ASSOCIAZIONE NAZIONALE TELEFONO ROSA
The first important “collective” concern on sexual violence against women arose in 1971 in
The United States of America, thanks to the radical feminist movement and Afro-American
feminists. As far as Italy is concerned, the discussion on this crime started in 1977 within the
women’s movement. And it is indeed thanks to a series of initiatives by the Italian women’s
movement that rape has become an issue of public interest and concern.
To understand why Italy faced the issue later than other countries, it should be noted that this
crime was regarded in the past as a crime against the victim’s husband and father - considered
as the woman’s “man in charge” or “owner” – instead of a crime against the woman herself.
Furthermore, sexual violence against women never really emerged in its dramatic reality
because of a code of silence and the victim’s renouncing attitude.
It is incredible, but in the 1930 criminal code, which is the code that, apart from some minor
modifications is the code in force in Italy today, sexual violence was considered as a crime
against public morals and not against the person. Therefore a radical, revolutionary cultural
change was required. Because of this the efforts made in the following years to reform the
law have been slow and difficult.
Starting from the second half of the seventies, women’s associations began to ask for the right
to act against the rapist, siding with and supporting the raped women. Only in 1989 did the
Italian legislator grant their requests. In effect in the new criminal procedure code, articles 91
and following articles rule the appearance as a civil plaintiff by associations that protect
collective interests. Although in Italy many steps forward have been made, data on violence
and abuse against women often still has to be detected by analysing the reports given to police
stations and hospital first-aid police, recorded as under the ambiguous heading “accidental
events” rather than rape or sexual violence. In effect even today many crimes of violence and
abuse against women are not prosecuted because they are not denounced and the judicial
authority is kept in the dark about them. This is another reason why crime statistics are
For a long time, violence against women, especially domestic crimes have been considered as
“personal matters”. It wasn’t until the eighties that sexual violence against women became a
topic of serious concern. In this period, in fact, innovative proposals were developed. The
issue became debated heavily in both Parliament and in local institutions, and thanks to this
work, Parliament finally passed the reform law on sexual violence on February 15th 1996.
Today surveys carried out by Telefono Rosa and by other Italian association’s point out that
more than 80 per cent of ill treatment towards women is domestic violence committed by a
partner. And the more worrying data emerging is that these violent partners do not belong to
pathological situations of social, economical or sanitary hardships or to deviancy. On the
contrary, their violent behaviour seems to belong to an apparent normality. Certainly, in the
last thirty years radical changes in the Italian custom and sexual behaviour have occurred.
As an example, up to the end of the sixties, virginity was considered as a part of the bride
dowry. In the married couple, besides mutual love, there were however well defined roles,
the husband focused on economically supporting his wife, who had complete responsibility of
the management of the household as well as the obligation to fulfil the “bride’s duty”, that is
to consent to an intimate relationship. According to these accepted social rules, wives had to
pay their “marital debt” each time their husband required it otherwise a breach of the “spouse
duty” would have been the result. In short, men in a certain sense were fully entitled to sexual
intercourse with their wives.
It was only in 1976 that the Corte di Cassazione (an Italian Supreme Court) modified the
previous general lines in a significant sentence. In this legal act it is authoritatively stated that
“the spouse who compels with violence or threat the other spouse to a sexual knowledge or
intercourse commits a carnal violence crime” that is rape.
Although during the last few decade cultural stereotypes have been questioned, sexual
violence against women has not decreased. Still Italian fathers, brothers or employers are not
denounced by victims in the fear of being even more humiliated or of suffering further
devastating damage. You ought not to prosecute your own husband. In the worst instances,
legal separation can be requested, and is a preferred solution. Furthermore, the outrageous
phenomenon of “extreme sexual violence” perpetrated by fathers, brothers or adults against
children – boys and girls – is much more widespread than one would believe. In Italy these
crimes are recorded as about 2,000 per annum but, as the phenomenon is hidden, these
statistics are definitely biased.
According to the Italian law (February 15th 1996 number 66) sexual violence is classified as a
crime against the person, whereas previously the Italian criminal code defined it as an offence
against morals. This different classification is the most qualifying part of this new Italian law.
It gives back to victims their status “as a person” and therefore the possibility to appear in
court as the party offended by the crime with more strength and a greater effectiveness, than
the previous abrogated law allowed.
While the former criminal code distinguished between two types of crime – carnal knowledge
and sexual violence – these new laws group them into a single crime: “sexual violence”.
Such unification gives greater significance to the dignity of a person and highlights the fact
that the freedom of choice for one’s body for sexual aims is a demonstration of such dignity.
The aim of the law is to punish violent sexual acts or carnal knowledge taken without the
The most doubtful part of the law, regards the last paragraph of article 3 – law number 609 bis
of the criminal code – which states that in the cases of least gravity, the penalty can be
reduced up to two thirds. It is a blank rule left to the discretion of the judge. Its aim is to
avoid that the punishment of crimes of different gravity with a universal strict sentence. The
fear of some MPs was that sexual harassment could be treated as rape, since these two
different crimes have been unified by the new Italian law (i. e. after the removal in legal terms
of the sexual violence). Given that amongst violent sexual offences there could be a different
range of gravity of action, the Italian law states the possibility of reducing the penalty up to a
maximum of two third for less serious cases. And again article 3 of the law provides for 5 to
10 years of imprisonment.
It is also specified within the same 1996 law that the same penalty is applied to whoever
obliges the victim to have or suffer sexual acts, by either taking advantage of the victim’s
psychological or physical inferiority or by deceiving such a person. Instead the former code
provided for a penalty ranging from a minimum of 3 years to a maximum of 10. This
situation allowed rapists to apply to a special rite known as “patteggiamento”. In practice,
what happens when the penalty is less than two years is that the defendant can agree with the
Public Prosecutor upon a penalty implying the conditional suspension of the penalty, the
exclusion of the civil plaintiff, the automatic reinstatement after five years and no further
consequence. Since whoever “patteggia” (bargains) has the right to have the penalty reduced
by a third (normally already reduced to two years due to the concession of generic
extenuating circumstances), what happened was that people charged with sexual violence
used to agree upon penalties lasting less than two years without having to face the trial.
This generalised behaviour has raised the need to increase the minimum penalty from 3 to 5
years in order to prevent rapists being almost unpunished. Article 4 introduces aggravating
circumstances, which increase imprisonment from 6 to 12 years. The prosecution for crimes
connected with sexual violence is ruled by article 8. As a rule, the trial for these crimes can
only take place after legal action by the offended party. In fact the trial, highlighting little
known or even ignored facts in strict connection with the intimate life of people, may turn out
to be more damaging than advantageous to victims, due to the publicity derived. Thus the
victims are free to decide whether to face trial or not. However, considering the particular
delicacy of the decision in this kind of situation, the deadline for reporting rape has been
extended to six months. This extended deadline – with respect to the 3 months formerly
stated by the Italian criminal code – is justified by the need to allow the victim to recover
from the shock caused by the violence and to decide in a more serene way whether to report
or not. Said report, as it was already stated in the former code, is irrevocable.
As an exception to the former cases, article 8 states that the most serious sexual crimes can be
proceeded by the Court. Article 9 introduces a specific kind of crime: “group sexual
violence”. And states more severe penalties than those adopted when the violence is
perpetrated by a single person. Another innovative law is to oblige the defendant to undergo
medical tests to detect transmittable sexual diseases. The spread of the AIDS syndrome has
made necessary the introduction of this law. In 1996 the Commissione Nazionale Parità
proposed new rules, now codified in the law number 154, definitively approved on 4 th April
2001, called “Measures against the domestic violence". They aim at making the partner
(either spouse or cohabitant), father or brother who committed violence (physical, moral or
sexual), leave home. This law introduces to the Italian legal system the protective order,
already existent in North American Law.
It is a “double” legal measure: civil and criminal, aimed at offering protection, it falls under
both civil and criminal jurisdiction. Its criminal jurisdiction is when the violence is more
severe and the measure is requested by the public prosecutor. The range of measures this law
considers is very wide. It doesn't give a definition of abuse within the family, so that any kind
of behaviour can be included in the revision, accentuating the harm that the abusive causes to
the integrity or to the liberty, both physical and moral, of the passive subject of the abuse.
The protection isn't limited to the repressive phase, but can and must be also preventive. The
protection is provided as a maximum six-month long measure, extendible for another period
by the judge if there are serious reasons (in said period the partners must solve the conflicts
by remaining together or choosing to separate). It can be enforced quickly and provides for
the removal of the rapist and not of the victim. In this way further traumas can be spared to
the victim of sexual violence.
The victim is also entitled to get a cheque for maintenance (alimony). Also provided is the
possibility of intervention of the local social services and family mediation centres to offer
support therapy to the couple and to develop a general strategy of aid and assistance. The
greatest barrier to developing this project is the fragmentary jurisdiction of judges in Italy
who unfortunately do not work in the same way as judges in America who work only in one
court, the “Family Court”. But we know that laws and measures alone aren't enough.
Prevention, safety, real support for the anti-violence centres from the Town Council is needed
for effective aid to the women victims of violence. We have to work to change both the
culture and the environment where these crimes grow. It is also a priority to train counsellors,
telephone operators and police to deal more successfully with these cases.
Telefono Rosa, on February 1988, was created with the goal of shedding light, through the
voices of abused women themselves, on the "hidden" violence of domestic abuse: abuse
which often does not reveal itself in medical or police reports. The organisation began with
five female volunteers, working in shifts in a tiny room with only pencils and notepads,
answering countless calls from women all over Italy. Their reputation for lending an
informed and sympathetic ear grew and eventually Telefono Rosa was recognised as a new
Today the association is very much an "Information centre for women’s rights", is able to
provide expert counselling in various specialised areas: legal, financial, medical,
psychological, research and family mediation services. The attention from the mass media,
the creation of a support committee comprised of women holding key jobs in governmental
and cultural institutions have contributed to Telefono Rosa evolution from an emergency
service into a full-fledged social service and political advocacy organisation.
Domestic abuse is widespread at all levels and in all groups of society and often within the
institutions which are commonly perceived as "safe", such as the family, school and the
workplace. This is the alarming conclusion that can be drawn from the calls received by
Telefono Rosa. The response to Telefono Rosa also highlights the fact that women lack
information about the nature of domestic abuse, their rights and their options. As a result,
Telefono Rosa has become a full-fledged public service available to those who want to fight
the culture of silence and sacrifice which is the abusers' essential ally. In addition to its
telephone assistance, Telefono Rosa offers daily legal consultations aimed at increasing
awareness of fundamental human and civil rights and of the means available to redress them
when violated. It is a basic premise of Telefono Rosa that this knowledge is essential to
enable women to free themselves from coercion and violence.
Our Country offers refuges in seventeen Italian cities. In particular in Milano, at the
Mangiagalli Hospital, there is an aid centre for victims of rape and sexual violence. There is
an all female medical team staff at this centre; it is also connected with a refuge. There are
four of these centres in Rome.
However, below Rome, there is nothing, excepted in Lecce where there is just one refuge.
New associations, as Telefono Rosa, are slowly reaching into the South of Italy, but at the
moment there are a lack of aid centres or refuges. Since 1990 Telefono Rosa has organised
several prevention campaign: in 1990 "A plan against violence", a booklet presented to all
public institutions; in 1992 "Violence to women", research with the collaboration of ISPES
based on the data gathered through women telephone calls; in 1993 "The secret voices of
violence", research on the phenomenon of "submerged" violence against women and "A rose
against violence", a tribute to some Sicilian women with a leading role in the fight against that
form of violence named "Mafia"; in 1994 "Naked bait", a pamphlet about the instrumental use
of the female body on the covers of weekly magazines. Published also was "Red light to
violence", a guide for women to defend themselves against assault, rape and harassment, that
is very similar to the one of 2000 named "Pink Europe 2000", a guide for the safety of women
living and travelling in Europe. Finally in 1996 they released” If all women of the world", an
international seminar for the education against violence.
To our knowledge women who are victims of sexual violence need to talk with other people
with similar experiences. To aid this Telefono Rosa in Torino has organised groups of ten
women for meetings and self-support. These women need to be reassured and not feel guilty
about their behaviour. For them support therapy is necessary and they need to be helped
continually if they decide to report their attack. Non hostile and non-obstructive behaviour
from the police is also vital in giving enormous aid in these crisis moments.
In reality there is a growing engagement and continuous co-operation between police and
Telefono Rosa and other voluntary associations that work to prevent and fight violence
against women at home, at work and in public places in Italy. This is probably a product of
the growing number of women in the police today. However we have to recognise that
policemen now have a more sensitive and efficient attitude than before. Often abused women
need to be taken to a refuge, but in the near future things will change with the application of
the bill enacted by the Parliament. Now rapists will be moved away from the family home, so
that women will be able to stay without having to suffer the trauma of leaving the own family
Reporting of violence is increasing in Italy – some think crime statistics have risen because of
an increase in actual crime, but this is unlikely - if women’s denouncements have increased,
even if on a daily base both adolescent and mature voices, with Southern or Northern
inflexions, alternate at our telephones, the culpable silence that covers so many women's
hardships is still too profound.
Our data show that in 1994 sexual harassment accounted for 5.8% of the calls received sexual
violence 5.9 %. The telephone call was the first reaction of the victim in 54.6% of such cases.
In 1996 cases of sexual harassment were 7.0 % and of sexual violence 4.2 %, and the
telephone call was the first reaction of the victim in 30.8 % of the cases. The latter data
increased to 54.1 % in 1997, when reports totalled 3.9 % sexual harassment and 3.5 % sexual
violence. The data decreased to 45.2% in 1998, with 3,4% sexual violence and 3,7% sexual
harassment. In 1999, with 3,29% sexual violence and 2,64 sexual harassment, of all calls
received, in 54,79% of sexual violence and harassment had no other reaction before
contacting the Telefono Rosa. Data on 2000 will be published in a short time, while 2001
statistics are still being investigated. These statistics suggest that a considerable number of
women, although aware of being abused, are not able to free themselves of heavy and
Obviously the education received in the family of origin, the cultural imprint, the rules given
by traditional but often backward customs, the economic dependence of many women on men,
a poor self-esteem and no confidence in their strength, contribute to making women
vulnerable and passive in a fatalistic way. The above is the cause of the exceptionally high
and progressively growing number of women showing a passive attitude when confronted
with offences and humiliations.
It is important that the issue of dealing with rape and sexual harassment is addressed to a wide
audience with co-operation across countries. It is important to learn from the experience of
others and develop a common strategy throughout Europe. There is a great deal of work to
be done we are here to face it.