It’s a Lot Worse Than Sex Parties

Sabina Zaccaro

HAVANA TIMES, Feb. 14 (IPS) — The demonstration by an estimated million women across Italy Sunday points to a continuing denial of fair opportunities for women at work.

The protest demonstrations, in 280 cities in Italy and 28 cities abroad, were called to demand action against Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi over the latest scandals. The turnout was some measure of the determination among women to take the political and public debate in Italy to the real problems of women.

The protest followed weeks of intense debate over allegations that Berlusconi paid for sexual intercourse with a number of young women, including a 17- year-old undocumented girl from Morocco. In Italy the age of consent is 14, but prostitution below 18 is illegal.

According to prosecutors the young Moroccan girl is among a group of young prostitutes Berlusconi habitually engaged. The PM is also accused of abuse of power, having personally ordered police to release the girl who had been charged with theft.

Berlusconi denies the charges. A judge is expected to rule early this week on a possible trial in the coming months.

Women are now joining forces, not just to demand action against the PM, but to press for fundamental rights. “If a woman loses her job, it’s a loss for every one of us,” Pina Nuzzo, president of the Italian Union of Women told IPS. “While politicians and the media are so obsessed by the news of the day, women workers in this country are left alone and thus more liable to be blackmailed.”

Nuzzo says female employment is seen as something minor. “The common thought is that, towards the economic crisis, dismissing a woman is less grave. For young women – those who don’t take the path of sexual shortcuts – it is still hard to get a job, because they are potential mothers (and so less attractive for employers). In this sense insecure employment is equal to sterility.”

The fact that television – and particularly the largest broadcasting network owned by Berlusconi – gives space to the worst female stereotypes, and contributes to the representation of women as exchange goods, on TV as well as in politics, Nuzzo says.

The protesting women issued a petition that denounces “the indecent, repetitive representation of women as a naked object of sexual exchange in newspapers, on television and in advertising.”

“The image of women in the media is at the worst ever,” Silvia Costa, member of the European Parliament told IPS. “This attitude – which we identify as ‘berlusconism’ – can even survive Berlusconi if we don’t challenge the fact that real problems of Italian women are simply left out of the public debate.

“Do you know which are the issues under discussion at the moment at the European Parliament? Pensions, employment conditions for women, the impact of the (economic) crisis over female work, policies for family support, etc.,” Costa said. “None of these issues are on the political or media agenda in Italy. Here in Italy the real women, and their problems, are censored.”

According to women’s advocacy groups, the message from the latest scandal is that the simplest way for a woman to succeed in Italy is to sell her body to rich and powerful men.

One of the girls involved in the investigation, Sara Tommasi, spoke in a recent interview of her studies in a renowned Italian university as “a loss of time”. “A woman does not need a degree to have success; my body is my business,” she said.

“In a country where one in two women does not work, and economic disparity with men is still so huge, the body is seen as a viable shortcut,” Loredana Lipperini, journalist and author tells IPS.

“This is not about good girls against bad girls,” Lipperini said. “I am not censoring these behaviors; we have been struggling for sexual freedom. But freedom of choice is possible when you can choose among various possibilities, when you have alternatives.”

Berlusconi has often crossed the line between showbiz and politics by selecting women from TV shows as candidates for the Italian and European parliaments. Several members of the parliament now openly oppose this.

“People demonstrating are not moralists condemning the private behavior of the PM, or that of women he frequents,” said Giulia Buongiorno, lawyer and president of the lower house justice commission. “It is not about the hardcore parties; the real issue is that a party is not the right place to select the leading class.”

Men joined women in the protests. Massimo Canino, 54, told IPS he was protesting against “the idea that everything and everybody can be bought. I feel uneasy with this kind of culture, and I think more men should find the courage to say they disagree, without feeling less virile for that. We all feel humiliated by this attitude, women and men.”

According to the national statistics institute (ISTAT), only 46 percent of Italian women are employed, compared with an average of 59 percent in the other European countries.

The 2010 World Economic Forum Gender Gap Index ranks Italy 74th out of 134 countries – followed only by Hungary, Malta and Cyprus in the EU. Less than 10 percent of children have access to pre-school nurseries, and 27 percent of women quit work after having one child due to a lack of nurseries, family helpers and part-time jobs.