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POLITICS-ITALY: Don't Even Speak of Equality! – Part 2

Miren Gutierrez* and Oriana Boselli

ROME, Sep 22 2009 (IPS) - Angelica Mucchi-Faina, psychology professor at the Perugia University, thinks that "in Italy you cannot even talk about equal opportunities for women in politics."

There are only four women in Berlusconi's cabinet. Credit: Italian government

There are only four women in Berlusconi's cabinet. Credit: Italian government

However, Italy signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1980, and ratified it in 1985.

As a result, in 2003, Italy modified Article 51 of its Constitution, introducing the principle of equality in access to political offices. For the first time the concept of equal opportunities entered the Constitution. The Ministry for Equal Opportunities exists since 1996.

But for Mucchi-Faina, there are three factors that still hinder women's entry in politics.

"First, the burden of family responsibilities falls on women’s shoulders," she says. "Women dedicate 24 percent of their available time to the family, while men invest just 8 percent … Second, the prevailing machismo in politics discourages women's involvement. To include women in the lists is just a way of saving face. We continually hear that quotas create ghettos for women, but it is men who take refuge in the Mount Athos of politics, and don’t have any intention of letting us in."

"Third, women know that they have to be much, much better and invest much more than men. The result is that women see very few opportunities to enter politics, and succeed," she concludes.

Some of her points coincide with a 2004 report on Italy released by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women – an expert body that watches over the progress for women made in those countries party to the 1979 CEDAW.

"The shortage of female representatives in the political arena is mainly due to three factors," it says. The first is linked to the fact that women are generally depicted as weak, needing protection; a figure which causes disaffection among women themselves, unfit for the environment where power is exercised."

"The second concerns an intrinsic feature of Italy's ruling class, which tends to represent and reproduce itself, and so tends to come over as inward looking, because it does not fulfil its role through a vital and open relationship with civil society," it continues.

"Whereas the first two factors are grounded in Italian culture, the third has strong political connotations. Today, there are still numerous obstacles to women wishing to take part in political life, due to the difficulty of reconciling the female role in politics and work, with family life," it concludes.

For Anne Maass, from Padova University too, "men do not want to loose their enormous privileges if they let women in. Most of them are extremely well paid professional politicians (Italian parliamentarians get four times what their Spanish counterparts earn)… Unless exposed to a strong pressure from their grassroots, male politicians oppose all change."

"But this doesn’t happen because most people are not aware of the advantages of having more women politicians," she says.

"Our television doesn’t care about foreign affairs," says Maass. "The knowledge of foreign languages is so limited that people cannot get information outside their local sources. Italians simply don’t know that half the world has quotas… Only some who read papers not controlled by Berlusconi realise that the sexism in Italy would be unthinkable in other countries, that the systematic insults against women, homosexuals, migrants would be unacceptable and politically incorrect."

For Forza Italia, the party that brought premier Silvio Berlusconi into power, "women have always been involved in 'politics', but in a different, special way. Women's politics concerns relationships, it's a work of mediation and wisdom carried out in every day life," says an enlightening document released in 2004 by Forza Italia's women's chapter in Milan.

And what is keeping women away from politics is a "psychological matter", says the pamphlet. "It’s necessary to motivate women to make them interested in political matters, it's necessary to 'educate' them, supporting their commitment and increasing the knowledge of women who want to participate in local politics."

But for Mucchi-Faina that is unacceptable.

"The idea of a 'feminine nature' that makes women inadequate for public office and positions of high responsibility is very difficult to demonstrate," she says. "If that were true, we would find many women in local politics, where practical matters are decided. But a recent survey by the National Association of Italian Local Councils (known as ANCI) says that out of 148,000 local officers, women represent only 17.6 percent. So?"

"Certain capacities women have developed, such as their ability to listen and mediate, are essential for effective political action at every level. Because to do politics means to make decisions and manage several state sectors in citizens' name," she says.

The European elections were preceded and followed by the so-called "sexygate" scandals, which include the philandering of Berlusconi, and also the fact that the female candidates of the PDL (Popolo della Libertà, the Italian coalition lead by Berlusconi and his party Forza Italia) were said to have been chosen only for their looks. Berlusconi has bragged about the beauty of his party’s female candidates before.

In fact, of the four women in ministerial positions in Berlusconi's cabinet, only two of them control real budgets and make real decisions (Stefania Prestigiacomo, minister of the environment, and Maria Stella Gelmini, minister of education). Mara Carfagna, minister of equal opportunities, was a former starlet with whom Berlusconi has flirted in public. Giorgia Meloni is minister of youth.

"These scandals show that we have lost a sense of dignity in Italian politics," says Chiara Volpato, professor of social psychology at the Milano-Bicocca University. "In the field of social psychology, we distinguish between hostile and moderate sexism… Berlusconi's and his cronies' behaviour include both types."

Volpato thinks there are signals of reaction from the civil society against "Berlusconi’s media totalitarianism."

"To voice dissent is extremely difficult in Italy today: Berlusconi has a control over media that would be ridiculous in any other democratic country," Volpato says. "I think that all this makes Italy a border-line country between democracy and a sort of regime."

However, "I see a new indignation emerging. Today, after 'sexygate', there is a growing resistance… Little by little women are starting to speak up," she adds. "Reactions are coming from the grassroots, individuals, the civil society, priests working in small communities, women, young people, not from institutions, parties, the Church or mainstream media, who act slowly."

(*Miren Gutierrez is IPS Editor in Chief.) (This is the second of a two-part series on women in Italian politics.)

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