Domestic Violence

09.25.1312:00 PM ET

Teaching Italy's Boys Not To Kill Their Girlfriends

A new high-school curriculum in Italy aims to tackle skyrocketing femicide rates by teaching boys to fight the urge to hurt or murder their girlfriends.

It’s 8:45 a.m. on a Wednesday morning and the first lesson of the day in this Italian high school—as well as a handful of others like it—is about how to fight the urge to kill your girlfriend. Adolescents are taught relationship respect through texts and role playing. A boy is asked to confront his girlfriend about a text message he found on her phone without raising his voice or using violence. The girl is asked to stand her ground and not let him dominate her. The students are also shown news reports about the hundreds of women who were killed or gravely injured in domestic violence attacks in recent years. The anti-violence initiative, which kicked off this year in the northern town of Turin, is a last-ditch effort to fight fatal domestic violence epidemic sweeping Italy. In 2010, 127 women were killed; 129 were killed in 2011 and 124 were killed in 2012. In 2013, so far, nearly 80 women have been murdered at the hands of men who once loved them.

On average, one woman is killed by her husband, partner or ex-lover every two days in Italy. On Monday, Marta Deligia, 29, was strangled by her ex-boyfriend Giuseppe Pintus, 36, in Sardinia. Pintus had been threatening to kill his former lover unless she agreed to rekindle their relationship. Deligia had complained to the police for months that he was stalking her and sending her threatening text messages. “Save me,” she told police in a formal complaint against him in early September. “He is crazy and he wants to kill me.” Deligia was right to be worried. Pintus waited outside her apartment until she left for work at 5:30 am Monday morning. According to police reports, he jumped her, strangled her, loaded her corpse in his Fiat Brava and dumped her body in the countryside. Then he called the cops and reportedly confessed that he had suffered a “raptus” of emotion. “I went crazy, but I don’t want to spend 30 years in prison. I’m going to kill myself.” Police were able to trace his cellphone and arrest him.

Deadly domestic violence, or femicide is such a concern in Italy, parliament met in a special session in August to pass new laws to make certain crimes against partners illegal. But the move to teach the next generation is what activists say is the only way to stop the trend.

Lorella Zanardo, author of the documentary and book of the same title, “Il Corpo Delle Donne,” has been addressing students in schools about sexist tendencies for several years, trying to teach both boys and girls appropriate behavior and attitudes. She believes that sexism in the media in Italy plays a subliminal role in gender inequality that translates to male dominance in relationships. Women, she says, are viewed as objects to their partners, and that’s why violence is so prevalent. When a woman “disobeys” her male partner, he feels a right to punish her. When she resists, he reacts with violence. She says the media, both in programming and advertisements, reinforces the misguided inequality and male dominance in relationships. She has a new program called “New Eyes for the Media” to try to bring awareness to the media’s negative influence when it comes to both sexism and racism.

In the last two years, Zanardo has been invited to address more than 30,000 students in the elementary and high school years, trying to encourage young women especially to use their voice against inequality. “It has to start in the schools,” she told The Daily Beast. “We need to teach equality at the youngest possible age to turn the concept of equality into a right.” She says that in addition to teaching young men to respect women, schools need to teach young women not to settle for anything less than respect. In many cases, students repeat what they see at home, and she says that redirecting their goals towards an even playing field is vital. “The focus should not only be on sex education,” she told The Daily Beast. “Schools must also teach relationship education so young people understand equality and respect. Women, as well, need to expect to be treated as equals.”

Italy’s president of the chamber of deputies in parliament, Laura Boldrini, has been a vital voice for equality on the institutional level since stepping into the powerful position earlier this year. But her efforts have been met with an intensely sexist hate campaign that included death and rape threats. This week, she called for equality education among Italy’s civil servants and an end to advertisements and programming depicting women in subservient roles. “No more mammas at the stove” she says. “There are too many stereotypes on Italian television, and it mirrors society.”

The effort to teach relationship respect and to call out misguided media representation of the sexes in the classroom is a first step towards changing the mentality that many believe is at core of the killings. Teachers are using Zanardo’s media awareness project together with recent books denouncing how Italian women are portrayed either as mothers or witches and the men are the ones with the important jobs. Some Italian schools are also using the French model of teaching the “A,B,Cs of Equality” to children in the primary school years.

For now, only a handful of Italy’s schools have instituted the classes, mostly in the northern regions, but Zanardo hopes they catch on. She would especially like to see more education in the poorer southern regions where domestic violence is especially high. “The majority of Italian schools do not have these classes yet,” she says. “But where there is administrative willpower and funding, there is progress.” She says the steps are small, for now, but if even one life is saved as a result of the effort to educate, then it is worth it. Even small steps are better than none at all.