On the last weekend of March, as European clocks were going one hour forward, a small town in Italy turned its own several centuries backward. Fair Verona of Romeo and Juliet fame was hosting the XIII World Congress of Families (WCF), a three-day event whose programme could have been lifted straight from The Handmaid’s Tale.

It would be a mistake to dismiss such gatherings as just relics of a long-gone era. When one looks past its most over-the-top aspects (like the rubber fetuses handed as gadgets to the participants), it is clear that this was a high-profile event: politicians from a few European countries, including the Italian deputy PM and Interior minister Matteo Salvini, were in attendance. European Parliament’s President Antonio Tajani only cancelled his participation after protests, but fellow MEP Elisabetta Gardini was a speaker. The logo of the Italian Prime Minister’s Office appeared on the event’s banners.

Whenever countries start slipping on individual rights, their membership of an international body like the EU becomes even more important.

The WCF was created by the US religious right and it has long been criticized by human rights activists. In 2014 the Southern Law Poverty Center added it to its list of hate groups because of its anti-LGBT positions. Until recently, however, it had gone relatively unnoticed. The fact that its agenda has started seeping into national policies did too. In 2017, the WCF was held in Hungary. The country’s Family Minister was then happy to go and implement some of the measures recommended: increasing government control on education, attacking gender studies (as “incompatible with Christian values”), and introducing tax breaks which should encourage women to have children.


Women’s Rights in Italy: A Bleak Outlook

It is not by chance that the 2019 Congress took place in Italy. While the country has never topped gender equality rankings, the situation has been further deteriorating: the 2018 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report placed Italy 70th out of 149 countries, one of the worst results for the EU28. Only 49% of Italian women are employed, and the average gender pay gap (taking into account gross hourly rates and total hours worked) is a whopping 44%. When it comes to unpaid labour, of course, figures are completely reversed: Italian women spend on average five hours a day on childcare and domestic work, more than twice the average for men.

The figures for VAW paint an even uglier picture: Italy may have ratified the Istanbul Convention in 2013, but not much has been done to implement its provisions. Even though 49,000 women contacted an anti-violence centre in 2017, refuges remain few and chronically under-funded. More than 100 women were murdered by (ex) partners or male relatives last year. Over 1.4 million were harassed on the workplace. It is estimated that only 7% of rapes were reported to police, which is not surprising given the still prevalent victim-blaming culture, the lack of specific training for law enforcement, and the fact that perpetrators in some recent, high-profile rape cases were police officers. In fact, the situation is so worrying that the GREVIO group tasked with monitoring the Convention implementation decided to visit Italy in March – their report is expected in 2020.

Women’s rights are human rights | A statue of Canadian feminist Henrietta Muir holding an open book with the words “Women are persons”

By contrast, in the field of family and reproductive rights Italian politicians are suspiciously active. A Northern League MP proposed a divorce reform bill which would violate a number of the Convention provisions. It would make mediation mandatory even in cases of domestic violence, forcing women and children to attend meetings with their abuser; give parents identical visitation rights, again even in cases of abuse; and split alimony equally regardless of the parents’ respective financial situations, thus putting the lower- or not-earning partner (spoiler: the woman) at a disadvantage. Another League MP tabled a bill to give couples wishing to adopt a child the possibility to apply for a yet-unborn baby, potentially opening to  the concept of fetal personhood and further eroding abortion rights.

The resistance is strong, but we will need policy-makers’ support to make progress and to hold regressing Member States to account.

Whenever countries start slipping on individual rights, their membership of an international body like the EU becomes even more important. In the case of Hungary, the attacks on academic freedom were cited in the European Parliament resolution calling on Member States to open an Art. 7 procedure. Italy was explicitly mentioned in last February’s motion noting the backlash against women’s rights across the EU. And that is why we need to strengthen the EU safety net by returning even more feminist MEPs to the Parliament in May.


A More Feminist EU to Help Women’s Rights in Italy and Beyond

In her recent book Invisible Women, author and activist Caroline Criado-Perez makes the case for the positive effect that female decision-makers have on the prioritization of issues affecting women in law-making processes. Increases in the number of female MPs are correlated with increases in educational spending and in infrastructure investment affecting women. We need more of this for Europe.

With far-right ideas gaining ground across the EU, women’s rights must be one of the priorities of the new European Parliament. And to make sure that happens, we’ll need to elect as many feminist MEPs as possible.

While the WCF was under way, over 100,000 demonstrators marched in Verona to reaffirm that women’s rights are human rights. The resistance is strong, but we will need policy-makers’ support to make progress and to hold regressing Member States to account. Let’s make sure we bring feminism into the rooms where the decisions are taken.

Chiara Venturini
Chiara arrived in Belgium 10 years ago for what was supposed to be a 3-month stay. She works in the Brussels bubble by day and feeds her reading addiction by night. She can be found on Twitter @chiara84 (come for the feminist rants, stay for the cute owls pics).

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