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International Women’s Day 2021: On Violence against Women

Senator Valeria Valente and Professor Marina Calloni interviewed

Valeria Valente
Valeria Valente
  • Valeria Valente
  • Marina Calloni

“Femicide and gender violence are not emergencies; they are structural phenomena.”

To mark International Women’s Day 2021, the Academy looks at the pressing issue of violence against women. Barbara Faedda, Executive Director of the Academy, interviewed both Senator Valeria Valente, President of the Italian Parliamentary Investigation Committee on Femicide and Gender Violence, and Professor Marina Calloni, Director of the ADV–Against Domestic Violence Research Center of the Università di Milano – Bicocca (and former Fellow of the Italian Academy).

Senator Valente and Professor Calloni reflect on femicide and gender-based violence, anti-femicide measures, gender inequality, the role of education, women in leadership, the impact of COVID-19, and more.

Interview: Senator Valeria Valente (President of the Italian Parliamentary Investigation Committee on Femicide and Gender Violence)

Question
Senator Valente, as President of the Committee, can you describe the “Parliamentary Investigation Committee on Femicide and Gender Violence,” which was established in 2018?

Answer
It is a single-chamber Committee of inquiry in the Senate, Italy’s upper chamber, which has the same powers as the investigative judiciary and is tasked with looking into the nature and extent of the phenomenon of femicide and gender-based violence. It is composed of 20 female and male senators from the whole range of political positions (proportional to each parliamentary group’s numbers) and with representation of all political groups.

Q
How is it organized and what are its main functions?

A
It has a president, two vice presidents, and two secretaries, and the investigative work is done in groups. Its main functions are to determine the true dimensions, conditions, quality, and causes of femicide—understood as the killing of a woman as such— and, more generally, the phenomenon of gender-based violence, [and] the status of implementation of the chief regulations to combat it: from the ratification of the Istanbul Convention combating violence against women and domestic violence (June 27, 2013, n.77) and the law on combating violence against women (known as 119/2013). The Committee’s tasks also include monitoring each Italian region's implementation of the National Plan on violence against women and national guidelines; monitoring the activity of anti-violence centers and shelters for battered women; and assessing needs and proposing new legislation.

Q
What are the guiding legislative texts and conventions?

A
The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, created in Istanbul on May 11, 2011, plus the main Italian laws: the 119/2013 law, the law on stalking, the Red Code.

Q
Women are often killed by someone close to them—most often by their (current or former) partner or a family member.
In Italy, are some kinds of women more at risk than others?

A
The phenomenon of femicide and gender violence is not an emergency but rather a structural phenomenon, because its deepest cause is the patriarchal culture that tries to make a woman be a weak subject in relation to an abusive man. As such, this phenomenon affects all social classes in our country. Therefore, there are no higher-risk categories of women—but lack of economic autonomy is surely a strong deterrent to finding a pathway out of violence: women who are economically dependent on their partners suffer more.

Q
What are the triggers for male violence and what are the baseline conditions that foster such violence?

A
The biggest trigger is a woman exercising her freedom: when a woman decides to break off her relationship and leave her partner (whether a boyfriend or a husband), she unfortunately exposes herself to violence, which can lead to femicide. And the same thing can happen to daughters and sisters who emancipate themselves from the patriarchal model of how power is handled within a family. The conditions that create the basis for violence are in the culture of patriarchy that considers the relationship between a man and a woman not as equal but with a power imbalance that favors males, to the detriment of females, and that considers women’s bodies as the terrain where this power imbalance is enacted. So a woman’s emancipation is the trigger; and it then plays out in many ways in different cases.

Q
According to the United Nations, even in countries where homicides are decreasing, the number of women getting killed is increasing. The recent pandemic has only exacerbated the situation. You have said that COVID-19 highlighted a great deal of fragility and injustice in our social system; what exactly did you mean? And how is Italy reacting to these shortcomings that are now coming to light?

A
COVID immediately spotlighted the fragile situation of many women who—because of pandemic restrictions—are shut indoors, often together with their tormentors. Over the course of the lockdown, violent crime decreased overall, including homicides. But femicides and violence against women remained unchanged, and thus their proportion of the total number became critical. We in the Parliamentary Investigation Committee on Femicide and Gender Violence found that, as of April 2020, femicides accounted for 60% of all killings. Generally, during the pandemic women have shouldered a double workload: remote working from home has led to increased domestic and care work, and—with children doing school from home—overseeing kids in their online education, too, has become a female task. In addition, many women have lost their jobs because women’s work is more precarious and women are more likely to be in the service sector. I believe, however, that Italy is recognizing that there’s great opportunity in the National Recovery and Resilience Plan (with which Italy is preparing to apply for 209 billion euros allocated by the EU): overcoming the gender gap in employment, bringing the female employment rate—now at around 49%—up to the European average—62%—would lead to a rise in GDP of 7%, according to the Bank of Italy. Investing in women means taking the brakes off the country, and promoting female self-determination and empowerment also means getting rid of violence.

Q
Despite efforts to stop gender-based violence, femicide continues around the world. Recent figures from the UN show that over 50,000 women are victims of femicide globally each year. What are the statistics for Italy?
Do you share the opinion of the World Health Organization that to prevent femicide, we must first address gender inequality in the social, professional, and family arenas? Or do you think there are other more effective and immediate tools?

A
One of the problems in the analysis of gender violence is precisely the shortage of unambiguous statistics and solid data that’s comparable among countries. Research done in Italy by ISTAT (the Italian National Institute of Statistics) shows that about 35% of women suffer some form of violence in their lifetime, and that we have about 200 femicides per year; with these numbers, I believe that Italy unfortunately is keeping pace with other Western countries. The vast majority of femicides are committed by a man within the same family—and this is also right in line with what happens abroad.

I fully agree with the opinion of the WHO: without attacking gender inequalities at all levels, you cannot eradicate violence and therefore femicide. This is why, as I said, we believe that women’s employment must be considered the top priority of the Recovery Plan. Women’s talents and skills must be put to use in work outside the home, and women must occupy this wide area of autonomy and determination, for their benefit and benefit of the country.

Q
Despite local, national, and regional initiatives, there are still complaints from many quarters about the lack of accurate statistics and tallies, which are indispensable for the development of prevention strategies and planning.
What is Italy doing to ensure accurate data, and what contribution can the nation offer, in the international arena, to ensure greater transparency and more accurate information?

A
The question is very pertinent, as I mentioned earlier. On November 25, 2020, the Senate unanimously approved a law—proposed by our Senate Investigation Committee on Femicide and Gender-based Violence—regarding “Provisions for statistics on gender-based violence,” which aims to ensure an adequate flow of information on gender-based violence against women in order to “design adequate prevention and counteraction policies and to ensure effective monitoring of the phenomenon.” The law, which must be approved by the House, provides that ISTAT and Sistan (the National Statistical System) allows for a periodic survey of violence against women, with estimates of the underground portion of the various types of violence: physical, sexual, psychological, and economic violence, and stalking. Data will also be provided by public health facilities and, in particular, by medical emergency rooms. In addition, an inter-ministerial database will be established (by the Interior ministry and the Justice ministry) to collect data on femicides and women who have reported violence. The law also stipulates that crime reports shall record the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator. This information might seem irrelevant, but it can signal an escalation of violence. Even damage to a car, if committed by an ex-partner, can ring the alarm bell that something more serious could happen to the victim.

Q
You often talk about the importance of training for law enforcement, judges, and health care personnel.
What kinds of initiatives have already been done in Italy, and what do you hope for? Have there been good results so far? Are there any best practices that Italy can propose internationally that other countries could then replicate?

A
The training of justice and health professionals is essential for interrupting the vicious circle of violence, for avoiding secondary victimization, and for prompting women to have confidence and to make a police report. Indeed, it serves to quash the prejudice and stereotypes that hurt women and that confirm to a victim, albeit unconsciously, that she deserved the violence or that, in any case, the female victim failed to do everything in her power to stop it. In Italy we have included training in the National Anti-Violence Plan, and we have already seen results. There are many good practices: for example, the Pink Code allows health-care workers to recognize and prioritize women who are victims of violence. Anti-violence centers and shelters are certainly a good practice born of feminist culture. In those places, women’s culture saves women by allowing them to recognize violence and not feel like victims; to free themselves. We have seen that the nationwide hotline number for reporting trouble and asking for help (accessed by phone and also via the digital app), has really worked, even during COVID.

Q
For 2021, the UN named a theme for International Women’s Day: “Women in leadership: achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world.” What are your reflections and proposals in this area, for Italy and—more generally—for the international community?

A
The theme of female leadership is strategic because women, if they can move freely, exercise power in a more inclusive and empathetic way, based on dialogue. It’s what the world beyond the COVID emergency will absolutely need. I believe that it’s no accident that the great shift in the European attitude towards COVID was determined by two women, Ursula von der Leyen and Christine Lagarde, who—unlike what men would have done—focused on cohesion and solidarity, and also admitted to delays, slowness, and mistakes. Together, certainly not on their own but certainly thanks to their leadership, they have called into question the austerity that had unfortunately marked the European Union and that, with the pandemic emergency, would have seriously damaged the progress of the European project as well as the progress of the Member States.

Interview translated by Abigail Asher.

Read the original Italian text of this interview.


Interview: Professor Marina Calloni (Director of the ADV–Against Domestic Violence Research Center of the Università di Milano – Bicocca)

Question
Professor Calloni, why is it important to introduce gender issues in the universities?

Answer
I have been dealing with gender issues for several decades now because I believe that a gender perspective is essential for the very reform of university knowledge, not only in the humanities but also in science. It is no coincidence that we are now talking about gender medicine, as well as the need to have more women in STEM subjects. It took decades for gender studies to be recognized in universities as a specialized field of knowledge. What is important is that gender studies remain open to new challenges without dogmatizing itself. In fact, the gender approach needs to be looked at in a way that is interdisciplinary and continuously developing as we identify actions for change in reaction to changing social, economic and political conditions, at both the local and the global level. For this reason I felt it was necessary to focus more on what gender-based violence is, understood as a continuum that starts from the private sphere and then expands into the public sphere, from workplace harassment to political institutions that still have patriarchal structures and codes.

Q
In 2013 you founded “ADV – Against Domestic Violence,” the first university center in Italy dedicated to combating domestic violence. Can you tell us what led to the birth of such a center, and about its characteristics and its mission? What were the reactions inside and outside the academy?

A
The ADV – Against Domestic Violence center was founded on May 31, 2013, under the name EDV Italy Project, thanks to an international agreement signed by the then-Rector of the Università di Milano – Bicocca, Marcello Fontanesi, and Baroness Patricia Scotland (member of the U.K. House of Lords, president of “Eliminate Domestic Violence Global Foundation – EDV GF,” later appointed Secretary General of the Commonwealth). Here I acted as Ambassador for EDV GF in Italy. The launch of the EDV Italy Project was made possible thanks to the publication—together with Simonetta Agnello Hornby—of the book Il Male Che Si Deve Raccontare. Per Cancellare la Violenza Domestica (The Evil That Must Be Told. Erasing Domestic Violence; Milan, 2013), whose proceeds were donated to the development of the project. In 2019 EDV Italy Project changed its name to ADV – Against Domestic Violence.

Thanks to this project, it was possible to have the university address the phenomenon of domestic violence, defined by the World Health Organization as a pandemic, because it is present in every country and every culture. However, it was only in 1993 that the United Nations recognized gender-based violence as a violation of human rights. I was particularly interested—from a scientific and cultural point of view—in understanding the phenomenon of domestic violence as a whole, because it was often treated in a segmented way. On the one hand were anti-violence centers and professionals; on the other hand were the experts and the agencies. These two did not always interact, except in cases of emergency. Therefore, we wanted to transform the university into a free and welcoming space where we could develop a fruitful dialogue between those who deal with domestic violence in civil society, social services, and agencies, strengthening each other's skills. [ www.adv-project.unimib.it ]

Thanks to the collaboration with associations and agencies, ADV aims to produce and spread knowledge on domestic violence and on all forms of violence against women; to offer training on the topic to students, social workers and professionals working in the field of prevention and countering violence against women; to develop research; and to exchange information nationally and internationally.

ADV’s path has been gradual, starting from an attitude of “humility”: even the academy had to learn. We had to overcome mutual diffidence, but in the end we managed to develop innovative training processes.

Q
What has been built in Italy since the Istanbul Convention? What have been the most interesting and useful initiatives that were rooted in—and strongly motivated by—that document? Is it still a very relevant document?

A
The Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence [ www.coe.int/en/web/istanbul-convention/home ], promoted by the Council of Europe and signed on May 11, 2011, is a fundamental document in the fight against gender and domestic violence, as it both defines the phenomenon and indicates the actions that each State must carry out to prevent and combat the phenomenon.

Domestic violence must be addressed through an integrated and comprehensive method; on one hand, protecting women and children and handling abusers; on the other hand, an assiduous, synergistic collaboration between all the social services, anti-violence centers, and professionals that are involved. It is no coincidence that the Convention is based on four “P”s: Prevention, Protection, Prosecution, and implementation of integrated Policies. This is the first Convention that is legally binding for the countries that sign it, so how—or even whether—it is implemented is periodically evaluated by a group of experts called GREVIO.

The Italian Parliament ratified the Convention unanimously in 2013, and subsequent laws have contributed to radically changing Italy’s approach to the issue of gender legislation. Italy has always been late to the game, especially in erasing fascist laws that referred to the 1930 Rocco Code. Until 1968, (female) adultery was considered a crime; until 1981, there was still a law permitting honor killings and recognizing reparative marriages; until 1996, rape was considered a crime against morals and not against the person.... The policies for equal opportunities inaugurated by the European Union have in this way helped Italian governments to change unacceptable laws. But there is still much to do.

Since 2001, we’ve had a law (n. 154) on the removal of a violent spouse from the family home; since 2009, we’ve had a law (n. 38) that punishes persecutors, i.e., stalkers. But only thanks to the Istanbul Convention did it become possible to vote in new laws and also to promote adequate social policies to face gender-based violence, and provide the relevant funding. One very important law was n. 119 (15-10-2013), which implemented the major guidelines of the Istanbul Convention; also key was Legislative Decree n. 2012 (15-12-2015) concerning the protection of victims, as was Law n. 4 (11-1-2018) concerning provisions in favor of orphans from domestic crimes, and Law n. 69 (19-7-2019)—called the “Red Code”—protecting victims of domestic and gender violence.

As we know, though, laws alone are not enough. What is needed is a radical change in mentality; very often, even elected politicians do not know how to address this. It is no coincidence that the Istanbul Convention is now under attack in several European countries by supporters of anti-gender movements and repressive policies. Precisely for this reason, we have since 2018 been developing a project called “U.N.I.R.E. – UNiversity In REte against violence” [ UNIRE Network - https://unire.unimib.it/ ] (funded by the Department for Equal Opportunities – Presidency of the Council of Ministers) which aims to apply the dictates of the Istanbul Convention in training, research, and public awareness.

The early results have been collected in a recent book titled Il Ruolo dell’Università nella Lotta Contro la Violenza di Genere. Ricerca, Didattica e Sensibilizzazione Pubblica per la Prevenzione del Fenomeno (The Role of the University in the Fight against Gender Violence. Research, Teaching and Public Awareness for the Prevention of the Phenomenon; Milan, 2020). We expect soon to extend the UNIRE Network to all Italian universities and to get recognition as an academic network from the Council of Europe.

Q
The main causes of violence against women are commonly traced to the background culture. It also seems that violence cuts across all levels of age, social status, and education. Do you agree with these general principles? What is the role of the culture in which one is raised, and what is the role of family, school, and the work environment?

A
For many years now, research and cases in the news have shown that the forms of violence within the family (physical, sexual, psychological, and economic) do not depend on the age, culture, or work/occupation of the abuser nor of the woman. It is a phenomenon that affects every society and every class. And it is one of the major causes of female mortality and morbidity worldwide. It is a structural violence—in a vertical and horizontal sense—that prevents women from having the same opportunities in life. It turns into symbolic violence when it is transmitted as coercive power in people’s heads. The problem is that gender and domestic violence have profound repercussions across generations. In fact, studies have underlined the problem of child-witness violence: that is, when children are traumatized—even if they have not been directly abused—in such a way that they repeat, as adults, the roles assumed by their parents: the boy will potentially become an abuser, and the girl a victim. We have produced a film on this — "Witnessing Family Violence: the Eyes of Children." Teaching respect begins in the family; to combat violence, we need to work with children from a very early age and in ways that suit their cognitive development.

Domestic violence is not a private matter but rather a collective problem, because it spreads like a poison that bursts out of the family walls to spread into the world of work and institutions.

Q
You are very active in the continuous training and updating of various professional categories involved in the issue of violence against women: psychologists, social workers, journalists, and also those in the anti-violence centers. Since 2018 you have also been the scientific leader of the course “Training social workers to combat gender-based violence,” funded by the Lombardy Region and supported by several departments of your university: Sociology and Social Research, Medicine and Surgery, Psychology, Human Sciences for Education, Economic and Business Sciences and Law for Economics. I’d like to ask you which areas require the most training intervention, but also what you have learned, in turn, in these interactions with practitioners and professionals in that area. Why is it important that research on violence against women be conducted in an interdisciplinary manner? And how do the different kinds of academic expertise interact in the analysis of the problem and, above all, in the structuring of educational and operational proposals?

A
In order to tackle the scourge of gender-based violence, everyone must start from what they know how to do—but strengthening their own initiatives by working together with other experts, agencies, and associations. Academics cannot tackle the phenomenon alone. It is necessary to use the knowledge that comes from the experiences of women’s associations and anti-violence centers, social and health services, agencies, and professionals such as judges, lawyers, psychologists, doctors, and so on. For this reason, I have tried to develop—together with other colleagues from different disciplines—a multilevel and holistic model for training: proposing educational initiatives across several disciplines and on multiple levels. We have developed courses and activities that are diversified according to the users and their level of preparation and interest (for university students, journalists, psychologists, social health personnel, workers at anti-violence centers, personnel of local agencies for the protection of health, and civil society associations).

Personally, I have learned a lot from these activities and I have enhanced my knowledge as a teacher and researcher—and as a citizen and activist for the respect of human rights.

Q
In spite of the numerous initiatives at local, national and regional levels, there are still complaints about the lack of accurate statistics and data, which are indispensable for the study and analysis of the problem, and for the development of prevention plans. I would therefore like to ask you whether you have found that data is lacking or limited, and what possible measures could come—rather urgently, I presume—from the various agencies, in order to have a more complete picture to work on?

A
Until 1995—that is, until the UN World Conference on Women’s Rights—there was no data broken down by gender. For example, information was given on the unemployed, without saying how many men and how many women (the number of women is always higher). So it was not possible to identify the extent of discrimination and thus develop adequate equality policies. Now there are international obligations to produce and distinguish data by gender.

As far as domestic violence is concerned, the problem is more complex, both because it was recognized as a violation of human rights only in 1993—and therefore as a crime to be prosecuted—and because it is a phenomenon that remains largely undetected. What we know is that it’s only the tip of a huge iceberg. Until a few decades ago, this was a misunderstood and “uncounted” phenomenon. Moreover, such homicides were previously listed as “domestic accidents.” Now, thanks to specific laws and different training of law enforcement and magistrates, they have been revealed as what they are: femicides....

However, an exhaustive recognition of the phenomenon is still lacking; partly because—to recognize it—we need not only the findings of the police and emergency rooms, but also the complaints made by women. Many are afraid of not being believed; many fear the consequences they might face if the abuser is a family member, an acquaintance, or a relative. Others lack confidence in justice and protective measures. Some women have been killed even after reporting their abuser.

Another problem remains with children—male and female—whose memory retains a deep wound from violence (seen or experienced). It is therefore necessary to learn to recognize not only the physical signs but also the invisible wounds.

Q
You are a consultant for the Parliamentary Investigation Committee on Femicide and Gender Violence in the Italian Senate, chaired by Senator Valente. Can you explain the modalities of your involvement in the Committee? How does the exchange of ideas and expertise between the legal/political figures and the consultants happen within the Committee?

A
I am really honored by the assignment and I will try to put at the service of the Committee everything that I know how to do and I have learned—that is, to do research, to teach, to collaborate in working groups with various specialists, and to collect life stories. So I am particularly concerned with innovative proposals in the area of training, but also with the analysis of cases of femicide through sentencing. For the previous Parliamentary Investigation Committee, I had already done a study on the Domestic Homicide Review, a non-penal procedure used in the United Kingdom for the identification of possible errors committed by social workers and protection networks in cases of femicide. I had spent some time at the Public Protection Bureau in Gloucester to understand how it works. I had then compared this procedure with 20 sentences of femicide issued by Italian courts. A tragic reality emerged: these women had not been killed in a fit of madness or jealousy—all the femicides were premeditated homicides. In 19 cases the femicide was even predictable, and often presumably avoidable.

In the cases we examined, we saw that an escalation of violence, a controlling attitude, and hatred had induced the homicide, which was executed with ferocity and without repentance. For this reason, careful risk assessment—by social services and the woman involved—is always necessary.

Preventing violence and femicides is possible, but only if you work together, with specific responsibilities, providing your knowledge and willingness to learn, and admitting your mistakes. This is about saving lives, but it’s also about allowing traumatized younger generations to have a life of dignity.

Q
For 2021, the United Nations has chosen “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world” as the theme for International Women’s Day. Do you have a particular message, especially for young women entering the workforce today?

A
It is undoubtedly difficult to answer this question in a few words, especially if we do not want to associate the word leader with the image of an affirmative man, capable of imposing himself, making decisions, seemingly all-powerful. So I would prefer to answer by recalling a story told to me by a Brazilian colleague of mine, who is involved in the defense of the rights of native communities.

Among those invited to São Paulo for a public initiative was a woman from the Amazon, a representative of her community. Seeing the poor in the streets, the woman commented: “but these people who live in the streets and seem to be hungry—do they belong to your community? In our community, it would be unthinkable, because we have to take care of all those in need. That is the job of our leaders, elected by us because they are capable.”

This Native woman’s idea of leadership referred to the lofty task that a leader must take on: to be able to interpret people’s needs, to take them up, seeking to ensure that poverty can be overcome and that the community lives in prosperity. That then becomes a collective responsibility.

So I think women’s leadership can make a difference, as has also been demonstrated by the recent political change in the European Union, from austerity to solidarity (including vaccines). This is also the great tradition of women's movements: taking care of people and of a suffering society, starting from the needs that come from below, meeting real needs, beyond political interests or parties (parties which are now totally in crisis).

We need a more integrated and substantial conception of justice, especially in view of the difficulties we will face after the pandemic, with a greater number of unemployed, disabled and psycho-physically challenged people (especially young students).

Due to an incredibly deadly virus, the younger generation will face a different world than their parents. I suggest that young people should increase their knowledge and skills and remain open to new knowledge; leadership and power also mean potential for transformation, which is indispensable for a collective reconstruction.

Marina Calloni is a full professor in social and political philosophy at the Department of Sociology and Social Research, Università degli Studi di Milano – Bicocca; she was the Alexander Bodini Fellow in Transitions from Globalism to Nationalism and Populism at the Italian Academy; https://www.unimib.it/marina-calloni

Interview translated by Abigail Asher.

Read the original Italian text of this interview.

Event Date 
Sat, Apr 17, 2021, 9:30 am to Fri, Dec 31, 2021, 10:00 am
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