Photo: © Davide Arcuri/MSF

An Emergency Inside an Emergency — How Quarantine Has Changed Life for Women in Italy

By Jocelyn Kelly, Ph.D.

Lombardy, Italy’s most populous region, is entering its fourth week of wide-spread quarantine. I recently spoke with Italian gender researchers to learn how the quarantine — one of the longest and most restrictive in Europe’s modern history — is changing the lives of women.

An Explosive Situation

Milan is Italy’s largest metropolitan area and one of the largest urban centers in the European Union. Families have been sequestered in their homes since February 21, when the city first implemented quarantine measures. Only one family member is allowed to leave at a time, and only for essential tasks. Children, parents and families have spent each minute of each day together. The hardest hit have been those living in small, crowded apartments.

The extended period of quarantine highlights the how many such stressors can strain relationships. “The situation is very explosive.” Says Dr. Luisa Leonini, a gender studies and women’s rights professor at the University of Milan. The hardest hit are already the most vulnerable, including those working in the gig economy who were working without legal contracts or long-term benefits. Women in particular are more likely to have these kinds of jobs, either as domestic workers, caretakers, and housekeepers.

An Emergency Inside An Emergency

Domestic violence in Italy has been on the rise since the quarantine took effect. According to Elena Biaggioni, a lawyer, activist, and coordinator for the anti-violence network Donne in Rete Contro la Violenza (D.i.Re), the situation is making vulnerable people even more vulnerable. Those facing intense crowding are more at risk of contracting the virus, but also face a host of other negative outcomes. The financial burden of stopping work combined with mental stress and increased alcohol use are triggers for domestic violence.

But despite the increased rates of violence, reporting of that violence is decreasing. Women need privacy to safely report violence and strict quarantine measures have all but eliminated privacy for those living in close quarters. Biaggioni notes that there has been a 60–80% decrease in phone calls to violence hotlines this month compared to the same time last year.

What’s more, being locked in a small apartment with an abuser can mean that women face even higher levels of psychological control, shaming and manipulation that may also make them less likely to reach out for help.

But domestic violence centers aren’t giving up. “We’ve had to re-organize, re-think and deal with new challenges,” says Biaggioni. “We’re finding new ways of getting in touch with survivors.”

Some organizations are offering “safe chat” options to allow women to reach out on their phones through platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger — tools that can allow women to report violence privately in close quarters without the need for phone calls.

As COVID-19 dominates national media headlines, many service providers are fighting to alert people to the danger vulnerable women face under quarantine. The worse the pandemic gets, the more perilous the situation becomes for vulnerable women, and the harder it becomes to alert people to the crisis. “In Italy so far, GBV is off the agenda,” Biaggioni notes, “This is an emergency inside another emergency.”

Work from Home Vastly Different for Italian Women

“Italy’s culture is traditionally patriarchal,” explains Dr. Leonini. Even if they have full-time employment, women are often expected to also provide the majority of childcare and housework. This “second shift” of domestic work creates a double burden on women — one that is particularly pressing when families are confined together.

At the start of the quarantine, companies were encouraged to implement remote working policies. With an emphasis on flexibility, such arrangements have the potential to benefit women and create better work-life balance. “In my heart, I hoped that this would be a chance to re-balance gender roles within the household,” explained Dr. Camilla Gaiaschi, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Milan who studies women in the workplace

However, results of a survey done by Valore D, an association of women professionals in Italy, found that inequality in the home follows women as they try to create home workspaces. Working from home requires a quiet space and dedicated time to work — all commodities that can be more difficult for women to attain than men. Indeed, the survey, which looked at experiences of remote work during quarantine, found that one out of three women said they are working more now than before the quarantine, and that they struggle to maintain a positive work-life balance. Only one in five men reported the same.

The Silver Linings

Despite the challenges that come with such a long period of isolation, the women interviewed for this article all found unexpected sources of hope — particularly through strengthening their relationships with colleagues and fellow activists.

Dr. Leonini says she’s noticed that elements of the very individualistic society have broken down and people are coming together in new ways to support each other. “We’ve had to re-organize, re-think and deal with new challenges,” says Biaggioni. “I think something good will come out of this. I think networking is getting stronger because I think different organizations are helping those struggling with similar problems and finding common and new solutions.”

Dr. Jocelyn Kelly is the Director of the Gender, Rights and Resilience program at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.

Elena Biaggioni is a lawyer, activist and coordinator for the anti-violence network Donne in Rete Contro la Violenza from D.i.Re. She is an expert in GBV and access to justice for GBV survivors and coordinated the joint report of Italian women’s organisations, submitted to the Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO).

Dr. Camilla Gaiaschi is a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Social and Political Sciences of the University of Milan, IT, where she is part of the Gender & Equality in Research and Science (GENDERS) Research Center. Her research interests focus on gender inequalities in science and academia, on welfare policies in a gendered perspective as well as on gender medicine.

Dr. Luisa M. Leonini is Professor of Sociology of Culture at the University of Milan and the Director of the Gender & Equality in Research and Science (GENDERS) Research Center. Her work focuses on human rights, women and science, work and gender policies, and women and politics.

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