Italian feminist activists take on the government | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 24.11.2018
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Italian feminist activists take on the government

Civil rights organizations in Italy fighting violence against women say a proposed law will roll back 40 years of progress in the fight for women's rights. Ylenia Gostoli reports from Rome.

Centro Donna LISA is a simple apartment in a nondescript block in Rome's northern periphery, a part of the city far from the glamour visitors usually get to see.

Tania La Tella climbs the steps of the metal fire escape, complaining that the block's other residents don't let the center use the main entrance.

"As if we were holding parties here," she says. The help center, along with others across Rome, could be closed down after providing a safe haven for 20 years in this neighborhood. In April 2017, the municipality began collecting years of back rent from organizations that have been using municipal buildings. Donna LISA had accrued a debt with the municipality of about €40,000 ($45,000).

Run by volunteers, Donna LISA provides a drop-in center and a 24-hour help line for women who are looking to escape situations of domestic violence. They guide and counsel women through the process, including accompanying them to court hearings, and hold awareness days in schools.

Tania has been here for most of those 20 years and says things have changed.

An Italian women's rights activist | Tania La Tella (Tania La Tella)

Activists like Tania La Tella are concerned the draft law would roll back many of the gains made since the 1970s

A change for the better

"Years ago, we had more women from outside the neighborhood. They didn't want to be recognized; just walking up those stairs was much more difficult," she said. "There was usually no support from families, who would say, 'But it's your husband after all.' Now [the women] react faster," Tania told DW.

Tania and her colleagues across Italy fear that a draft law under discussion in the Italian parliament, informally referred to as the "Pillon draft law" after the far-right League senator who proposed it, may roll back time if passed in its current form.

Read moreOpinion: Italy's populists need more than rhetoric to govern

"Obstacles for women facing violence would simply multiply, including from an economic perspective," Tania said. "There is this idea that rights, once obtained, cannot be taken back. But this law is questioning the fundamental idea of divorce."

Italy is certainly not alone in this, as the advance of right-wing populist movements comes with a revival of social conservatism that at best aims to sweep away some of the gains made in the realm of civil rights and women's self-determination. In Poland, the government's attempt to completely outlaw abortion, which is already widely banned, sparked large-scale protests.

Protecting the biological family

The law drafted by Simone Pillon sets out to fundamentally reform Italy's family law. One of its main tenets is making family mediation compulsory.

"This law is based on a need that we believe to be vital: making sure that the familial conflict does not reach the court. To make sure that families, fathers and mothers, reach an agreement on how to manage the children before going to court," Pillon said at a recent press conference.

But critics argue that alongside three other related draft laws, the changes would erase decades of gains made in the fight for women's rights.

The new rules would also oblige both parents, when they separate, to equally share responsibility and time for the child's upbringing, stopping child maintenance altogether.

"This draft law would prevent women from quitting a violent relationship, making it even more difficult both to report a violent partner and to have custody of their children guaranteed," said Lella Palladino, the president of D.I.Re. (Women's Network Against Violence), which runs a nationwide network of women's shelters and anti-violence centers.

"This law gives substance to one of the fears of mothers that don't want to report [violence] because they are afraid of seeing their children taken away," Palladino told DW.

This is because the law starts from two assumptions: that women lie when they report violence until this is "proven," and that the child's rejection of one of the parents is due to the other one exercising psychological manipulation to generate "parental alienation," a syndrome whose existence is contested by the scientific community and not legally recognized.

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Draft law would roll back years of progress

"We are worried about [this] also from the standpoint of child protection," Palladino said. "Attributing responsibility for the children's refusal to see a father not because of the father's violent attitude, but because of the mother who turns them against the father."

While Pillon says that the law will not apply to cases of violence, feminist organizations argue that its wording — that violence has to be "proven" — is too vague. If it implies that there has be to a final sentence from a judge, as Pillon himself appears to have suggested, it could take three to four years.

In the meantime, the child would have to see the abusive partner according to the principle, espoused by the law, of the child's right to two parents, while the abused would have to maintain contact or risk losing custody on the grounds of "alienating" the child. Another draft law currently going through parliament recognizes the latter as a crime.

In a letter sent to the Italian government last year, the UN special rapporteur on violence against women, Dubravka Simonovic, expressed concern that the draft law would "introduce provisions that could entail a serious retrogression fueling gender inequality" and "depriving survivors of domestic violence of important protections."

According to the National Institute of Statistics, since 2014 nearly 7 million Italian women have been subjected to some form of violence, but 78 percent of these did not report it or seek help.

Persisting economic inequalities may be an added deterrent for women wishing to leave an abusive relationship, especially in cases where, under the new regime, they may not be able to offer their children the same living standard as the other parent.

"We see in this law attempts that go against every gain made by Italian women since the 1970s," Palladino said.

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