At the end of December, a priest in a village in northern Italy pinned a notice to his church. Outrage and protests followed across the country. Women, suggested Father Piero Corsi, increasingly share the blame for domestic and sexual violence. They exacerbate household tensions with “children left to themselves, dirty houses, cold dishes, fast food and filthy clothes”. While he wrote that violence can never be excused, he linked it to the way women dress: “They provoke the worst instincts, which end in violence or sexual abuse. They should search their consciences and ask: did we bring this on ourselves?”
His ideas were condemned by everyone from the local mayor to the Vatican. The regional bishop advised the priest to take a rest from his duties. Corsi seemed genuinely taken aback by the strength of the reaction against him. And although some women’s rights groups urged him to resign, he merely issued a public apology before returning to work at his church in San Terenzo di Lerici, near La Spezia, in January, saying he had not meant to cause offence.
Unsurprisingly, activists argue that this is not enough. At a meeting held in the town hall in January, journalist Riccardo Iacona, author of the book Se Questi Sono Gli Uomini (If These Are The Men), said: “The return of Fr Corsi forces us to face reality. His words are unacceptable, but in fact reflect a common feeling in Italy … It highlights the backwardness of our culture.”
Corsi’s message had the chilling title: “Women and femminicidio – healthy self-criticism.” Femminicidio, or femicide, was defined by the anthropologist Marcela Lagarde in 2006 to describe the killing of women by men as a result of misogynistic attitudes. According to the 2011 shadow report of the UN’s committee on the elimination of discrimination against women, cases have doubled in Italy since the 90s, and now number at least 120 each year – roughly one every three days.
Most victims are killed by husbands, partners or former partners, and in many cases having suffered long-term abuse or stalking. Others are killed by men they knew. The violence is often sparked by jealousy or a sense of ownership over a woman – one man was found guilty of murdering his wife after she refused to have sex with him (although he is appealing the verdict); another woman was killed when she left her husband and met another man.
A UN report in June claimed domestic violence is the most pervasive form of violence in the country, with a third of women saying they had experienced “serious domestic violence”. In a 2010 survey, the European Commission found that 3% of Italian respondents thought domestic violence was acceptable in all circumstances – the highest in the EU.
In the past, murders of women by their partners, fathers or brothers were treated as crimes of passion or “honour”, with perpetrators likely to receive reduced sentences. It was only in 1996 that rape was reclassified as a crime against the individual, not against morality. There was a further tightening of sexual-violence laws in 2009, but that these changes took so long is a reflection of a society slow to catch up with women’s rights issues.
“The legal and cultural problems collide,” says Michela Turno, a historian specialising in gender and violence. “There’s anecdotal evidence that the police in many instances have not given help to women when needed.” Half the 136 victims of femminicidio in 2011 previously contacted the police for help. But domestic violence is often regarded as a private issue.
Turno points to the formation of women’s rights groups such as Se Non Ora Quando? (If Not Now, When?) as a sign that times are changing. But with at least 120 women likely to be murdered by their partners this year, clearly more must be done.
By Jessica Abrahams. Originally published by The Guardian, 12th February 2013. View here.