08.09.138:00 PM ET

Italy Passes New Anti–Domestic Violence Measures

Just before its summer recess, the Italian government passes strict measures that will crack down on cyber-stalking and make it easier to go after abusers.

At long last, it is now safer to be a woman in Italy—at least on paper. On its last day of business before a two-week summer recess, the Italian government under Enrico Letta passed new laws that will make it easier to protect women against domestic violence, especially of the kind that typically leads to femicide. The new measures also will make it easier to prosecute perpetrators before they have a chance to abuse again. “We are at war against femicide,” said Letta at a press conference. “We need to send a clear signal to combat the relentless struggle against the phenomenon of femicide in this country.”

The new law is a step in the right direction, even though it won’t help the 81 women killed since the beginning of this year, with 75 percent of the murders perpetrated by husbands, boyfriends, or exes. Between 2000 and 2012, more than 2,200 women have been killed in Italy, according to a study by EURES, the European Union’s agency that tracks social affairs and employment. That computes to one murder every two days for more than a dozen years. The new law is too late for Italy’s youngest femicide victim, 16-year old Fabiana Luzzi, whose boyfriend dragged her into a forest in May and stabbed her 20 times in the chest before going back into town to find gas to set her on fire. Miraculously, as the boyfriend later admitted to police, she survived the bloody stabbing and tried to fight him off, even spilling gasoline on his clothing, before he pushed her to the ground and fatally ignited her. The new law also won’t help Cristina Biagi, a 38-year-old waitress whose husband shot her in the chest at the restaurant where she worked in a fit of jealous rage just two weeks ago.

Among the 12 points of the new law are stricter penalties for men who attack pregnant women and minors. That could have been a deterrent when 25-year-old Alessia Francesca Simonetta’s boyfriend, the father of her unborn baby, stabbed her to death in Milan last year. The new law also makes it easier to report an instance of domestic violence anonymously, meaning a next-door neighbor, co-worker, friend, or even family member can alert the police without being drawn into the argument between the couple. That could have saved the life of 17-year-old Carmella Petrucci, who reported Samuele Caruso, 23, for beating up her sister in Palermo earlier this year. Caruso fatally stabbed Carmella in the throat in a revenge attack for meddling.

It is also now illegal to harass or stalk current or ex-girlfriends and wives or their friends. Previously stalking and harassment—verbal, cyber, or physical—had to be proven in a court of law before an injunction or restraining order against the perpetrator was handed down. More than half of the victims of femicide in Italy in the last three years had called police to report harassment and stalking, but laborious bureaucracy often gets in the way of protecting victims. Stronger, more efficient stalking laws could have saved 43-year old Antonia Bianco, whose ex-boyfriend had been stalking her for weeks. One night after she came home from a date with a new boyfriend, he broke into her house and stabbed her in the heart with her own stiletto heel.

The law also makes it easier for police to remove an abuser from the family home, even if he owns it, and provides for free legal aid for any woman who goes forward with prosecuting her abuser—an especially important protection for women who don’t work. Previously, the abused woman often had to return to the violent house because she had nowhere to go, and police could not kick out the owner of a home, even if he was a known abuser. In addition, the new law makes it nearly impossible to withdraw a complaint of domestic violence, a common phenomenon when women refuse to help investigators prosecute predators, usually out of fear of their abuser. The new law solidifies any denouncement, whether by a hospital because of injury or by an abused woman who calls the police to her house, guaranteeing all complaints will be prosecuted. What it boils down to is that police and investigators must now investigate every domestic-abuse claim to the fullest, even when the victim no longer cooperates. Had this aspect of the law been in effect earlier, it could have saved Carmela Imudi, 52, whose husband shot her in the stomach with a Beretta 7.65 when she asked for a separation after years of his abuse. She had been hospitalized more than a dozen times with broken ribs, a broken nose, and fractured wrists. Four times, she denounced her husband and later forgave him and refused to press charges.

The new law also has a component that extends the jurisdiction of cyber-bullying complaints to beyond those who own the servers, like Facebook, and allows police to now investigate cyber-harassment as a crime. Making cyber-bullying a crime punishable by jail time could have been a deterrent for 14-year-old Carolina Picchio’s ex-boyfriend and his friends, who posted videos and harassed the young girl to such an extent she took her own life earlier this year.

However late it may have been passed, the law is obviously a positive measure. But not everyone agrees on the timing. Barbara Spinelli, an Italian lawyer, teaches seminars on the topic of femicide to other lawyers, social workers, police officers, teachers, and those who work and counsel battered women across Europe. Spinelli says she worries that the government legislated on this hot-button issue to divert attention from an impending governmental meltdown after the tax conviction of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. “In my opinion the government promoted this new law just to obtain political consensus in a situation that is politically difficult because of Berlusconi's judgment,” she told The Daily Beast. She also says that while some measures are useful, like free legal aid to all victims and a permit to stay in Italy for migrant victims of violence, the real problem of protecting women from violence—especially during the investigation and ensuring trial against the abusers—is far from being solved. “To make compulsory the duty to report or to arrest the perpetrator can increase the risk of revictimization for the woman,” she says. “Italian prisons are crowded, and if the perpetrator is without a criminal record and has a job, it will be easy for the judge to adopt a precautionary measure different from the detention. This means that the law will be not a deterrent for perpetrators, but risk to increase the sense of impunity.” Plus, she adds, “Considering the time it takes to process a criminal trial in Italy, it is impossible to think it will be possible to detain all the perpetrators of violence against women.”

Spinelli also worries that there are simply not enough shelters or safe houses to protect women from abusers. “We need services and training,” she says. Citing a 2012 U.N. mission to Italy report that lambasted Italy for its deplorable record on violence against women, Spinelli says that all the existing shelters in Italy are proven to be overcrowded and rely primarily on voluntary work. She says many of them are closing because of the lack of funding. “To make a decrease of the femicides possible, we need a real political will to start structural reform: this decree is not enough; we need to put money on services and professional training.”

What the law also cannot do is change the mentality of the country, which will make any new law challenging to implement, even if the guidelines are clear. Just last Christmas, a Catholic priest in La Spezia in the north of Italy, published a church bulletin in which he blamed women for domestic violence and femicide, a sentiment still popular among a certain segment of the Italian population. “Is it possible that men have turned randomly crazy all of a sudden?” the priest wrote. “We don’t believe so. The point is that more and more women provoke, fall into arrogance, believe they are too independent and exacerbate tensions. They trigger the worst instincts, leading to violence and sexual abuse. They should consider self-examination and ask the question: Did we ask for it?”

In a Eurobarometer survey taken in 2010, about 10 percent of European women accepted domestic violence as a justifiable act. In the same 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. Even with a good law in place, it will take a lot more than new rules to change old attitudes.