Conditions and struggle of women in Italy


The two articles published below were written for the Italian Marxist journal, FalceMartello. The first one was published in September of last year, round the time when the 'Year 2000 women's march against poverty and violence' was about to reach Rome on a world-wide route that ended in New York in October. The second was published just after International Women's Day (March 8th) 2000.

The right to have an abortion in Italy was established by Law 194. There is now an attempt taking place to either abolish this right, or at least greatly reduce it. The present Centre-Left coalition government have carried out cuts to the Welfare State. In the coming May general election the right wing Freedom Alliance is expected to win. This will involve the risk of a serious attack on women's rights in Italy over the coming period.

To help our readers understand the articles better we feel some explanation is required of the parties, organisations and terms referred to:

CGIL - Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro - is the main trade union federation dominated by the Left.

DS - Democratici di Sinistra - The Left Democrats, formerly known as the PDS and one of the two parties that emerged from the split in the Communist Party in 1991.

AN - Alleanza Nazionale - the ex-Fascist MSI.

Women's Forum - Forum delle Donne - is more or less the women's section of the PRC, without it having the status of an organisation.

PRC - Partito della Rifondazione Comunista - the smaller and more left wing of the two parties that emerged from the split in the Communist Party in 1991. For a period it supported the Centre-Left government without being a part of it. It is now in opposition.

PDCI - Partito dei Comunisti Italiani - a right wing split from the PRC which has since joined the Centre-Left government.

Sincobas - a small syndicalist type trade union made up of forces that originated mainly in the CGIL.

"School Autonomy" - this is a reform of the state run school system which has allowed private companies to come into the schools with private finance. This also gives them a certain say in the running of the schools. It has been one of the main issues around which the Italian school students' movement has mobilised over the past few years.

Women of the new millennium against capitalist oppression

On the 30th September the 'Year 2000 women's march against poverty and violence' will be coming through Rome. The march will end with a demonstration in New York on 17th October. It is an important occasion, as it raises once again the debate inside the labour movement (from a woman's point of view) on the conditions facing women and on the methods to achieve emancipation.

Many women are not aware of what is the cause of their condition and also see no link between the latter and the kind of society we live in.

The purpose of this article is not to go into a long historical analysis of the origins of the oppression of women and how this is related to class society and capitalism, but simply to look at some statistics supplied by the Istat (Italian Statistics Institute). These statistics show how recent attacks on the welfare state and on working conditions have seriously affected women. We are not dealing here with Third world countries, but Italy and the advanced capitalist countries of the West.

How capital exploits us

As a result of the casualisation of labour and the introduction of so-called "atypical jobs" now one in ten women is fired or is forced to resign when they have a baby. In the Lombardy and Veneto regions (northern Italy) the figures is twice that. One in four women with two children stop work between the ages of 25 and 34.

Unable to hold down a full time job because of family commitments, a large number of women become victims of super-exploitation through "atypical jobs", part-time work and short-term contracts. This affects their health and safety. According to the CGIL (main Italian trade union federation) accidents at work increased twice as much among women than among men in 1999 (+18.45%).

If we add the amount of work done outside the home to that done in the home by women with children, we find that more than a half of all these women work 60 hours a week (whereas only 15% of men do this amount of work. And one third work as much as 70 hours. Even having a husband is a weight. Single mothers actually do two hours less each week compared to women with husbands. In spite of this, working women earn on average 30% less than their husbands.

This differential, however, tends to be smaller as we go up the social ladder. Women managers, executives and such like earn only 18% less than their male counterparts (125million lira as opposed to 152million per annum - at an exchange rate of about 3000 lira to the pound sterling that makes about £42,000 and £51,000 pounds sterling respectively). These figures prove that the oppression of women increases the more you go down the social ladder.

In the past period the bourgeoisie has made a little more room for women managers, bankers, judges and state officials. Over the last twenty years in the USA the number of women among middle ranking management has gone from 4% to 40%. Of the Fortune top 500 companies, 419 have at least one woman on the Board of Management and one third of these companies have two or more.

The bourgeoisie, in words at least, is "open" to the idea of equality between the sexes. In the real world, working class women have seen a worsening of their conditions as opposed to those of upper middle class women who have managed, to a degree, to climb up into psoitions of influence.

The dismantling of the welfare state is the main reason why women have to give up work when they have a child. Only 6% of children under the age of two (about 100,000) find a place in a nursery. This is happening at the same time as the traditional help provided by the extended family is coming to an end, because the number of adult relatives a woman can count on has been significantly reduced.

The injustices suffered by women do not end here. Women often find themselves in subordinate positions at work and this, together with the male chauvinist nature of society, means that they are subject to sexual harrassment on the part of managers and supervisors. According to a study carried out by the European Commission in the 15 EU members states, the number of women who have suffered "unsolicited sexual advances" during their working lives is between 40% and 50%. In many European countries there are no laws that punish this kind of harrassment. In Italy there is only a Ministry of Labour "protocol", but there is no law that defends women at work.

It is precisely within this context of women having to leave their jobs or abandon their studies, that a new attack is being launched against Law 194, the law that guarantees the right to an abortion in Italy. The attack is being spearheaded by the Catholic Church and backed by the right wing. AN (Alleanza Nazionale, the successors of the ex-fascist MSI) last Spring presented a draft Bill with the aim of "revising Law 194, to make it harder" to get an abortion and to punish "anyone advising abortion as a measure and to transform it into a last resort".

This is the typical hypocrisy of the Fascists and priests, who always prefer to forget that in Italy the number of abortions has gone down each year since the passing of Law 194 (from 230,000 in 1983 to 140,000 last year) and that to remove this law would only lead to a situation where women would be forced to have illegal abortions, as was the case before the right to abortion was legally recognised. This would involve extremely high costs and health risks. This type of scenario is already reappearing, especially among among teenage girls, and because of the resurgence of religious fundamentalism many young women are terrorised of openly admitting to having an abortion.

They all talk of preventative measures, from the DS [Left Democrats, ex-Communist Party] to AN. The real situation over the past few years, however, has been one where the family planning clinics have been systematically deprived of funds or closed down, and those that have remained open have had to hugely cut back their opening hours, especially in Southern Italy. Of course, the Freedom Alliance [Berlusconi's alliance of right wing parties] has raised no opposition to these measures of the Centre-Left government. Indeed the opposite is the case!

In the schools sex education has been reduced almost to an absolute zero. Where it does exist it is run by bodies linked to the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and we can easily imagine what that involves. This is not limited to the private Catholic schools, but is also prevalent in the state run schools. Thanks to the new "autonomy" [a regime which allows each state school to look for private financing and allows companies to have a say in the running of the schools] t5he state schools are now free to adopt such programmes.

What is the solution?

In trying to understand the reasons why women are more disinterested in politics (8.5 million women as opposed to 4 million men have stated they have no interest in politics and know nothing about it) the leaders of the left parties and the trade unions try and explain this by referring to the fact that the party is dominated by men. Thus the only solution they can offer is to establish guaranteed "quotas" for women in the leading bodies and on committees of the party. In actual practice this is simply a tool in the hands of careerist women who, in referring to the "terrible conditions women have to face", build a career for themselves within the party leadership.

The DS have adopted this policy (a policy which the Women's Forum would also like to see applied in Rifondazione Comunista), but this has not stopped the government (of which the DS are a part) from carrying out a programme which has been directed against women. One example is the "subsidiary principle" established through the Bassanini bill. It is through this principle that privatisation is being carried out in areas such as the health service and education, which of course affect women more than anyone else.

"Separatist" positions identify the enemy as one's own partner and tend to seek a solution by developing the struggle between the sexes, rather than in recognising that the liberation of women is deeply linked to the more general emancipation of the working class.

Over a century ago, both Engels and Bebel thoroughly demonstrated how the oppression of women and the rise of the patriarchal system came into being together with the division of society into classes. History itself has also shown that the condition of women has always improved when the class struggle was going forward and, vice-versa, has worsened when the class struggle has receded.

The only true way of achieving genuine emancipation of women is to remove the main cause of oppression, which is the capitalist system itself. But the struggle against capitalism requires the maximum unity of the working class, of both men and women.

However, we must recognise that women suffer a double oppression within the capitalist system - a class oppression and a gender based oppression. Women have their own specific problems when compared to their male partners. We cannot simply limit ourselves to raising only the classical class demands. That is why Communist women, in their propaganda among the female masses, must also raise specific demands aimed at solving these particular problems. Of course, this must always be done by placing women's struggles within the more general struggle of the working class, with the aim of achieving the unity of all the down-trodden layers of society against the capitalist system, which is the fundamental cause of all oppression.

A transitional programme for women

It is not enough to demand formal equality (equal pay, equal rights, etc.). So long as women are the victims of a specific form of oppression, it is necessary to raise specific demands which have the aim of improving their situation: lowering the age of retirement, the banning of night work and other such forms of work, easy access to health and social services, etc.

That is why we support some of the demands raised in the European document of the 'Women's march', such as equal pay for men and women, recognition of housework as social work, no to night work, the right to fully paid maternity leave, legal punishment of sexual harrassment at work, the right of abortion and contraception for minors, no to discrimination against lesbians, etc.). But we believe that it is not enough to simply make a list of a series of demands if this is not given a class content, if it is not placed within the perspective of the transformation of society.

Thus the document simply refers to a 'social Europe' without providing any alternative system to capitalism. The document actually raises the demand that the countries of the Balkans and of Eastern Europe should join the capitalist European Monetary Union, presenting it almost as if this would be a step forward for the oppressed masses, and in particular for the women of these countries.

This demand should make us think about what is being proposed. It is the same demand being raised by the reactionary governments of these countries and by Western European imperialism itself.

One worrying aspect of this document is that, although it condemns war in general, it does not specifically condemn the massacre of the masses in the ex-Yugoslavia carried out by the European governments. Is this possibly due to the fact that the women in the leadership of the French Socialist Party played a role in drafting the document? Maybe they didn't want to criticise the actions of the Jospin government?

Five years ago 3000 organisations came together to promote the Women's march around the world. Among the Italian organisations that took part we find the Permanent Women's Convention Against War, the ORA!, the ArciLesbica, the Women's Forum of the PRC, Efferossa-Women of the PDCI, Women in Black, the Sincobas, etc. All these organisations failed to condemn the Peking Conference (organised at that time) for what it was - a show organised by the United Nations, where a major role was played by such figures as Hilary Clinton, Madeleine Albright and Benazir Bhutto.

Instead of questioning and rejecting the Declaration of Principles that emerged from that Conference, they decided to play the role of a pressure group with the aim of checking that the many good intentions would be carried out. Five years later, not one of the commitments has been carried out by any of the 183 countries present at that Conference.

Thus we can clearly see the limited nature of the leadership of this movement. A lot more than this is required if we want to involve the millions of working class women, including the housewives, the unemployed women and the female students, in a mass mobilisation.

However, having made these criticisms, on 30th September [2000] we will be on the march to add our political contribution to the struggle for the liberation of women from capitalist oppression.

by Muntsa Escobar, September, 2000

Against the anti-abortion crusade! For sex education in the schools!

Another international Women's Day has gone by, another March 8th full of rhetoric. But if you read between the lines of this "politically correct" rhetoric, you can see that every opportunity is taken to deprive women of their rights.

In spite of all the words and flowers, nothing has changed for female students and working women. The Catholic hierarchy and the right wing are continuing their onslaught against women's rights and against the right to have an abortion in particular. They want to confine women to playing the role of housewife as a way of reducing official unemployment figures and of unloading the burden of social welfare onto the shoulders of women. Their motto is 'more housewives, less welfare state'. This is the programme both of the right-wing and of the Centre-Left government.

Defend the right to have an abortion

With this aim in mind the 'Corriere della Sera' promptly published the official Istat statistics on the number of abortions carried out. The figures, however, prove the opposite of what the Catholic Church is saying. The number of illegal abortions has gone down since the introduction of Law 194 (which establishes the right to abortion). Since 1980 voluntary abortions have gone down by 35%. In 1980 there were 15.3 abortions per 1000 pregnancies. In 1998 this figure had gone down to 9.3 per thousand. The only exception to this tendency was among young women between the ages of 15 and 19, from 4.5 per 1000 to 6.6 per 1000, which is only a very slight increase anyway. The increase in this age group is also due to the fact that many young women no longer go for illegal abortions thank to Law 194. This did not stop the 'Corriere della Sera' from using these figures to show "the decline in moral standards among young women caused by the right to have an abortion."

The right wing and the Catholic Church did not miss this opportunity to carry out a demogogic crusade, in the build up towards the next general election, against "the horrors of life being destroyed at birth". They pretend not to be aware of the fact that thousands of women have been saved from the clutches of the butchers thanks to Law 194, and they prefer to ignore the fact that they themselves have always been opposed to any form of information on contraceptive methods. Maybe they have salved their consciences by having voted a bill that would give "up to one million lira [£320 pound sterling] per month" for up to a maximum of 3 years for those "pregnant women who do not opt for an abortion". These miserable crumbs are nothing for those women who are forced to have an abortion for financial reasons.

The theme is forever the same: "the right to have an abortion is an incentive to abortion and to moral corruption". These little priests are disgusting. They are implying that it is almost a pleasure for a woman to have an abortion and that, therefore, if there are no prohibitions there would be a massive increase in the number of abortions.

Sex education in the schools

The rise in the number of young women resorting to an abortion cannot be dealt with by abolishing the right to have an abortion, but by having adequate sex education in the schools. But it is precisely the Catholic Church that is putting a brake on the introduction of such courses.

Why is it that under the new regime of "School Autonomy", there is a mushrooming of all kinds of course (provided by the banks, TV companies, private firms, etc.) but the idea of including sex education in the school curriculum is not even taken into consideration? The Catholic Church, of course, is guaranteed a one hour lesson on Religious Education each week, in which it can spread its ideas (against the use of contraceptives, abortion, mixed marriages between Catholics and non-Catholics, etc.)

The demand for the inclusion into the school curriculum of a one hour sex education class each week is an integral part of the struggles of the school students' movement. The 1993 school students' movement was actually aimed against the Minister Jervolino, who wanted to ban sex education. (Jervolino was then a Christian Democrat woman Member of Parliament and Minister of Education, now she is an ex-Christian Democrat and part of the Centre-Left coalition).

It is up to us to take up the best traditions of the student movement. We have to take up once again demands such as: - sex education as part of the school curriculum; - free contraceptives; - the right to information and the removal of religious education from the school curriculum. This is the only way of stopping a return to the 1950s, the only way of guaranteeing a real "right to life".

by Sara Parlavecchia (of the Committees in Defence of State Education, CSP)

March, 2000