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Women's rights organisations fear eviction in Rome

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Activists of Lucha y Siesta
Activists of Lucha y Siesta   -   Copyright  Photo courtesy of Elena Kaniadakis/ Euronews
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Activists in Rome are accusing mayor Virginia Raggi of not doing enough to safeguard women, as two women’s rights organisations, including one shelter, are at risk of eviction.

Italy’s leading feminist movement ‘Non una di meno’ (trans. ‘not one less’) is fighting against the closure of the two institutions.

Even though this year’s national demonstration scheduled for March 8 was cancelled because of the coronavirus outbreak, the movement said it will organise a flashmob to commemorate International Women’s Day.

Two women’s rights organisations fighting for survival

‘La Casa Internazionale delle Donne’ (transl. the International House of Women), in the historic centre of Rome, is no longer able to pay its rent, which is relatively high for a non-profit organisation, activists say.

Meanwhile, the shelter ‘Lucha y Siesta,’ in the suburbs of Rome, is about to be auctioned off.

“Unfortunately, being a woman is no guarantee for being a feminist,” Marita, a Lucha y Siesta activist, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Euronews, referring to Rome’s mayor Virginia Raggi.

Raggi was the first woman elected into this position.

In a city of almost three million people, shelter for women is hard to come by. To date, there are only 25 beds in the entire city of Rome for women escaping from domestic violence.

The Istanbul Convention, an agreement against domestic violence, which Italy has ratified, recommends one bed per ten thousand inhabitants.

Of the 25 available beds, 14 are in the House of Lucha y Siesta. At the end of February, 15 women and 7 children were staying at the house. Today, very few of them remain. The others have been transferred to family homes in the city with unknown addresses.

“Every day, we open the gates of the house in a permanent garrison, to prevent it from being evacuated,” Marita says.

The municipality of Rome owns the building and they will auction it off on April 7 according to municipality's website.

Women began to occupy the abandoned building in 2008 to create a place for women who are victims of violence. The building also serves as a cultural centre.

"Tonight someone * made this beautiful action to support us, yet another demonstration of the beauty with which we are inundated by the artistic community. Thank you!"

In more than ten years of its existence, the house has provided shelter for 140 women and helped more than 1,200 overall. Even though the house was occupied, its activity has always been recognised by the municipality.

"Several times police or social workers called us to host women victims of violence who didn't know where to go," Marita told Euronews.

"But now that the municipality needs to make money, our work is no longer recognised. Virginia Raggi doesn't understand that fighting domestic violence means offering more than just a bed. In ten years, we have built a family, rooted in the territory, with a long-term project of social reintegration," Marita explains. "In many other shelter homes, you can only stay for six months, and then what? Social integration is not possible like this".

The municipality assured that women taken away from Lucha y Siesta will be put up in other family homes. Their lives are not in danger. Yet, given the lack of anti-violence centres in Rome, the house should not be closed down to pay city’s debt, activists say.

Councillor for equal opportunities Veronica Mammi told Italian news site Lanotizia in an interview in February: "The protection of women and children remains the priority. They have been moved by the municipality to other houses and they will be cared for by social workers of Lucha y Siesta".

The Lazio Region has proposed to buy the house in the auction and give it back to the activists- a solution that the municipality of Raggi (Five-star party), did not support.

The municipality claimed the outcome of the auction is uncertain, while women who moved away from the house must be guaranteed a secure future.

Gemma Guerrini, Councillor for the Five Star party in Rome told Euronews: "We tried without success to have several meetings with representatives of the two organisations. The municipality's commitment in the fight against domestic violence cannot be represented by a single place. Lucha y Siesta is just one of many realities, while the administration is engaged in social policies on all fronts.”

“We are working to ensure that in every municipality there is an open emergency shelter for women in need and to guarantee support services, such as listening centres in municipal pharmacies," Guerrini said.

“The municipality didn't stop Lucha y Siesta: it is an abusive situation tolerated in the past by other administrations. The municipality only did what was necessary,” Guerrini commented.

The case of the International House of Women

Lucha y Siesta is not an isolated case: another historic feminist association in Rome is in danger of closing down: “La Casa Internazionale Delle Donne” in Trastevere.

"In 1600, the house was a prison for women. Instead, today, it is a place created by women for women," president of the organisation, Maura Cossutta, told Euronews.

The city council owns the building and asks the organisation for a monthly rent of €7,000 - simply too much to afford for the NGO.

“In recent years we have paid €2,500 a month, and now we have accumulated a debt that the city of Rome does not accept," Cossutta explains. "We risk eviction every day but considering all free-of-charge services we offer to women, the municipality should rather be indebted to us," she says.

Thirty women’s rights associations are based in the Casa Internazionale Delle Donne (transl. International House of Women). Among them, Be Free, an association that helps women victims of trafficking. "We help them obtain the right to asylum and we help them enter the job market," president of the association, Oria Gargano, told Euronews.

“The girls helped by Be Free often come from Nigeria. They are usually first daughters and for this reason, the family decided to send them to Europe,” Gargano explains. "They crossed Libya where they were forced to work as prostitutes in a brothel. Then they embarked on a ship to Italy," she said.

"In reception centres, they are approached by some guys with black hats, the so-called 'envoys of the exploiter'. Once recruited, the girls are forced to prostitute themselves, even for five euros a day, in order to repay the trip from Africa. It is impossible to do it," Gargano explains.

At the end of the Eighties, a Roman feminist movement occupied the International House of Women and shortly afterwards, the municipality recognised the association. However, the council was still the owner of the building. When Raggi was elected, the municipality decided the debt was no longer sustainable.

The decision caused enormous uproar and the issue has become a matter of national interest. The Minister for Family Welfare, Elena Bonetti, celebrated the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women at the International House for Women. In parliament, an alliance of parties proposed to cancel the debt of the house, but the proposal never passed.

Women showing support to the International House of Women in Roma on February, 18, 2020

Female leadership fails to step up

Giorgia Meloni is the only female leader in Italian party politics. Nevertheless, her party Fratelli d’Italia also rejected the proposal. Before the amendment was rejected, Raggi tweeted: "Casa Internazionale Delle Donne is safe", but the association replied on its web page: "Virginia has not responded to our requests for a meeting in the last 144 days".

Euronews contacted the Equal Opportunities Counsellor to comment on the situation of the two Houses but the municipality did not respond.

“It is paradoxical that even though Virginia Raggi is a woman she does not care about the needs of women," Sara Lilli, a municipal councillor belonging to the Democratic Party (PD), comments. "Raggi behaves like an administrator and not a politician: she hides behind bureaucratic issues like the price of rent".

“We need to design a model in which services provided by associations are calculated as part of the rent. Yet this needs a political view, and Raggi does not have it,” Lilli said.