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How counting murders of women changed the law in Italy

Europe Letter: Statistician Sabbadini pioneered measurement of gender inequality

If you were to tune in to the main morning television news programme on Italy’s national broadcaster Rai one Tuesday this September, you would have found yourself watching a programme dedicated to the “crisis of femicide”: misogynist killings, usually by an intimate partner.

The agenda was set because two such murders had taken place on the same day. That Monday, a 43-year-old woman was stabbed to death by her husband in southern Italy, and a mother of two was killed by her ex-husband on the stairs of the building in Brescia to which she had moved after they separated a month earlier, according to local reporting.

Rai brought on a panel of experts to discuss why such murders occur, one of whom explained to viewers that the killings typically happen when a woman tries to assert her independence against a controlling partner who feels a sense of ownership over her. The two cases brought the annual toll of such murders in Italy to 50.

Yet if you look at Eurostat statistics to compare the incidence of intimate partner killings in different European countries, Italy has one of the lowest rates. Ireland, like almost half of European Union countries, does not appear at all: our Central Statistics Office does not collect such figures.


The United Kingdom did report its numbers once to Eurostat, in 2017. This is how we know that Northern Ireland had the highest rate of killings by intimate partners of all the countries in Europe that reported that year, tied with Romania.

Italy reports extensive figures about violence against women largely thanks to Linda Laura Sabbadini, a statistician renowned for pioneering the measurement of gender inequality in Europe through her role as director of the Italian National Institute of Statistics (Istat) since 2000. Once data existed on the extent of the issue, public attention and changes to the law followed, she told The Irish Times.

Violence against women

“It is seen as a serious problem in Italy,” Sabbadini said. “The Istat investigation into violence against women revealed that millions of women experience it, and that much of it is a hidden phenomenon. From that moment, media attention grew significantly, and there were changes to the law.”

One of Sabbadini’s early challenges was designing surveys that could pierce through the secrecy surrounding the issue. For many of those who responded, it was the first time they had ever disclosed what was happening.

Istat now produces figures on the issue from various angles, including the number of women turning up at emergency rooms with wounds from domestic abuse, reports of violence and stalking to Italy’s dedicated emergency number, and the provision of services by refuges.

In common with many countries, overall rates of murders in Italy have plunged since the 1990s. More men are killed than women overall, typically by strangers. Murders of women are a domestic phenomenon, overwhelmingly perpetrated by former or current intimate partners or another family member.

The granular data available on gender inequality has also revealed the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women. Over-represented in the service industry, accounting for some 70 per cent of health workers, and disproportionately in precarious or informal jobs, women were more likely to be laid off and were harder to reach with government income support programmes.

Gender quotas

Women also shouldered most of the domestic work when schools were shut and jobs went remote, Sabbadini says. She argues that more investment in social services, particularly childcare provision for young children, will be necessary for Italy’s economy to fully recover.

The number of women in parliament in Italy has reached 30 per cent, ahead of 22.5 per cent in the Dáil

She’s also a staunch advocate of gender quotas. What convinced her was the data: after Italy introduced a law that women had to be represented on the boards of listed companies, the percentage of women on them rose from 4 per cent to 40 per cent.

Sabbadini can reel off the figures: just one in five university professors is female, and even fewer hospital consultants. Only 17 per cent of mayors in Italy have ever been women, and 5 per cent of presidents of regions. The number of women in parliament in Italy has reached 30 per cent, ahead of 22.5 per cent in the Dáil. Italy has never had a female prime minister or president. “The problem is that the number of women in decision-making roles is low. This cuts across society, not just politics,” Sabaddini says.

“The solution is to intervene with laws, otherwise you never get there,” she adds. “These laws are instruments against a male monopoly on power. They shouldn’t be seen as ‘pink quotas’. Just as you need regulation to prevent economic monopolies, you need regulations against monopolies of power.”