The 21-year-old woman known only as “A” sat in a courtroom in central Italy recently, listening to the doctor’s testimony. “In 30 years dealing with violent injuries, I have never seen such cruelty,” the doctor, Gabriele Iagnemma, said.
The young woman, a student, had been violently raped by a man she trusted; then left for dead in a pool of her own blood in a snow bank outside a club one winter evening last year. Miraculously, she survived the attack, though the operation to reconstruct her vagina and repair her cervix and uterus took many hours. Her assailant had used an unidentified blunt object during the rape, the doctor testified.
Francesco Tuccia, 22, the man eventually convicted of her rape, asked if he could leave the courtroom during the doctor’s graphic testimony, and was escorted out. His victim stayed as Tuccia’s lawyers argued that he had only used his hands, and that her injuries were due to her petite stature. This, his lawyers argued, was a “loving relationship between two consenting adults.” Tuccia’s passions may have been unbridled, they said, but were certainly not malicious.
Because of Tuccia’s military service and lack of prior criminal record, he was sentenced to just eight years in prison, part of which he can spend under house arrest. Meanwhile, “A” may never recover from the psychological effects of the rape—the details of which she has suppressed and which only appear in disturbing flashes. Her wounds will take more surgery to repair and she is in chronic pain. And it is unclear whether she will ever be able to bear children. It feels like, she told the court, that she was the one handed a life sentence. “I want my life to be like it was before, but I can never return to that,” she said. “I want to be able to be free, to not be afraid to leave my house. He took that away from me.”
The attack on “A” isn’t unusual. Rather, she is just one among tens of thousands women who are victims of sexual assault in Italy, a country that has long ignored violence against women. According to the United Nations, a third of all women in Italy are at some point victims of domestic abuse. And last year, 120 women were killed by their husbands, exes or boyfriends in so-called femicide attacks—a number that may sound small until you consider that, in Italy, one woman is slain every three days.
As The Daily Beast reported last year, though violence against women is finally getting the attention it deserves, the number of women killed in Italy has been steadily growing—about 10 percent every year for the past three years—a faster rate than any other European country, according to Non Siamo Complici, or We Are Not Accomplices, a group that is working to empower women to stand up to domestic violence.
Though statistics on femicide are hard to come by, according to the United Nations, 50 percent of women killed between 2008 and 2010 in Europe were killed by a family member. For men, that number was just 15 percent. In other words, women are killed by those who supposedly love them. Only six weeks into the year, already nine women in Italy have been murdered by their husbands, exes, or boyfriends.
(In Spain, another European country with high rates of femicide, so far, 13 women have been killed this year. Last year, 97 women were killed in Spain—35 more than in 2011.)
In many cases, men feel insecure or threatened because their wives or girlfriends say no to sex or attempt to leave the relationship, says Diana E. H. Russell, Ph.D., a Professor of Sociology at Mills College in Oakland, California, and one of the world’s foremost experts on violence against women. “It’s a macho acting-out of the attitude, ‘How dare you—you inferior bitch—leave me!’” she says. It’s “acting out his feelings of male superiority.”
Last year in Italy, women were shot, stabbed, burned alive, and pushed off balconies. Some were suffocated with pillow cases. Others were strangled by the cords of electronic appliances. One Italian woman was stabbed with a stiletto heel.
“From the burning of witches in the past to the more recent widespread custom of female infanticide in many societies, to the killing of women for ‘honor’… femicide has been going on a long time,” says Russell who first testified about femicide at the International Tribunal of Crimes against Women in Brussels in 1976. Her book Femicide: The Politics of Woman Killing, resulted in the term being adopted in more than 15 countries in Latin America.
Femicides, Russell argues, are hate crimes, just like the killing of people on account of race, sexual preference, or ethnicity. However, in male-dominated societies—such as Italy and Spain—femicides are still tolerated to a large extent.
“This is reflected in the laws as well as in the norms and values,” she says. “Men are considered the head of “their” families, and many believe their wives should be subservient to them. When their power is threatened, many lash out violently.”
Barbara Spinelli, an Italian lawyer, teaches seminars on the topic to other lawyers, social workers, police officers, teachers and those who work and counsel battered women across Europe. According to her, 70 percent of women murdered in Italy are murdered by their partner or ex partner or relative—and victims fall across the socioeconomic spectrum, she says.
“The problem is that men aren’t able to accept the end of a love story,” she says. “It’s not only a problem of power in the society; it’s a problem of self-determination: nowhere in the world do men accept the loss of control over the women’s life choices.” Spinelli believes part of the problem is the distorted and stereotyped portrayal of women in the media as either mothers or sex objects.
According to an unprecedented global 2012 study in the American Political Science Review published by Cambridge University Press, research “found astonishingly high rates of sexual assault, stalking, trafficking, violence in intimate relationships, and other violations of women.” According to the study’s co-author, S. Laurel Weldon, “in Europe it is a bigger danger to women than cancer, with 45 percent of European women experiencing some form of physical or sexual violence. Rates are similar in North America, Australia, and New Zealand.”
Latin America, commonly perceived to have a bigger problem than Europe, for example, has done much more to tackle the problem. “People have a misconception that it’s worse in Latin America, but it’s not,” she told The Daily Beast. “Europe has been slow to join the party.”
Partly, that is due to a persistent cultural taboo and the enduring acceptance of domestic violence as a private family matter. “People tend to dismiss domestic violence—and even women are still reluctant to report threats,” she said, pointing to a 1999 Eurobarometer report that showed that 40 percent of European women accepted domestic violence as a justifiable act.
In a survey taken in 2010, the numbers had much improved with less than 10 percent harboring the same attitude. Still, the reluctance to speak out is worrying. In the second survey, 91 percent of Italian women reported that they believed domestic violence is a common occurrence in their country, but there was nothing they could do about it.
The most effective way to combat femicide involves eradicating misogyny and discrimination against women. As Weldon says: “The problem with the criminal justice reaction is that you are just serving victims. If you don’t find a way to prevent the abuse by changing the mentality, you won’t actually solve the problem.”