Women in International Law Network

The Olive Schill Society

WILNET is delighted to post the translation of an interview made with one of our co-founders, Sara De Vido, assistant professor of international law at the University of Venice. She was asked to talk about gender-based violence and feminicide in Italy and abroad. Sara De Vido wrote in 2016 a book on violence against women and was appointed as international expert by the Council of Europe for a conference on the Istanbul Convention last June in Pristina, Kosovo.  Women, Violence and International law: The CoE Istanbul Convention of 2011 (Mimesis, 2016, 290 pp.) is an analysis under international law of the recent legal instrument, entered into force in 2014, on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence adopted within the Council of Europe legal system. It highlights points of strength and weakness of the Convention, and encourages its ratification by the European Union and by countries which are non-member States of the Council of Europe. The research, which is a feminist international law analysis, explores other fields of law, such EU law and the domestic law of some countries. It also deals with issues which are at the border of more than one discipline – law and social sciences – such as the notions of equality, non-discrimination (and their translation into Italian) under international law.

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. 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; and 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 are ignored or, even worse, justified by the victim’s and the perpetrator’s communities, which often involves invoking the ‘inappropriate’ behaviour of the victim.

Could you tell us about Italy’s position from a legal point of view?
Italy has been one of the first countries to ratify 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 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 an assisted violence felony, and of special circumstances in cases of violence against pregnant women – the number of femicides has not been decreasing and resource-deprived support centres struggle to provide basic care to the victims.

In March 2017 the European Court of Human Rights found that Italy violated articles 2, 3 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights in 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 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 made a number of recommendations. It called upon authorities to re-evaluate their response to charges for assault, think about compulsory training for judges, prosecutors and police officers to ensure gender-sensitive procedures, encourage victims to submit complaints to the police, and reinforce protection and assistance to female victims of violence including through shelters, which must receive human, technical and financial resources required to respond to violence cases.

The Istanbul Convention defines rape as “non-consensual acts of a sexual nature”, and understands consent 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 consent; the lack of consent is its key feature and characterizes it as an act of violence. In Italy it is only with 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 consent as defined by the Istanbul Convention. On consent, the Court of Cassation expressed its position several times, considering for instance that consent “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 intercourse are considered offenses of sexual assault” (ruling 4532, January 29th 2008). A reform of the Italian penal code could make lack of consent the only characteristic of rape and sexual assault. In a recent case that occurred in Florence, the facts of which 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 before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, rape perpetrated by State actors was defined as “institutional violence” that violated the State’s responsibility under the prohibition against 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 you think these events are tackled by news organizations?
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 instances, sexual assault by strangers 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 interests 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 behaviour, 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 behaviour 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 ‘behaviour’ to adopt or ‘places to avoid’. Isn’t this just another way to perpetuate gender-based discriminations or depict women as vulnerable individuals?

What about education?
Education has a key role in gender-based violence, as indicated by the Istanbul Convention, as it would allow us to reach the roots of violence. In the recommendations to Italy that 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 questions of gender and the rights of women. At Ca’ Foscari, for years now, many colleagues include points of reflection and research on gender equality, rights of women, and gender perspectives, making an impact on the students who attend 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: inequality and equality in our societies and workplaces”. These are important steps to recognize this daily violence and fight this violence with research instruments.