept her own situation. Moroli echoes this view, saying that the women who come to Differenza Donna often need to see their own lives in a new light: “They need to come to terms with the truth, which is that their husband or partner did not love them, but wanted to own or control them. They need to learn to protect themselves psychologically – but also to protect their work, family and friendships.

Men try to isolate the woman by destroying her work and by driving away her friends and family. A large number of women who come to us are not economically independent and this makes them very vulnerable.” Both Dattilo and Moroli point out that violence against women does not have any cultural or socio-economic common denominator. As Dattilo explains: “Domestic violence is like a language that you learn. It doesn’t have a typical social stereotype; some of my patients are the wives of doctors, of university professors, of successful men.” Can the language of violence be unlearned as well? Donna e Politiche Familiari and Differenza Donna are working in schools in and around Rome to run preventative initiatives that raise awareness and change the attitude of schoolchildren to relationships between the sexes.

Dattilo says: “Our work in schools aims to break down social and cultural stereotypes through games and role-playing. We encourage the teenagers to identify with the roles of victim and persecutor. Some of these youths already show jealous, possessive and violent behaviour towards females – they want to control what their girlfriends wear, where they go and with whom.” Differenza Donna also works extensively with schools in Rome and with an emergency walk-in centre – called Codice Rosa – at the Policlinico Umberto Primo to provide help for victims of physical and sexual violence (open to all women including non-Italians, immigrants and tourists). And last year Donna e Politiche Familiari launched a campaign aimed specifically at men who want help with anger management and handling stress.

Called “Colpire non è virile”(Hitting isn’t manly), the campaign has been successful so far, according to Dattilo, in persuading men who are potentially abusive to address and manage their feelings. More lives are lost in Italy through domestic violence than through mafia killings. In the courtyard at Casa Internazionale delle Donne, you can read the names of the women killed by domestic violence in recent years. The wall is covered in more than 150 names and makes for very sobering reading. Help centres: Codice Rosa is a walk-in centre for women at the public hospital Policlinico Umberto Primo (on Viale del Policlinico 155; nearest tube station: Policlinico). Donna e Politiche Familiari offers legal advice and counselling for women at Casa Internazionale delle Donne at Via della Lungara 19, tel. 0668809550;

Differenza Donna has five centres in Rome, the main one is on Via delle Tre Cannelle 5, tel. 066780537. Helpline for Colpire non è virile for men who want to address their own problem with violence, to learn how to manage their feelings and family tensions. Tel. 3880760690. Casa Internazionale delle Donne, Via della Lungara 19. It hosts a number of other services and activities for women, including a restaurant, bar and meeting area. Tel. 066801720. Save the date: Differenza Donna is holding a conference together with Women Against Violence Europe (Wave) in Rome 13-15 October. One of the main themes will be violence against women in the Mediterranean.

Bija Knowles