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Why activists believe Italy's divorce reforms would be terrible for women and children

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Why activists believe Italy's divorce reforms would be terrible for women and children
People in Rome protest the so-called Pillon bill on divorce and custody rights. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP
14:57 CET+01:00
Thousands took part in demonstrations in 60 cities across Italy on Saturday to protest against divorce law reforms currently being considered by parliament that they believe are a threat to human rights.

In Rome, 100 women from feminist movement Non Una di Meno made their way from the Colosseum to the Capitoline Hill dressed as handmaids from Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. From Milan to Naples, women's associations, trade unions and more joined together to request that the bill, proposed by conservative senator Simone Pillon of the League, be withdrawn amidst fears that it risks turning the clock back 50 years for women, children and survivors of domestic abuse.

The bill is founded upon what Pillon calls “perfect shared parenting”. If it passes, any couple wishing to seek a divorce with children who are legally minors will be obliged to go through an obligatory mediation process that they have to pay for. With a professional mediator – Pillon is one himself, leading to accusations of conflict of interest – they must draw up a parenting plan deciding everything from residence to schooling to holidays.

Any such plan must stick to prescriptive shared custody measures that require children to spend at least 12 days a month with each parent and class them as resident at both parents' addresses, rather than one as is currently the case.

“Shared custody already exists,” Assunta Confente, a lawyer and representative of the Camera Minorile children's rights group, told the protest in Turin. If the law passes, she added, “children will be forced to live two lives.”

“We children aren't suitcases,” one girl in Rome said. “You can't divide us in two.”


'Children can't be split like restaurant bills': posters at the Milan protest. Photo: Rachael Martin/The Local

The bill would also take away monthly child support and replace it with directly paid maintenance, whereby parents pay for children's needs as and when they arise instead of handing over a fixed sum in advance. 

“Away with maintenance cheques, away with the ideological battle of women against men. We think only of the child,” Pillon told Vanity Fair Italia, in an interview in which he also promised to crack down on “false accusations of [domestic] violence”.

The senator has long opposed gay marriage, same-sex parents and abortion. He has suggested that women with unplanned pregnancies should be forced to give birth and that people who falsely accuse their partner of domestic abuse should be denied custody of their children.

His bill claims to tackle so-called “parental alienation syndrome”, a controversial theory that one parent can manipulate the couple's children to reject the other parent. Developed by American psychiatrist Richard Gardner in the 1980s, the theory is not backed up by research and has been criticized for placing abused women and children at further risk by allowing violent fathers to manipulate custody battles and insist upon continued access.

At the demonstration held in Piazza della Scala in Milan, Manuela Ulivi, a lawyer and representative of the domestic abuse shelter Casa delle Donne Maltrattate, called the proposals “a law against women and against children”.

In the first six months of 2018, at least 44 women were killed in Italy as a result of gender-based violence. Many other cases go unreported. Some believe that Pillon's bill would feed existing prejudices that blame women for abuse and ultimately discourage them from reporting it.


'Free to love, free to divorce.' Photo: Rachael Martin/The Local

The bill has also attracted criticism from the United Nations. Last month its special rapporteurs on violence and discrimination against women, Dubravka Šimonović and Ivana Radačić, wrote to the Italian government to express concerns that the bill represented "a serious retrogression" and was one of several signs in Italy of a "backlash against the rights of women and attempts to reinstate a social order based on gender stereotypes and unequal power relations".

The imposed mediation process would be "very damaging if applied in cases of domestic abuse", they wrote. If the bill becomes law, “the child, even if they are a victim of violence, will be obliged to meet the violent parent”. The bill works on the assumption that complaints of abuse are false unless proven otherwise, they said, as well as increasing the risk that lower-earning women will find themselves forced to stay with violent husbands for economic reasons.

As well as scrapping child support, the proposals also redefine allocation of the family home. Where the house is in both names, the parent who remains in it will be required to pay a fee to the one who moves out; meanwhile other clauses reverse the current right of the child and primary caregiver (usually the mother) to continue living in the family home unless they own or rent it. 

If the proposed reforms become law, the expense of a divorce, together with mediation costs and the threat of having to move house, could effectively discourage lower-income couples from seeking a divorce. The burden could be especially heavy for women who depend on their husbands economically, as many in Italy do.


Anti-violence associations join the No Pillon protest in Milan. Photo: Rachael Martin/The Local

Italy has some of the fewest women in the workforce of any developed economy, with less than half of working-age Italian women in employment according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (The EU average is 66.6 percent.) Both culture – women are seen as primary carers within families for the young, the sick and the old – and the lack of institutional support make it very difficult for many to combine family and work. 

“This is a law that goes against the freedom of both men and women,” said Lella Palladino, president of the Women against Violence Network D.i.Re, at the protest in Rome. The state is entering into interpersonal relations, she suggested, and “people will no longer feel free to choose and to leave a relationship when that relationship is finished”.

Her organization has created a petition against the bill that has collected over 100,000 signatures.

There are signs that the government is listening: last week Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio, whose Five Star Movement governs in coalition with the League, said that Pillon's bill risked doing "collateral damage" to women and pledged that it would not be passed without revisions.

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