Violence against women: X-rays of broken bones show the scale of Italy's problem

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Violence against women: X-rays of broken bones show the scale of Italy's problem
Visitors to the exhibition 'Invisibility is not a super power' exhibition at a hospital in Milan. All photos: Miguel Medina/AFP

One Italian hospital's display of x-rays speaks louder than words. Especially since the women whose shattered bones are shown in the sterile black and white images rarely speak out.


On the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, a hospital in Milan is displaying X-rays from victims of domestic violence who have passed through the doors of the facility seeking help.

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The display at San Carlo Borromeo hospital was the idea of trauma surgeon Maria Grazia Vantadori, 59, who wanted to show the stark reality of what she has seen in her 26 years of practice.

Trauma surgeon Maria Grazia Vantadori speaking at the exhibition. Photo: AFP

Although women arrive at the hospital bloodied, sometimes cut, burned, or with acid thrown in their faces, Vantadori opted for the more sterile images of X-rays, deeming them more powerful.

"I didn't want it to be gory, just to show something true, real and not fake. This is telling the truth, it's not made up," Vantadori told AFP.

"The good thing about X-rays is that we're all the same, substantially. Our bones are all the same. So any of these could be any woman," she said.

In Italy, 142 women were killed through domestic violence in 2018, up 0.7 percent from a year earlier, according to Italian research institute Eures, a number that campaigners say is disturbingly consistent.

Visitiors examine an x-ray showing a woman's broken nose. Photo: AFP

In the last five years, 538,000 women were the victims of physical or sexual abuse by their partners, according to Italy's national statistics agency Instat.

Experts say those numbers are conservative because women are reluctant to come forward, partly due to fears of leaving their homes and children.

The show in the hospital's lobby features about a dozen images: X-rays of a broken nose, a shattered wrist, crushed finger, shin or rib snapped in two, interlaced with quotes from anonymous women.
One recounted how her partner smashed her face against the kitchen wall and pummelled her with blows, 43 times.

"I counted the blows to try to distract myself from the pain, otherwise I'd be dead," the woman said.
In one of the most powerful images, a long butcher's knife is seen encased within a ribcage.

That woman miraculously lived, said Vantadori, who views her role as a surgeon more expansively than someone who merely patches up patients and sends them on their way.

"My job is to make sure that doesn't happen," she said, pointing to the X-ray with the knife.

To stop the cycle of violence, the hospital provides more comprehensive help to victims of domestic violence, via a women's centre that offers psychological support and social services, including legal help.

The centre has already followed 322 women this year, 40 percent of them from outside Italy, a challenge that also requires the help of cultural intermediaries, the centre's director, Pavahne Hassebi, said.

Most important, said Hassebi, is that women know such places exist. There were 253 such assistance centres in Italy, according to Instat, as of 2017.

Although awareness has grown over the decades, the phenomenon persists, said Vantadori, unrelated to class, race or socioeconomic background.

A current member of Italy's parliament, Lucia Annibali, began her political career after being burned in the face in 2013 by acid by two aggressors sent by her ex-boyfriend.

On Saturday, thousands of people, mostly women, protested in Rome against gendered violence. Many carried signs calling for justice for Mimo, the Chilean street artist killed by police in October in Santiago.

The United Nations estimates that 87,000 women were killed globally in 2017, over half of them either by their spouse, partner, or their own family.

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