On September 10th, 2013, the Istanbul Convention was ratified by Italy and it entered into force almost one year later, on August 1st, 2014. By ratifying the Convention, Italy is obliged to prevent and eliminate violence against women (VAW), particularly by eradicating gender stereotypes which are deeply embedded in Italian culture. These are said to be the main cause behind the high rates of domestic violence and femicide, which have dramatically increased in the past couple of years. This issue was also highlighted by the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on
VAW, Rashida Manjoo(1), in her report about the situation of VAW in Italy from 2012, and was also reflected in the judgement passed by the European Court of Human Rights in 2017 concerning the case Talpis v. Italy.(2) The current legal framework is characterized by fragmentation, inadequate punishment of perpetrators, and lack of effective redress for women affected by violence.
The new proposal from the government
Women’s associations are voicing their concern these days with regard to the government’s new proposal. League senator Simone Pillon drafted a proposal which represents a step backwards of 50 years as far as women’s rights are concerned, and particularly the rights of women survivors of violence. It aims at making the process of separation between a husband and wife more complicated, so that women will feel obliged to give up their freedoms and rights, unable to ask for help when trying to leave an abusive relationship. Pursuant to the proposal are the following items:
- For those who want to separate or obtain a divorce, the first step is mediation, which is mandatory, regardless if the woman was subjected to domestic violence by her husband or intimate partner. This obligation, in violation of art. 48 of the Istanbul Convention, is an obstacle for a woman to freely decide about her own life and, most importantly, to escape from an abusive relationship. If she rejects the mediation, she cannot ask for separation or divorce. The draft does not take into account cases of domestic violence, even though it is well known that, in the majority of the cases, when a woman decides to put an end to her relationship and file for divorce, pre-existing domestic violence can escalate and may even lead to femicide. Moreover, the costs for a separation or divorce will be higher and free legal aid not provided during the mediation process. In the end, a woman victim of violence will be forced to continue living with her violent partner “to save the family”, as senator Pillon would say.
- During the separation children will have to spend 12 days a month with each parent, even though this may be detrimental to their needs and against their will. Parents will be obliged to organize a “family plan” covering every aspect of their children’s life, which will be adjusted as children grow up, increasing the chances for conflict to arise between parents, especially in a context of previous domestic violence. This proposal increases the chance exponentially for an abusive man to perpetrate violence, not only physical but also psychological and economic, towards the woman, throughout the separation process. This may lead to a never-ending fight between the couple, thus increasing legal fees to the disadvantage of the more economically vulnerable spouse.
- The alimony check will be removed, and both parents will have to provide for their children equally according to their financial capabilities. Subtly, to discourage separation, the programme takes into consideration equality between women and men only when it comes to separation and not during their relationship. The proposal does not take into account the fact that the female unemployment rate is very high in Italy and economic disparities will cause unequal treatment of children.
- The proposal addresses the fight against “parental alienation”, referring to instances in which one parent manipulates the child to reject the other parent. Such a measure could be exploited by men, especially when violence is reported, leaving children more vulnerable and deterring women from reporting the case.
This idea is based on the notion of “parental alienation syndrome” (PAS), a theory developed by the psychiatrist Dr. Richard A. Gardner, which has been discredited by scientific associations. Indeed, PAS is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and there is no official position on whether the syndrome is real.(3) Parental alienation is not a syndrome but “a stereotypical view of a woman punishing a man”. According to PAS, any mother who accuses her spouse of being abusive with her and her child, is lying more or less by definition. Gardner believed that 90 per cent of mothers are liars who “programmed” their children to repeat their lies to “alienate” them from their father, a shocking abrogation of parental responsibility for which a mother deserves to lose all custody rights in favour of her alleged abuser. By following the aforementioned theory, Pillon’s bill foresees that foster care will be provided for any child who refuses to stay with one of the parents, without verifying the reasons for this rejection beforehand. The other parent will lose custody.
- When it comes to removal and protection orders in cases of VAW, if a woman reports violence and asks for the removal of her partner from the house, she carries the risk of being accused to cause significant damage to her children and her family. Law enforcement authorities may suspect that her accusations are false, having no other purpose than to punish her partner. Consequently, she will be discouraged from reporting domestic violence to authorities.(4)
Similar to Gardner’s work, Pillon will create a generation of mothers and children abused psychologically and physically, forced to continue seeing their violent fathers and partners.
VAW in practice
The Italian government is acting in a way that far from combatting VAW, reaffirms patriarchal norms and considers women to be solely devoted to maternity, without having any rights and freedoms.(5)
There is a worrying lack of knowledge among politicians and an unwillingness to understand the causes of VAW in Italy, which is considered to be a “women’s only business”. VAW is a serious problem in Italy; according to EURES data(6), in the first ten months of 2017, 114 women have been killed, which means that more than one woman is killed every three days. 3,000 women have been killed in Italy since 2000, and thousands more have from suffered domestic abuse or stalking by men. Only 8.7 % of violent episodes were reported to the police.(7)
Overall, the aforementioned bill denies the problem of domestic violence and femicide. The provision of the compulsoriness of mediation in the case of an abusive relationship is in conflict with the Istanbul Convention, since it cannot be applied to a situation of domestic violence. Under such circumstances violence between the two spouses may escalate and culminate in femicide.
What the new government should be aware of is that VAW remains a widespread phenomenon in Italy, its underestimation and impunity for perpetrators of VAW offences, often leading to femicide. Even though there is proof of the fact that domestic violence persists, a large number of women have been murdered by their current or former partners, because no preventive measures were undertaken. Consequently, women give up on reporting intimate partner violence, because they believe they will not be taken seriously by authorities. This serious phenomenon manifested mainly in the domestic sphere remains largely invisible and underreported, as around 93 per cent of victims, mostly financially dependent on the perpetrators, do not report domestic violence to the police.
Italy has a legal framework seeking to combat VAW and femicide. However, the reality on the ground is completely different. Women continue to be killed by current or former intimate partners because the State failed to protect them. Women are encouraged to denounce their abusers, but often their complaints are not taken seriously, precautionary measures are not applied when the situation is dangerous, and, in the end, they are left to suffer alone. When a woman goes to the police to report violence, the police officer usually asks if she was not simply arguing with her husband. Law enforcement authorities rarely believe women; therefore, they stop reaching out for help.
When women ask for help and denounce domestic violence, they have to be listened and helped, hence authorities are obliged to intervene immediately
without discretion. Giving women a voice is imperative in making them aware about the importance of reporting violence. If the criminal justice system does not react and treats their complaints seriously, victims will not find a reason to report the abuse they endured.
Italy still finds itself in a situation where gender stereotypes are deeply embedded in society and domestic violence continues to affect women. The implementation of national legislation and the functioning of the judicial system continue to be hampered by a strong patriarchal culture which is supported by the new government. This problem is not easy to solve, especially if the government is the main representative of a culture based on gender inequality. As a result, the government is not making any concrete efforts to empower women and to enable them to escape from violence. Violence is still perceived to be a woman’s issue, in which only a few men take part.
If the aforementioned proposal will be approved, the freedoms and rights of millions of women, in particular of those who were victims of violence and remain completely financially dependent on their abusive partners, will be violated. Women´s associations, lawyers and psychologists are protesting and writing petitions to prevent the approval of the proposal which will violate the rights and interests of women and children. The new government gives the impression that it is living in a totally different context, ignoring the gravity of male violence against women, unaware that more and more women need to escape from abusive relationships.
In order to achieve gender equality and decrease the number of domestic violence cases and implement relevant provisions from the Istanbul Convention, Italy should make improvements to its educational and criminal justice system. When it comes to prevention, education is the single most important tool. The government should seek to introduce in schools a culture free from gender stereotypes and imposition of gender roles and ensure respect for gender equality, recognizing that VAW is a human rights violation.
Schools and awareness-raising campaigns should ensure that teachers and professors will educate students in accordance with values of gender equality. In this context, awareness-raising activities represent an effective means to disseminate the idea that domestic violence is not a private matter, but an unacceptable violation of human rights. Women’s associations are working hard to improve the situation and step in when the government fails to comply with its obligations. The media bears a particular responsibility in ensuring that women and men are represented in a non-stereotyped way and can contribute to ending VAW by disseminating awareness-raising campaigns that tackle gender stereotypes.
In the context of the criminal justice system, the treatment of victims of
domestic violence remains precarious. Hence, when abused women report violence to authorities, they receive insufficient assistance and support. Due to the length of criminal and civil legal proceedings related to domestic violence, women run the risk of being killed by their violent partners, while waiting for the trial to end. Legal proceedings related to cases dealing with violence against women should be given priority and be concluded as soon as possible by well-trained judges and other public authorities.
Finally, escaping from an abusive relationship takes time and costs money, women being especially vulnerable if they have children. In this case, the government should offer financial aid to women, so as to protect their economic and social rights throughout their path away from violence and comply with the provisions from the Istanbul Convention.
By Chiara Paganelli, former WAVE Intern
Chiara Paganelli studied Law at the University of Pisa and has a master’s
degree in Globalization and Law, specializing in International Human Rights Law from the University of Maastricht. She wrote her master’s thesis on domestic violence and the implementation of the Istanbul Convention in Italy. As of recent, she finalized a traineeship at the Council of Europe focusing on social rights and social cohesion, and an internship at WAVE Office. Chiara can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
(1) Report of the Special Rapporteur on VAW, its causes and consequences, Rashida Manjoo, Mission to Italy, 15.06.2012, A/HRC/20/16/ADD.2
(2) Further information about the Talpis vs. Italy case is available here: http://espchhelp.ru/blog/591-talpis-v-italy
(6) The acronym stands for Institute on economic and social research
(7) EURES, Rapporto “Caratteristiche, dinamiche e profili di rischio
del femminicidio in Italia”. http://www.quotidianosanita.it/allegati/allegato4803121.pdf