Written by Lucia Cortesi (ambassador to Italy)


The 11th of November 2023 marked the beginning of an emotional earthquake that shook the whole Italian peninsula. That day, news started circulating in the media concerning the disappearance of Giulia Cecchettin, a 22-year-old biomedical engineering student from the northern Veneto region (Povoledo, 2023). The quest ended after one week when her lifeless body was found near a lake in the Friuli Venezia Giulia region. The discovery sparked protests around Italy, as she went missing after meeting with her ex-boyfriend, Filippo Turetta, age 21, who was arrested in Germany on the 19th of November, after eight days on the run (Povoledo, 2023). Anger and sorrow spread and turned into thousands of people marching in several Italian cities, as the young student Giulia Cecchettin was the 106th woman killed in Italy this year, the 55th killed by a partner or ex-partner (Dipartimento della Pubblica Sicurezza, 2023).

Although there is no legal definition of “femicide” in the Italian Criminal Code, Ms. Cecchettin’s homicide has been widely identified as such. Indeed, the case reflects the working definition used by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), namely the “killing of a woman by an intimate partner and the death of a woman as a consequence of a practice that is harmful to women,” where “intimate partner” is understood as “a former or current spouse or partner, whether or not the perpetrator shares or has shared the same residence with the victim” (EIGE, 2017, p.17)

Importantly, according to the Italian National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT), between 2002 and 2021 the number of women victims of homicide decreased by 36%. However, the number of women killed by their current and former partners has remained steady (Pagella Politica, 2023a). Despite several public and political debates, as well as laws implemented, these numbers highlight that a lot remains to be done to prevent and persecute gender-based crimes.

Considering the relevance of this issue, and the 10th anniversary of the Italian ratification of the Istanbul Convention, this article provides insights into how gender-based violence has been tackled in Italy and Europe. Firstly, it provides an overview of the Italian legislation on this crime and how it has changed through time. Secondly, it discusses the recent steps taken at the European level, especially the introduction of the Directive on Violence against Women. Finally, it analyses what remains to be done.

The development of the Italian legislation on gender-based violence

Ten years ago, in September 2013, the Italian Parliament ratified the Istanbul Convention (Pagella Politica, 2023b). The latter is an international human rights treaty established by the Council of Europe in 2011, aiming to prevent and combat violence against women as well as domestic violence. The convention consists of a set of provisions that tackle the issue from different angles: crime prevention, victims’ protection and assistance, perpetrators’ prosecution, and the promotion of awareness. Importantly, the preamble acknowledges the structural nature of gender-based violence, which is recognised to be “a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women” and a means by which women’s subordination to men is maintained (Council of Europe, n.d.-b). Once ratified, a country must implement policies related to its provisions, as well as be subject to a monitoring mechanism that assesses and assists the work of national authorities (Council of Europe, n.d.-a). Accordingly, in August 2013, the Italian government approved a law on femicide (“legge sul femminicidio”). Despite not legally defining femicide, which still today falls under other provisions (article 567, on homicide, and article 577, on aggravated homicide), this implementation modified existing norms on mistreatment against relatives and introduced additional penalties for crimes committed by partners or former partners. One of the implications of this law was the introduction, in 2015, of the so-called “plans against violence” (“piani anti-violenza”), by the Department for Equal Opportunities. These consist of three national plans concerning male violence against women, based on the objectives of the Istanbul Convention and involving projects funded through financial resources allocated and formalized through the Budget Law (Pagella Politica, 2023b).

A further step was undertaken in 2018 when the governing coalition of the Five Starts Movement and the League proposed the so-called “Code Red”, “Codice Rosso” (Pagella Politica, 2023b). This new law, which came into force in July 2019, aimed at increasing safeguards for victims of gender-based violence. It involved the fastening of the process of reporting and investigation concerning gender-based crimes, from stalking to sexual harassment, as well as the widening of the time range during which a victim can report sexual assaults, from 6 months to 1 year. Importantly, it also introduced new legally punishable offences, criminalising revenge porn, inducement and coercion into marriage, the deformation of someone’s body through permanent injuries, and breach of constraint orders (Pagella Politica, 2023b).

June 2022 also marked a crucial step forward in the legislative process, as the Parliament approved a law (legge 53) requiring specific institutions to conduct statistical inquiries on gender-based violence (Pagella Politica, 2023b). This involves data gathering by the National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT), as well as by the National Healthcare System and the Ministries of Justice and the Interior. The approval of this law is particularly important as it allows for a better understanding of the phenomenon and the extent to which it impacts Italian society (ISTAT, n.d.). However, as pointed out by ISTAT (n.d.), measuring violence against women is difficult, as it is mostly hidden. Since the phenomenon often involves family members, it is indeed frequently not reported, leading to mis- and under-representation. Despite its limitations, data gathering is essential for national institutions to tackle the issues by implementing appropriate measures.

Thanks also to the rising debate concerning gender-based violence following Ms. Cecchetin’s case, on the 22nd of November 2023, the Italian Senate unanimously approved a new bill, law 923 (Senato della Repubblica, 2023). The law’s discussion led to a rare unity between the ruling coalition and the opposition, as the bill passed with one-hundred and fifty-seven votes against zero. It entails a set of measures that aim at strengthening the “Code Red”, including the introduction of new restraining orders and surveillance on men responsible for domestic violence and the granting of priority to legal proceedings concerning violence against women. Importantly, the measures also encompass the creation of a campaign in schools, called “Educare alle relazioni” (lit. “Educate on relationships”). The latter arises from the requests of students and parents’ associations, as well as syndicates and experts, who argued for the need to address issues of sexism, machismo, and psychological and physical violence against women from an early age. Although the campaign has been highly criticized due to the selection of a controversial director and its extracurricular and voluntary nature (Il Post, 2023), it sets an unprecedented step in the Italian education system and it is poised to begin during the current academic year.

A broader picture: the EU and gender-based violence

The prevention and fight against gender-based violence has also become a salient topic within European institutions. The Union acceded to the Istanbul Convention on the 1st of June 2023, which came into force on the 1st of October (Council of Europe, 2023). This historic agreement marks the potential development of a European legal framework to protect women. Furthermore, the current President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has made gender equality one of the 2019-2024 Commission’s policy objectives by developing the Gender Equality Strategy. The Commission President addressed the issue of gender-based violence during the annual State of the Union speech in Strasbourg in September 2023, arguing for the criminalisation of non-consensual sex and the institution of a shared definition of rape (von der Leyen, 2023). Indeed, the phenomenon is underrepresented even more at the European level than at the national one, and the lack of coherent definitions concerning gender-based crimes among European member states makes the collection and comparison of data almost impossible. Furthermore, there is currently no specific legal European instrument addressing violence against women and domestic violence. To overcome this issue, on the 8th of March 2022, the European Commission proposed a directive that focuses on this phenomenon, the Directive of Violence against Women (European Parliament Research Service, 2023). The latter aims at tackling violence against women and domestic violence by “enshrining minimum standards in EU law for criminalising certain forms of gender-based violence, improve access to justice, protection, and support of victims, ensure coordination between relevant services, and prevent these types of crimes” (European Parliament Research Service, 2023, p.1). Based on the joint report of the Committees for Gender Equality and Civil Liberties, the Parliament then entered interinstitutional negotiations in July 2023. The draft aims at banning forced marriages, female genital mutilation, and forced sterilization. Moreover, it also includes rape in the listed offences and provides a shared definition of the phenomenon based on consent (European Parliament Research Service, 2023). The inclusion and definition of sexual assault has then been the source of debate between the Council and the EP during the meeting on the 14th of November. Multiple member states, among which France and Germany, have indeed underlined their opposition to the inclusion of the article criminalising non-consensual sex (Malingre, 2023).

What is missing?

Many steps have been taken to prevent and combat gender-based violence in Italy in the past 10 years. Despite the legislative development of several measures to tackle this social issue and the fast unanimous approval of law 923, the position of the current Italian government on the matter seems controversial. Indeed, Giorgia Meloni’s government has been highly criticised for cutting funds that were beforehand allocated for preventative measures, from seventeen million in 2022 to five million in 2023 (Carboni, 2023). The implemented policies focus more on punishment and repression of crime, rather than on its prevention and the fostering of education. Furthermore, two of the parties of the governing coalition, Brothers of Italy, and the League, abstained during the European Parliament’s vote on the ratification of the Istanbul Convention (Ansa, 2023). Nonetheless, the European institutions have proceeded to ratify the Convention and are currently negotiating with the Member States the implementation of a pan-European legal framework to prevent and combat gender-based violence. Despite the current debate on the inclusion of rape in the listed offences, 2023 has then been a significant year for the Union in recognising the role it can play in addressing this matter.

Cases such as the one involving Giulia Cecchettin can work as catalysts for public and political mobilisation. However, it is essential to have a continuous conversation on the matter, as the numbers highlight that a lot remains to be done. This dialogue should not only take place at the local and national levels but also require a collaborative effort between the European Union and the member states. The EU, in its pivotal role, can play a fundamental part in fostering a shared understanding of gender-based violence. By actively engaging in discussions and negotiations, the EU has indeed the potential to shape a unified framework of action that transcends borders and ensures a coordinated effort to combat and prevent gender-based violence. Through ongoing conversations and collaborative initiatives, both at the national and EU levels, we can work towards creating a safer and more equitable society for all. Above all, we can not wait for another Giulia Cecchettin to act.



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