The Weinstein case that shed the light on violence and sexual abuses in the world of cinema and the cases of abuse in the European Parliament, have shifted the attention on one of the dramas of contemporary society, one of the great battles for civilization the Western World has been fighting in the last decades. Over the years, the European Parliament has dealt with the issue on several occasions and to talk about this I met with Elly Schlein, an Italian Member of the European Parliament (MEP), member of the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) group and the Italian party Possibile. During her tenure, she fought for the reform of the Dublin treaty and launched, together with other colleagues, the #MeTooEU campaign against gender-based violence, following the scandals that have hit the European institutions in recent months. These two battles are the result of her presence in the LIBE (Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs) and in the FEMM (Women’s rights and gender equality) committee. During this interview we talked all-round about the issues that are reasons for the violence and culture of gender inequality. The answers and ideas that Elly Schlein gave me will always be quoted.

Media attention on gender violence

In the first days of October, a succession of actresses and women linked to Hollywood have reported harassment and sexual violence by Harvey Weinstein, a famous film producer and a very influential man in Hollywood. Within a month, more than 90 women declared being victims of harassment by the producer and 14 accused him of rape. These accusations have initiated numerous investigations. On the Internet, the social campaign #MeToo was launched and following that Jeanne Ponte, assistant to a French MEP in the European Parliament, publicly reported cases of harassment in the institutions on her and her colleagues. We asked MEP Elly Schlein if media attention was the reason or the result of cases such as those mentioned:

“Surely the Weinstein case has helped turn the spotlight on what is a structural and endemic problem of our society. This problem exists, regardless of how much attention medias are paying to it, and sometimes cyclical facts emerge concerning people who are particularly well-known as it happened in the Weinstein case. Unfortunately, the data tells us that one in three women was victim of sexual or physical harassment since youth. So, it is a problem that exists in all societies and in all work environments, not only in the film industry, but we have dealt with it in this Parliament because in the European institutions unfortunately there are cases of sexual abuse and harassment. And that is why, together with many other colleagues, we asked with determination that legislations should be enforced and prevention should be adopted immediately. Because these two things have to be carried on together, there is certainly a profound cultural work to do, but in parallel there is a strengthening of the legal framework that does not only involve sanctions, which have to be hard and effective, but which also entails the creation of a climate of zero tolerance that allows and facilitates complaints. Because precisely because of the cases we have dealt with here in the European Parliament, we realized that the already existing channels to denounce facts of this type are obviously not yet built in an effective way, they are not yet reliable enough for the people that preferred in some cases to not report. Or just to report only after the Weinstein case, on the wave of this beautiful hashtag called #MeToo.”

#MeToo and the TIME’s cover as Person of the Year

The #MeToo social campaign was launched by the actress Alyssa Milano a few days after the Weinstein scandal broke out. Her call was heard by thousands of women who shared their experiences of social harassment and abuse by demonstrating how widespread the phenomenon is. Just to her and to the other « Silence Breakers« , TIME magazine dedicated the annual cover award of the Person of the Year, identifying the movement of women who joined the hashtag #MeToo as a collective fight; born, however, as an act of individual courage. That was what Elly Schlein thought about this:

“Yes, let’s say that this is interesting, because one thing is true: despite being a structural and endemic problem of our societies, where much more awareness and prevention and contrast of violence must be made; it is also true that after the Weinstein case, these very positive campaigns that were born have created a climate in which women felt much freer to report these facts and this created a positive circuit. It is a situation in which one supports one another in the act of denunciation, which is never easy. We have also seen that in the Italian case, which unfortunately presented some profiles a bit special compared to those of other countries, demonstrating the great backwardness of our country on the issue of gender equality. Great backwardness also from the cultural point of view, in Italy we have seen episodes of victim-blaming. Comments like « you’ve looked for it », « why did she denounce so late? » and « first you benefit and then… ». This is all an indecent blame for the victim who must instead be able to report through reliable channels, to be followed by a team of medical, psychological and legal advisors. In short, the complaint deserves to be seriously considered; then the complaint will give rise to a judicial procedure and we will see if this will lead to convictions for those responsible. But here the important thing is that there is a climate in which people feel free and protected in the complaint and have channels through which the complaints are taken seriously. This is not only necessary in the European institutions, as we have been care to ask President Tajani with a petition in the website, which has already collected about 24,000 signatures, but is essential in all workplaces. Because in all workplaces, unfortunately, these things happen: there are abuses, there is harassment, there are episodes of stalking or otherwise of gender-based violence. It is necessary that in all workplaces there is an awareness and adequate tools for prevention and counter action”

The legislative proposals of the European Parliament

In 2017, in three different moments the European institutions have strongly pushed for greater legal protection of women victims of abuse and violence: with the accession to the Istanbul Convention and with the two resolutions of the European Parliament on the 12th September and 26th October. The adhesion to the Istanbul Convention is a great boost the European Union gives to the many Member States that have not ratified it yet. It is a way of putting back at the center an argument that some people had set aside. While with regard to the two Resolutions, the European Parliament can act as an open-door to many working environments on issues of prevention and combating gender-based violence.

“We hope that at least the Parliament can give a boost to all European institutions in this direction. What has already been said in the Resolution we approved on September 12, which strongly condemns all forms of violence against women and welcomed the European Union’s accession to the Istanbul Convention on 13th June 2017. It is good to remember that the Convention has not yet been ratified by all EU Member States. So that the European Union has also been a symbolic act, that wants to push with absolute haste and urgency the Member States to join, implement and ratify the Convention of Istanbul. Obviously, it is not the only Resolution, there have been so many from the Parliament on this issue. The last one was approved on the 26th October, when we voted for a resolution on the fight against violence and sexual abuse in the European Union. This Resolution condemns any form of sexual violence and physical or psychological harassment and also deplores the fact that these acts are tolerated too easily. It also condemns the cases of sexual harassment in the EU institutions recently revealed by the media. This Resolution insists on what I said earlier, namely that we need a more effective legal framework, that we need to take further measures to strengthen the fight against this phenomenon and that we need more prevention. We also had a debate in the plenary session last October, before the approval of this Resolution, which showed that some of the internal procedures are not yet adequate and it is still too difficult to report cases of harassment or we are afraid that this will lead to consequences and to empowering those guilty of these acts. All of this began with the adherence to a letter, which was the initiative of some colleagues and was addressed to President Tajani, in light of what was the Weinstein case and the thousands of women who found the strength to denounce the experiences of abuse sexual in work spaces and public places. We first asked that there was an external audit, for the cases of sexual abuse in the European Parliament, we asked that there was a special commission dedicated to this, which also included legal counselors, medical and psychological staff. All this to investigate these cases reported, obviously maintaining the absolute confidentiality and the anonymity of complaints to protect victims. It was also asked that measures were adopted that could ensure a climate of zero tolerance at all levels in the European institutions. Finally, it was necessary to ask the institutions to fully support the victims during these procedures and to also carry forward the formal complaint to the competent judicial authorities.”

Elly Schlein has also launched an online petition on the well-known « » website, along with MEPs Ernest Urtasun, Linnea Engstrom and Terry Reintke.

“I dealt with the Italian part of this complaint that we called « Stop sexual abuse in the European institutions » with the significant hashtag #MeTooEU, that is the European part of the #MeToo campaign. And just as I said to you, we ask loudly:

  • The creation of this atmosphere of zero tolerance, to punish those responsible and to finally have a larger and full application of penalties and sanctions available.
  • The creation of a central office to report abuses and harassment for all EU institutions, hence not just the Parliament, as we said we would also like to set an example for other institutions and maybe even for other workplaces around Europe.
  • To ensure the access of a commission on sexual abuse independent of the European Parliament, which does not reproduce the structures of power and therefore that it has no members within it, this is the idea of independence.
  • The victims must have the status of the so-called Whistleblowers, on whose field this Parliament strongly calls for a European directive setting minimum standards for those who report acts of malfeasance, corruption, evasion and tax avoidance.
  • The victims must also have the support of legal, medical and psychological consultants.
  • Finally, we also ask that there is a mandatory training on sexual harassment and bullying, which should be done for all those working in these institutions: Members of Parliament, staff and all others. Also because it is necessary a sensitization to the existing patriarchal structures that are those that create that cultural disaster we see. So it is a problem that is also to be addressed from the cultural point of view.”

The cultural problem of gender violence

Coming to discuss the cultural issue behind gender-based violence, the question that arises is how to combat the cultural problem, in addition to the legal one, behind gender-based violence. Especially if there is a European level in which to fight the culture of gender-based violence or if this problem has to be fought at other levels. The MEP Elly Schlein gave us a long and complex vision on the issue:

“The FEMM committee has always been committed to supporting the fight against gender-based violence. So certainly, there is a European level on which to work in a cultural way on the issue of attracting interest, training and information, and the denunciation of what is sexism, sexist language, stereotypes. On these issues, the European Parliament is very active and there is already support from the European Union. At the national level, there is a long way to go, I think the crucial question is to start early and start from schools. This is why we support the need to educate about differences within schools. A possibility that too often is not explored by the educational plans of our schools, even if there are good practices in circulation. I have recently met the teachers of the schools of Bologna, for example of the Rodari school in the province, and we have dealt with this delicate theme together: it is not an easy operation! We have made an initiative by tackling with experts on this issue what are the challenges for proper training in schools to raise awareness among young people about these important issues. It is from there that the deconstruction of these patriarchal structures that keep our country plastered, more than others, begins. We need to do serious work of support, which is lacking at the national level, to the anti-violence centers that have a long experience and great skills to support the victims. And we need to make an accurate operation on who has been responsible for acts like these, people who are re-socialized and re-educated by fighting these stereotypes and this completely wrong idea of the woman’s body as if it were an object, or as if it were a men’s possession. So you have to act at all levels: local, national and European. This can be done with many tools to support these policies, like find funds available to support courses and training. At the national level a much more serious investment is needed: constant government cuts to funds available for the anti-violence centers are indecent.”

Anti-violence centers and funding for facilities

There is a problem of public funding for a whole series of structures providing protection and support for women victims of violence, facing a reality which is that institutions receive less and less public funding. This is the case for example of the International Women’s Home in Rome, active since the ‘80s and recognized for its role of public utility by the City of Rome since 1992. Today it risks closing for the demands of the municipality that claims to be paid a rent for the structures that host it. So my question is: the problem is political rather than economic? And the second is: the interest about gender problem is a minority in society?

“First of all, I want to express solidarity and support to the International Women’s Home, which should not be closed. It would be very serious to close it because what it does is precious. Whoever is in the government of all institutions, municipality, regions and central State, must absolutely and cannot afford to have this approach in 2017. For decades, there has been special attention given to the issue of gender equality in the European law, you cannot afford it that the institutions accept the lack of this attention. I take it to the same extent with the government or with a mayor who makes the mistake of removing funds for this type of policy. I do not believe that it is a minority, I believe that society is also ahead the political class on many things, surely there is a widespread cultural problem and in Italy we are behind other countries. But today there is an awareness of these issues much greater than a few years ago, the battle still needs to make many strides forward from stereotypes spread by the media, television and newspapers. How many times do we attack the newspapers as they face the murder of a woman, overturning the question and going almost to justify why he got out of his mind because he loved her and could not live without her? No, he is a murderer and must be treated as such and also the way and the language we use to talk about gender violence makes all the difference in the world on the cultural battle. So you need to have the multi-level high guard, on the language and the stereotypes that television broadcasts: both information programs and films, television series and all programs. There is a need to raise the guard on the language when we talk about these facts in the newspapers, to watch out for the horrendous and sexist commercials that unfortunately still haunt the advertising space of our country. A total contrast of these phenomena and of all this patriarchal culture that sees in the woman’s body an object to be appropriated, which means the cultural battle is not only against this but is connected to the sexist and patriarchal paradigm of our societies. That has to do with the fact that women are absolutely underrepresented in decision-making roles, not only in politics, where in some Regional Councils they are almost absent in a shameful way. Shameful not for them but precisely for the electoral systems and for a political culture that in all the parties does not see the figures of women emerge sufficiently. But we also see it in the boards of companies, women who at the European level are in the boards of companies listed on the stock exchange are 4.7%. We are not 4.7% of society, just as in 2017 it is unacceptable that there is still a wage inequality between men and women for the same job by 15% at European level, this is medieval and is not acceptable in any way. Not to mention the pension gap at European level that is even higher, because women in Europe on average gain 39% less than retired men. Then there is a wide range of battles to be done, we push on the national level for a law on gender equality on the model of the French, that has a comprehensive approach and that touches all these various issues, because the fields in which women are discriminated against today are still very large. As I said, women are discriminated not only in the family, with family work, or when they are victims of violence, but also in the workplace, in the political decision-making, in the areas of responsibility and in the organizational charts of large companies. Here on this there is a lot to do, as Possibile we have proposed that companies that do not respect wage equality could not participate in public tenders; this problem requires very strong sanctions from this point of view.”

Italy has a long way to go

However, compared to other member countries of the European Union it seems that Italy is still behind, especially in terms of the cultural battle and that of information. What is the difference between Italy and other European countries?

“We are a country that is not yet secular enough, by the Constitution and the legislation we should be a secular country, but we have a heavy influence of a certain culture that partly derives from religion, but it is not only that. We also have other models that overlap and see the woman strongly discriminated and as an object of possession. Let’s think, for example, about the organized crime mafia mentality: that is a very patriarchal mentality, so there are many reasons. And then politics in Italy has not yet decided to diverge from this and has not decided to make a strong and direct investment towards gender equality that passes from all these issues. The battles are wage equality, the right representation in decision-making places, the battle not to relegate women to a living instrument of welfare, which in recent years have even made up for institutional shortcomings. In the years of welfare cuts, it is women who have made up for more work at home and cared for the elderly and children. For example, we do not have enough childcare facilities and the right support in the workplace for women who want to carry on with their family and their parenting responsibilities. It takes an appropriate maternal leave and even an appropriate paternal leave; on this there was an attempt for a European directive that then basically ran aground. It takes financial and cultural support to the anti-violence centers, it takes institutions that promote this culture and this also depends on the parties that have to take charge and have a huge responsibility in this regard. I’m lucky because I’m part of a feminist party and that has a secretary, Pippo Civati, that as a man has always been very attentive to the « male » question, as we call it. And so he made us do a series of proposals for which we have also been teased, here is another difference between Italy and the others. It is indicative what happened when we proposed the « Tampon Tax« : a measure of civilization because the basic products of female hygiene cannot be taxed as luxury products, they are essential goods. We were asking for a lowering of the VAT in this sense and we were teased by everyone and everything, even the comedian Luciana Littizzetto who had never deigned to pay attention to this in the follow-up TV program Che Tempo Che Fa. Only after a while did they begin to realize that it was a proposal that the United Kingdom was pursuing, not the feminist groups but the United Kingdom government. For example, Obama has dealt with gender issues also in these specific terms; instead in Italy they are still the subject of derision. So politics are responsible for backwardness as is the interference of a certain Catholic culture; “certain” because instead there are many Catholics who are fully aware of the need to make huge strides on gender equality. There are many tools to combat these phenomena and to promote a political culture and we will try to put them at the center of the debate in view of the upcoming elections.”

This is the result of the interview with the MEP Elly Schlein, wishing us a future where scandals such as Weinstein and harassment within the European institutions will be defeated by the battles for a growing cultural awareness and legal force of our European society.

Tancredi Marini

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