Reportage. The president of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, Laura Boldrini, invited 1,300 women to attend a hearing on violence against women. The testimonies were aired live on public television, and their stories were overwhelming.

1,300 women report their ‘hell’ to Italian parliament

“There comes a time when you have to decide: will you be a damsel in distress, or will you be a fighter who saves herself?” Touria Tchiche got a standing ovation for her words, which are a perfect summary of all the stories that were heard Saturday in the Italian Chamber of Deputies.

One thousand three hundred women accepted President Laura Boldrini invitation, and all of them could recognize a little of their own lives in the lives of the others. This was why the applause lasted longer than expected.

It is the kind of strength that gives strength to others in turn. The emotion built up like a rising tide above the stormy waves of these women’s lives, women who suffered violence and chose to turn their lives around. Those who survived, at least.

They all admit that they managed to survive not only through their own inner strength, but also through the help of the others. Gratitude impels one to fight for a cause, and none of them failed to mention some particular association or network, the Women’s Union of Italy (UDI), etc. — in short, those people who listened to them and helped them in practical ways, giving them shelter, money, job opportunities. Without such support, there could have been no escape from their hell. For a legislative body that would be truly willing, this points to what needs to be done in the clearest possible way.

The floor belonged to women only (and some controversy was inevitable), but not to women standing alone. Touria is 42 years old and she has had five children, an arranged marriage in Morocco, a move to Italy in a small town near Bergamo, beatings by her husband, a complaint made to the authorities, her day in court, and, in the end, a new life.

The first one to speak was Dr. Serafina Strano. It was the first time she showed her face in public. She is an EMT worker who, during “a night of terror” two months ago in Trecastagni, Catania province, was “savagely beaten, and raped again and again, unable to call for help,” as there was no way to do it trapped in a room which did not communicate with the outside. She eventually managed to escape by superhuman efforts. “Was I brave? I just remained clear-minded,” she says. “I’m here because I’m alive, and I feel no shame about what happened to me.”

But what happened after she filed her complaint is enough to turn your stomach. The institutions were missing in action (“President Boldrini was the only one who called me and talked to me like a human being”), and “nothing has changed in recent months at the ASP [Provincial health authority] in Catania.” “I demand from the state, not just for me but for my colleagues who do their work in anxiety and fear, that the working conditions be made safe for emergency medical personnel,” she said.

Boldrini was presiding over the proceedings, and at this point decided to ring the bell that let the speaker know that she should wrap up. He was the one who had the initiative to organize this “special session” on the occasion of the international day dedicated to fighting violence against women.

It was truly a “special session,” the result of the attention directed at this issue throughout the current legislature.

RAI was airing the proceedings live, so there were news cameras present, and some criticisms described it as an electoral campaign event. But on a fundamental level, it was all based on an incontestable fact: “Every two and a half days, one of our fellow female citizens is killed at the hands of those who are supposed to love her. Violence is not a matter that concerns women exclusively. It concerns our country as a whole, and scars the entire community in which it happens.”

“Why is it that the vast majority of men who reject violence don’t feel involved in this battle? And this pall of silence covers the whole political and institutional realm, with only a few exceptions.” Women are 51 percent of the population: “We are the majority, we can’t behave like a small, insignificant minority.”

Maria Elena Boschi, the Secretary of the Council of Ministers, also echoed this sentiment: “A society cannot bear ignoring half of the intelligence it possesses.” She continues to stump for the merits of ”the government’s anti-violence plan.”

However, before Boschi’s speech, Antonella Veltri from DIRE (Women in a Network against Violence, which counts among its membership 80 women’s shelters throughout Italy) had already explained that the government’s plan still doesn’t give full recognition to the role of the shelters. As for funding, in 2016 the Court of Auditors reported that the regional authorities had misspent the resources devoted to such institutions — “a river of money that has evaporated.”

And the Court in Strasbourg found Italy guilty for failing to protect Elisaveta Talpis and her son from the violence of her husband. He killed the child, and tried to kill her as well.

Another child, Federico, was likewise killed by his father, as recounted by his mother, Antonella Penati, with a bouquet of yellow flowers on the desk next to her — a story both eye-opening and heartbreaking. Eight years old, he was stabbed 37 times by the murderous father who had come to meet him escorted by social service workers, who had taken the boy away from school for a “supervised meeting” with the father. “Supervised,” Antonella stresses. All after a judge had ruled her to be a mother “with an overbearing attitude, overprotective and alienating, set on undermining the figure of the father.”

Emanuela Di Vito was herself stabbed five times, and is alive today by a miracle, “and thanks to the doctors.” She pressed charges against her ex-boyfriend for it, got him convicted (although “the beatings he gave me with a belt fell outside the statute of limitations”), but he was soon out of prison, ambushing her in front of her car, mocking and threatening. “I was the one sentenced in the end, to my very own narrow prison, with no clemency in sight.”

Next to tell her story was Concetta Raccuia, the mother of Sara Pietrantonio, who was burned alive by her ex in May 2016 on the outskirts of Rome. Then there was Maria Teresa Giglio, the mother of Tiziana Cantone, who committed suicide last May after a pornographic video of her, filmed without her consent, had been circulating on the internet, and after she was sentenced, at the end of her fruitless legal battle to have the video taken down, to paying the legal fees for five websites — “forced to take her own life just to gain the right to be forgotten.” Blessing Okoedion followed with her own story, a Nigerian victim of human trafficking, whose captors, “in the span of only a moment, reduced me to a mere slave.” She ran away and told police, and there she found someone truly willing to help.

These stories are very hard to listen to, and difficult to tell. And with the telling comes the further torture of the information being reported, with a “re-victimizing” effect, as journalist Luisa Betti next explained. In Venice on Saturday, the Federazione Nazionale della Stampa Italiana, together with the GIULIA association of female journalists, released a manifesto calling for responsibility in handling stories involving violence in the media.

Just like the Argentinian “Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo,” when their children are killed, mothers become relentless fighters for the freedom of others. The social sociologist Linda Laura Sabbadini speaks about this phenomenon in terms of numbers. “We must not bend the numbers to our beliefs, but build our beliefs around the reality of the numbers,” she says, particularly about the fact that the vast majority of the violence in question is perpetrated by a boyfriend, not an unknown stranger. “But the numbers also say that nowadays there are twice as many women who report the violence, and that the number of girls who end a relationship at the first signs of danger is increasing. The strength of women lies in their unity, we are aware of the progress already made, but we know that the road ahead is a long one.”

Memory has a crucially useful role, as the women of the “Renata Fonte” shelter in Lecce also recounted. Renata was a local councilperson who opposed the division into lots for development of Porto Selvaggio, which is now a natural oasis. And the women bearing the tricolor scarves of the ANPI (National Association of Italian Partisans) also made this point.

If a woman escapes being killed, there are many possibilities to be reborn after being a victim of violence at the hands of a man.

But there can never be enough of these, as Rosaria Maida said, head of the 4th section of the motorized division of the police force in Palermo and “honored to be here, as a woman and as a police officer”. Maria Monteleone, a public prosecutor specializing in investigating violence against women in Rome, and Gabriella Carnieri Moscatelli, pioneer and founder of Telefono Rosa, said the same.

Grazia Biondi also had a similar story, as a former victim of violence by a man and now the relentless driving force behind the Manden association, and so did Olimpia Cacace, mother of Alessandra, 24 years old, abducted from her car and killed by her ex only two months ago.

“To survive after what happened to my daughter” — that was why Olimpia turned to Grazia for help.

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