Violence towards women: datas, legislation and news. An interview with Sara De Vido

Rimini, Florence, Rome, Lecce are only a few tragic examples of violence against women. In certain cases such violence is presented by media as the result of a moment of insanity and jealousy. Is that really so? In the light of recent news stories we talked with Sara De Vido, international law professor at Ca’ Foscari, vice-director of the Cestudir (Interdepartmental Human Rights Research Centre at Ca’ Foscari), co-founder of Women in International Law Network in the Manchester International Law Centre and author of the book Donne, violenza e diritto internazionale.

“The mentioned cases all include gender-based violence against women, as recently defined by the General Recommendation N. 35 of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) adopted last July: “one of the fundamental social, political and economic means by which the subordinate position of women with respect to men and their stereotyped roles are perpetuated”.
Sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking, feminicide, online violence, violence on thousands of young girls and women in war zones affect women for their gender. Rhonda Copelon, a famous American Human Rights lawyer, wrote over twenty years ago that gender-based violence does not include all violences on women, but indicates a violent act characterized by the fact that a woman becomes a goal for her gender. It is the result, as international legal means prove, of unequal power relations between men and women, of de facto discriminations that persist within society behind a fundamental but not sufficient legal gender parity.

Can you give us data to better grasp gender-based violence?
We should not ignore violence against other genders, that is why defining gender-based violence is crucial and not limited to violence against women. However a recently published survey by the Italian Ministry of Justice on 2012-2016 data shows that in 88,5% of all cases the offender is a man and the victim a woman. In more than 85% cases out of 400 women’s homicide rulings were femicides. Violence against women knows no cultural or geographical limitations: it feeds on female stereotypes; it is ‘structural’ as the international instruments indicate; to eradicate it we need measures against violence which guarantee reparations for the victims and that would change the stereotypical vision of women’s role in society. It is no coincidence that some episodes of violence were ignored or, even worse, justified by the victim’s and the perpetrator’s communities invoking an ‘inappropriate’ behavior of the victim.

Could you tell us about Italy’s position on a legal point of view?
Italy has been one of the first countries ratifying the Istanbul Convention of the Council of Europe on preventing and fighting violence against women and domestic violence in 2011. Before the entry into force of this international legal instrument on August 1st 2014, Italy adopted the law n. 119 known as the law against femicide on October 15th 2013. In spite of the important changes introduced by this legislation - such as the obligation to inform the victim of the pending case against the perpetrator, the introduction of assisted violence felony or of special circumstances in case of violence against pregnant women - the number of femicides has not been decreasing and resource deprived support centres struggle to provide basic to the victims.
In March 2017 the European Court of Human Rights found that Italy violated the articles 2, 3 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights on the Talpis case, a domestic violence case culminating in 2013 when Andrei Talpis - previously reported as dangerous to law enforcement by his wife - hit his 19 years old son to death as he interposed between his father and mother during yet another act of violence. The Court highlighted how a state - especially those abiding the Istanbul Convention such as Italy - has a particular duty in preventing violence and that procedures must take into account the “peculiarity” of domestic violence.
The Court, which was requested to verify violations of the European Convention on Human Rights referred to specific articles of the Istanbul Convention which require the states to adopt legal measures to enable investigations and legal proceedings in relation to all kinds of violence and to guarantee that competent authorities respond to them promptly and appropriately to offer an adequate and immediate protection to the victims. The reference to the Istanbul Convention can be understood as a means to interpret the dispositions of the European Convention on Human Rights on gender issues.
Recently in the State Report on Italy published on July 24th this year, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) identified positive elements in the new Italian legislation but recommended to evaluate the response given by authorities to charges for assault and to think about a compulsory training for judges, prosecutors and police officers to ensure gender-sensitive procedures, to encourage the victims to submit complaints to the police, to reinforce protection and assistance to female victims of violence including shelters which must receive human, technical and financial resources required to respond to the violence cases.
For rape, defined as “non consensual acts of a sexual nature” by the Istanbul Convention which understands consensus as “given willingly as a free manifestation of someone’s will evaluated according to the situation and the context”. In contemporary law, rape is characterized by the absence of consensus; the lack of consensus is its key feature and characterizes it as an act of violence. In Italy it is only with the Law n. 66 (February 15th 1996) that sexual violence was considered as an offense against the person - art. 609 bis of the penal code. Until 1996 rape was punished not as an offense against the victim but as a behaviour against public morals and decency. The precondition of the offense in the Italian law is forced sexual intercourse through threats, violence or abuse of authority, and not only without consensus as defined by the Istanbul Convention. On consensus the Court of Cassation expressed its position several times, considering for instance that consensus “must last throughout the intercourse [...] the continuation of intercourse in case initial consensus is followed by a change of heart or the non-endorsement of forms or modality of entercourse are considered offenses of sexual assault” (ruling 4532, January 29th 2008). A reform of the Italian penal code could make the lack of consensus the only characteristic of rape and sexual assault.
On the recent case that occurred in Florence, the facts are still being looked into by the authorities: the two persons accused of sexual assault against two American students are organs of the State. In a previous sexual assault case involving soldiers, rape was defined by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights as “institutional violence” that involved the State’s responsibility for violation of ban of torture (Rosendo Cantù Mexico D.F., August 31st 2010). It would be a form of abuse “particularly serious and repulsive - stated another regional court, the European Court of Human Rights - considering how easy it would be for an official to take advantage of the victim’s vulnerability and weakened resistance” (Aydin c. Turkey, September 25th 1997).

Sadly assault cases against women repeat themselves and are all over the news. How do these events are tackled by news organizations according to you?
Considering the impact of mass media on our societies, the Istanbul Convention and the recommendations of CEDAW to Italy encourage the media to adopt self-regulation rules in order to prevent violence against women.
In some cases sexual assault from a stranger is portrayed as an exceptional, unpredictable and cruel crime - and it is cruel but much less exceptional or  unpredictable - committed by a psychopath, a monster, especially when the perpetrator does not belong to the community in question as it happened in Rimini. The information is distorted because the focus quickly moves from the violated individual rights of the victim to the interest of the community which feels threatened.
If we look in the home, violence is usually depicted as a crime triggered by jealousy, by the woman’s behavior, by alcohol or drug abuse. With reference to recent events, the femicide in Udine in which the young Nadia Orlando lost her life by the hand of her fiancé was quite exemplary. The focus was heavily put on the woman’s behavior with witnesses of cheating as if such details could justify or even explain violence. Was it even relevant? Recently some newspapers published ‘advice’ for women on which ‘behavior’ to adopt or ‘places to avoid’. Isn’t it just another way to perpetuate gender-based discriminations or depict women as vulnerable individuals?

And concering education?
Education has a key role in gender-based violence, as indicated by the Istanbul Convention, as it would allow to reach the roots of violence. In the recommendations to Italy I have quoted many times, the CEDAW committee has asked Italy to ensure that all stereotypes on gender are taken out of school books and programmes and that teachers and professors cover the questions of gender and rights of women.
At Ca’ Foscari, for years now, many colleagues include points of reflection and research on gender equality, rights of women, genders, making an impact on the students who attended the courses, writing articles and directing research centres and books on these themes. Starting this year I will be part of a team of professors coming from different departments who created the Minor Gender, genders: unequality and equality in our societies and workplaces”.
These are important steps to recognize this daily violence and fight with research instruments violence.