For Italy’s Abused Women, a Legal Labyrinth Compounds the Wounds

An abused mother of four with one of her cats. She says she has been to court so many times that some mistake her for a lawyer.

ROME — Married for 16 years, Antonietta Gargiulo had tried desperately to keep her abusive husband, a police officer, at a distance. She detailed his violence to family, friends, her parish priest and colleagues, who had seen him physically attack her in front of the factory where she worked.

She filed a lawsuit and got psychologists and social workers to assist her two young daughters. She even reported her husband’s abuse to the commander of his Carabinieri station, asking for help and to take away his service revolver, to no avail.

On a winter morning this year, her husband, Luigi Capasso, shot her along with their children before killing himself. Ms. Gargiulo, 39, survived three gunshot wounds; the children, 8 and 13, were killed.

The murders in Cisterna di Latina, an ancient, rural town about 40 miles south of Rome, briefly called national attention to a chronic, often neglected problem in Italy — the lack of an efficient, comprehensive response to abuses against women, starting with law enforcement agencies themselves.

Roughly 150 women a year are killed in Italy by abusive partners, according to Eures, an independent social and economic research institute. It is one of the highest tolls in Europe, ranking with those in Germany and the United Kingdom although Italy’s population of about 60 million is smaller.

That toll has held steady despite the work of women’s advocates to provide a stronger safety net. In more than one-third of the fatal cases in Italy, according to Eures, the victims had already complained to the police.

“When a woman tells her story, authorities rarely believe her, so in the end women stop speaking up,” said Lella Paladino, president of Di.Re., a nationwide advocacy group that fights violence against women.

“Police had taken Mr. Capasso’s gun away years earlier, when he was under investigation for fraud, but not because of the domestic violence against his wife,” she said. “That’s the gap in values we are facing.”

Italy has ratified international conventions on curbing violence against women, but spotty application of the law as well as cultural barriers lead many abused women to stay silent.

The women who do raise their voices are often ground up for years in Italy’s infamously Byzantine legal system and countless deferments, while their partners often threaten to sue them for defamation, stalk them or continue to abuse them.

For those reasons, all of the women interviewed by The New York Times who shared their stories of abuse did so only on condition that their names not be published.

One, a 45-year-old cafeteria worker from a midsize town outside Rome, described how she had been to court so often to deliver or pick up legal documents that officials greeted her as a regular. Sometimes she was even mistaken for a lawyer, she said.

For seven years, she has been fighting to have her husband kept at distance from her and their four children, who say their father has repeatedly sexually abused them.

“Every day is a new fight,” she said, speaking in the headquarters of the women’s advocacy group in central Rome that helped her. “I am Italian, but before I got sucked into this spiral of violence, disbelief and snail-paced justice system, I had no idea of what it was like,” she said.

In a rage, her husband beat her while their 3-year-old toddler clung to her leg, she said. When she managed to call the police, the officer asked her whether she wasn’t simply arguing with her husband. Women can wait up to two years to see their cases discussed in court, living in a limbo that can extend another three to 10 years as they wait for a definitive ruling.

In many cases, violence affects children as well. The cafeteria worker lived for seven months with her four children in a shelter for abused women run by nuns, protected by window bars and a high gate, outside of which her husband, a teacher, waited for them almost every day. A judge allowed him to see their children twice a week, although he was diagnosed with mental problems.

The children had to see the father on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, and also for several years to attend the summer camps he organized. But the required visits were halted last September, when their 13-year-old son physically attacked the father in front of the school, screaming that he was a monster and should leave his sisters alone, and three of the children said that their father had groped them repeatedly and forced the girls to kiss him on the lips.

“The phenomenon is not taken seriously,” said Marcella Pirrone, a lawyer and a pioneer activist in Italy for women’s rights. “Data are gathered by women’s associations and not by the central government, and Italy has only 100 shelters in a country of over 60 million people. There should be six times as many.”

One of those is run by Cristina Ercoli, who manages a Roman center run by Differenza Donna, an association that offers shelters across the country and also helped the mother of four.

“Women are commodities for such men,” she said, speaking from years of experience. “They reduce their wives in slavery, taking their dignity away. Violence is a normal consequence of this culture that we are fighting every day.”

Italy had its last Minister for Equal Opportunities in 2013; the ministry was abolished and its officials have been reassigned, and policies to combat gender violence or grant women’s rights and equal pay were left with no central coordination.

The current populist government, a coalition led by two parties, the League and the Five Star Movement, chose a man for the downgraded position of under secretary for equal opportunities.

Many women’s advocates lament a lack of exemplary punishments for the perpetrators of abuse in a country where 22,000 women live in shelters.

“Policemen, social workers, judges, who should protect the women are often unprepared,” Ms. Pirrone said. “Many are marred by prejudice, but in general there is a belief that anyone can deal with these problems without any scientific preparation. And this leads to inadequate answers to the women who seek help.”

The mother of four was hoping to have a verdict in the stalking and domestic violence case against her husband this summer, almost a year since her son’s rebellion initiated a fast-track trial against his father’s alleged sexual abuse of him and his sisters.

“I don’t really know what else it’ll take to convince the judge that we are being harassed,” she said.

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