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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Rape cases seize Italy’s attention and expose cultural rifts

A mural on a public housing building near the complex that is home to two young girls who were raped, on the outskirts of Naples in Caivano, Italy, Aug. 30, 2023.

By Gaia Pianigiani

Shattered glass surrounds the abandoned swimming pool, along with dilapidated benches, broken tiles and a single dirty mattress. Local police officers have identified the forsaken spot as one of the places where they say two young girls were repeatedly raped by a gang of their peers, all residents of the Italian town of Caivano, on the outskirts of Naples.

Although the rapes of the two girls, cousins just 10 and 12 years old, took place over many months, they seized national attention this past week after they were reported by the local news media, hurling the issue of violence against women and girls in Italy back into the spotlight.

Those assaults were among a host of horrific crimes that have been in the news this summer. Two weeks ago, the focus was on a group of seven young men, including one 17-year-old, who are under investigation in the rape of a 19-year-old woman in Palermo. Before that, there were cases of women being stabbed, shot or poisoned by their partners or those known to them.

The cases have provoked debate in Italy over its neglected areas, its often chauvinistic attitudes toward women and the dangerous amplifying role played by social media. They have also exposed deep divisions over the persistence of the problem of violence against women and how to address it.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni visited Caivano, almost certainly a first for the working-class town of 37,800, where heroin addicts inject openly during the day. Italy’s first woman to hold the office and the first from the far-right, Meloni skated past the many issues pertaining to women, focusing instead on law and order and calling the crimes “barbaric.”

“This territory will be cleaned up, and you will soon see the results of our presence here,” she said, referring to the problems of “illegality and drugs.” She pledged to reopen the sports center, build a new multimedia library and send more teachers to Caivano’s schools.

“There can’t be stateless zones in Italy,” she said, speaking from the courtyard of the local school. “And I am telling this to the many Caivanos of Italy.”

A day before Meloni’s visit, dozens of police officers kept watch on street corners and in parks where the grass grew knee-high. In the wake of the violence, local officials said they would send more officers to patrol the area.

“We don’t need more policemen,” said one older resident, Antonio, who declined to give his full name for fear of being ostracized in his neighborhood. “We need more time in school, more social workers and more psychologists to help children in families who can’t take care of them.”

The two young cousins grew up in public housing in the Rione IACP district, in what neighbors described as troubled families. A juvenile court decided to move them to a foster home. Their case is under investigation, and no charges have yet been filed.

“Now that the girls are safe with the competent authorities, we need to think about all the other kids who live here,” said Bruno Mazza, president of A Childhood to Live, an organization that runs the only afternoon activities for children in that neighborhood. “We can’t move everybody out; we need to start from here and now.”

Advocates for women say cases of violence against women and girls are not necessarily growing, but they get more sensational attention in the summer months when news cycles are slow.

Experts said the numbers in Italy, where 27% of women say they have experienced violence, were roughly in line with those of other European countries.

“These are cases that resonate, but they are unfortunately nothing new,” said Antonella Veltri, president of the Network of Women Against Violence, which runs shelters across the country. “This is a cultural phenomenon, deeply rooted in a chauvinist society for decades.

“Now it’s taking a new, even more horrible turn with social media that acts like a megaphone,” she said.

Veltri was referring to the sensation created by another recent case of gang rape in Palermo, which is still under investigation. This summer, seven young men met a 19-year-old woman at a downtown club. According to police, they persuaded the bartender to pour her several drinks, encouraged her to smoke marijuana and then took her to an isolated warehouse, where they raped her, beat her and filmed the abuse.

A frame from security video that appeared in the news media showed them carrying her through the streets, as she could barely walk. Another shot showed them leaving her on the ground as they headed to a nearby deli.

Italian newspapers published leaked excerpts alleged to be from the men’s WhatsApp messages and conversations. In one, the night was described as “100 cats on top of a bitch.” In a tapped conversation, one of the rapists reportedly said it was disgusting because it was “too many” on her, but he justified it by saying “flesh is flesh.”

Eventually, the names and addresses of those accused in the case became public, and their social media accounts were filled with insults. But the same was true of the woman’s Instagram account. In an interview in an Italian newspaper, she spoke of having suicidal thoughts. Authorities eventually took her to a shelter.

According to a recent report from the national statistics agency ISTAT, there is still a pervasive view in Italy that women who are abused were somehow at fault, courting the aggression.

That attitude was echoed this past week by Andrea Giambruno, a television anchor on a national commercial channel, who is also Meloni’s partner and father of her daughter.

Everyone had a right to enjoy themselves and even get drunk, he said, but if women avoided getting drunk, they might avoid “getting found by the wolf.”

The remark caused an uproar among leftist politicians and activists. Giambruno, expressing disgust for his critics, defended himself by reminding them that in the same broadcast, he had called the rapists “beasts” and their acts “abominable.”

Meloni has not publicly addressed his remarks.

The idea that women’s actions or clothing can trigger violence permeates even the courts in Italy, where sexuality and sexual violence are still not always differentiated.

This year, a court in Florence acquitted two 19-year-olds who were accused of raping an 18-year-old at a party, finding that there had been a “mistaken perception of consensus,” since she had slept with one of them in the past.

The European Court of Human Rights and U.N. authorities have often condemned Italy’s courts for decisions in rape cases that used offensive language: One acquitted the accused and said he had been “passionate,” and another victim was called “uninhibited.”

Such treatment discourages women from coming forward, said Ilaria Boiano, a lawyer for the Differenza Donna women’s association, which runs the national emergency number for women who are victims of violence.

“The latest cases are just the tip of the iceberg, unfortunately,” she said. “Many women don’t even report it.”

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