When Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni made an official visit to the crime-ridden Neapolitan suburb of Caivano last week, she promised a “radical reclamation” of a territory she admitted “the state had failed.”
Meloni, the country’s first female prime minister, was there to draw attention to an alleged systematic gang rape of pre-teen cousins by a group of delinquents.
The alleged repeated rapes of the two girls – aged 10 and 12 at the time and now in protective custody out of fear their families can’t protect them – capped a summer of headlines about sexual violence and gender-related killings of women and girls.
Neither of these issues has so far been a focus of Meloni’s “Italy-first” traditional family agenda, which has focused on removing same sex parents from birth certificates, clamping down on inheritance rights for gay couples, and seeking to criminalize surrogacy with prison terms even if it is carried out abroad.
Her trip to Caivano was overshadowed by comments made by her partner, Andrea Giambruno, an Italian journalist with whom she shares a daughter but to whom she is not married, who suggested some of the sexual violence over the summer was the fault of the victims.
“If you go dancing you are fully entitled to get drunk,” he said on his television program. “But if you avoid getting drunk and losing consciousness, perhaps you’d also avoid getting into trouble, because then you’ll find the wolf.”
His comments came while discussing the case of a 19-year-old woman who was allegedly gang-raped by seven men at a party near the Sicilian city of Palermo in August.
When questioned by a guest on the program, Giambruno tried to defend his words by digging in deeper: “(A man) might say to his daughter, ‘Look, don’t get in a car with a stranger. Because it is very true that you should not be raped because it is an abominable thing. But if you avoid getting into the car with a stranger, maybe you won’t run into that danger,’” he said by way of clarification, failing to blame the young men who allegedly committed the crime.
“Perhaps we should start passing this message across and be a little more protective, in terms of vocabulary and language,” he added.
He might have been thinking of his own 7-year-old daughter, Ginevra, who is Meloni’s constant companion, traveling with her to the United States to meet President Joe Biden as well as tagging along when Meloni met Pope Francis earlier this year.
“I do everything possible to take my daughter to when I can, and to go home in the evening to put her to bed, as I have always tried to do,” Meloni, who often talks about what being a mother means to her, told “Donna Moderna” (Modern Woman) magazine earlier this year.
She defended Giambruno’s victim-blaming comments during a press conference Thursday, saying they had been misunderstood.
“I think that Andrea Giambruno hastily and assertively said something different from what most people interpreted,” she said.
“I don’t read in those words ‘if you walk around in a miniskirt they’ll rape you’ but something similar to what my mother told me: ‘eyes open and head on your shoulders.’ Rapists exist and we must not let our guard down,” she said at the press conference.
“My mother always told me that. We must always be aware, do our best not to put ourselves in a position to allow these animals to do what they would like to do. I think it is advice that many parents would give to their children, this does not give any justification to rapists.”
Meloni has focused on coming down hard on organized criminality in areas where offenses are taking place.
However, she has barely mentioned a documented rise in reported gender-related violence in Italy this summer, which included the killing of a 52-year-old nurse in Rome this week.
The mother of two daughters was stabbed 20 times in the foyer of her apartment building in the capital, allegedly by a man who had just this summer vandalized her car with red spray paint with which he wrote, “I love you a lot,” according to Rome city police who published a photo of her car. Lawyers for the suspect declined to comment on the case.
According to the Telefono Rosa hotline for domestic violence, there has been a 25% increase in gang-related gender-based violence in 2023 in Italy compared to the same period last year. The organization notes that the increase is primarily by younger offenders – sometimes, as in the case of the alleged gang rape in Palermo, of which footage was published on social media, including young men under the age of 18.
This Sunday, the women of the opposition Democratic party, led by Elly Shlein, are meeting to form a response to what they say is the systematic punishment of women in the first year of Meloni’s premiership.
“We are faced with a patriarchal, illiberal right and enemy of diversity. We don’t know what to do with a woman in government who penalizes women,” the Democratic Women caucus said in a statement to CNN.
“Atavistic impulses are re-emerging in society and, above all, regulatory proposals are emerging that erase women’s laborious achievements of self-determination: from the right to health, to education, to work without a modern and dynamic welfare system, to abortion, but also to maternity and parenthood, despite proclamations about birth rates; among the new generations we are witnessing an explosion of violence towards young women, and we could continue. This is why we need to put our analytical and proposal-making thinking back at the center.”
Meloni has yet to comment on the killing of the nurse in Rome, which was the 78th gender-related killing of a woman this year, according to the Differenza Donna association. It estimates that one woman is murdered by someone she knows every three days in Italy.
Instead, Meloni has focused on her own family, which is increasingly prominent in party politics. During her August holiday, she was photographed at a lunch with relatives holding a plate of cooked blue crabs, currently the chief enemy to Italian mussel and clam fishermen after destroying millions of euros’ worth of shellfish.
The photo was taken by her brother-in-law Francesco Lollobridgida, Italy’s minister of agriculture, who is married to her sister Arianna, who in August was promoted to lead Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party’s membership arm and political secretariat division – a move that raised eyebrows within the party ranks.
Brothers of Italy member Massimo Milani called for a special congress within the party to discuss the matter.
On Tuesday, Meloni posted a selfie on Instagram smiling among party faithful at a dinner that drew more comments about nepotism than about the cohesion of her party, from opposition party members and the general public alike.
Repeated calls and messages by CNN to her party spokespeople for a comment about the uptick in violence and her sister’s appointment in the party were not answered.
But in Rome’s Garbatella neighborhood, where Meloni grew up with a single mother, she is lauded. “She has proven herself to be a stateswoman, she has made us proud,” said Giovanni Montuori, who runs a local favorite restaurant, Da Giovanni. “Her mother still lives here, she is raising her own daughter in spite of challenges. She’s the real thing.”
When asked about her partner’s comments on the gang rape, the restaurateur said simply, “There is truth to it, simply put.”
The Brothers of Italy have also retained their popularity. Meloni’s party won the September 22 elections last year with nearly 26% of the vote. As of late July, her party had surpassed 29% support in opinion polling, dropping about a point by late August, according to a SWG poll for La7 television.
Despite her success, Meloni’s first year in office has been challenging. She has faced record-breaking arrivals of irregular migrants and the loss of Silvio Berlusconi, a key coalition partner.
But the steady drumbeat of opposition to perceived nepotism and her reluctance to push gender issues is likely to dominate her tenure in office, however long it may last.