Societal Changes Needed for Gender Equality in Italy

A group of women take part in a demonstration to protest violence against women, Milan, Italy, Nov. 23, 2009 (AP photo Antonio Calanni).
A group of women take part in a demonstration to protest violence against women, Milan, Italy, Nov. 23, 2009 (AP photo Antonio Calanni).
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Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing WPR series on the status of women’s rights and gender equality in various countries around the globe.

An economic downturn might unexpectedly be improving gender equality in Italy, though many key issues are still not being addressed.

After several women were murdered earlier this month in Italy, the government has allocated $13 million for a plan to combat violence against women and an additional $14 million to fight human trafficking. In an email interview, Annalisa Rosselli, a professor at the University of Rome Tor Vergata, discusses women’s rights in Italy.

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WPR: What is the current status of women’s rights and gender equality in Italy?

Annalisa Rosselli: In terms of gender equality, the Italian situation is far from satisfactory. However, there have been clear improvements in the past 30 years and, what is even more important, there are no signs that this positive trend is being reversed by the current economic downturn. Since the 1990s, women have outnumbered men in higher education and now make up 59.2 percent of university graduates. Female employment rates remain low, especially in southern Italy and for women with lower levels of education. Only one out of two women over the age of 20 in Italy has a job. But the employment rate for women in northern Italy who have a university degree is nearly 80 percent.

Thanks to the recent introduction of mandatory quotas, the percentage of women on the boards of publically traded and government-owned companies is getting closer to the national goal of 33 percent. In the last general elections, the share of women in parliament jumped from 21.3 percent to 33.3 percent in the Chamber of Deputies and from 18.7 percent to 27.3 percent in the Senate—an all-time high. Eight out of 15 ministers in the present Cabinet are women. However, many gender disparities persist. Few women graduate with degrees in science, math or engineering disciplines, which offer better employment opportunities. Women are overrepresented in precarious and low-quality jobs in the service sector. Italy has never had a woman as prime minister or president.

WPR: What are the main issues and grievances currently for women's rights advocates, and what social and political barriers stand in the way of furthering gender equality in Italy?

Rosselli: There are two kinds of obstacles to progress toward gender equality in Italy. First, the government is still reluctant to abandon the so-called Mediterranean model of the welfare state, based on monetary transfers from the state to individual households. This system works because family—through the unpaid work of women—has traditionally been the main provider of social protection and care services in Italy. Full participation of women in social and economic life would require massive investments in social infrastructures, including schools and services for the care of children, disabled and elderly people, as feminist activists have long demanded. Second, the enforcement of many women’s rights laws lacks political support and funds. For example, abortion is legal but the share of medical staff allowed to refuse to perform abortions on the grounds of conscientious objection is, in some regions, close to 100 percent.

WPR: How big of issues politically are women’s rights and gender equality in Italy, both among women and the population at large, and what role do they play in Italy's foreign policy agenda?

Rosselli: In recent years two women’s issues have gained widespread political support: domestic violence and the waste of women’s talent through their exclusion from decision-making positions. Concern for these issues has promoted some changes—for example, in June women were elected mayors of two major Italian cities, Rome and Turin. But anti-violence and crisis centers are still underfunded. Many other aspects of gender inequality, such as the unfair distribution of domestic work between men and women, do not attract the same attention from media and civil society. Besides some support for aid programs targeted at women, gender equality does not play any role in Italy’s foreign policy agenda.

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