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Auguri per la Festa della Donna! Today is la Giornata Internazionale della Donna or International Women’s Day-originally known as International Working Women’s Day. There is no one specific organization or event behind International Women’s Day, but it is celebrated in many countries around the world. It is a day to recognize the achievements of women and a call to action towards gender equality.  More about la festa della donna is in this post.

I thought today would be appropriate to write about an outstanding, courageous woman, and I have chosen Franca Viola.  In 1965 Franca was the first Italian woman to refuse to accept un matrimonio riparatore – a rehabilitating or reparative marriage. This was a situation where all charges of rape, sexual assault and/or abduction were dropped if the offender married his victim. This was legal! The assumption was that no one else would want the woman anyways, thus ‘restoring’ the family. Mannaggia! ‘Marry the rapist’ laws and practices were common in many parts of the world until the 1970s and unfortunately still exist in too many countries.

Franca was the daughter of contadini in Alcamo, Sicilia. In 1963, she was 15 and had a 23 year old boyfriend Filippo Melodia, the nephew a local mafioso. She broke off the relationship when he was arrested for theft. He left the country and returned in 1965, thinking he could just resume their relationship. Franca refused, in fact she had a new boyfriend, her future husband Giuseppe Ruisi.

Melodia was furious and threatened Franca, her family and Giuseppe. The evening of December 26 1965, he and a dozen others invaded the Viola house. They beat her mother and dragged Franca away. She was taken to a farmhouse and for 8 days Melodia repeatedly raped her, telling her she would have to marry him to avoid dishonouring her family and becoming una donna svergognata –a shameless woman. Her father worked with the carabinieri to organize a rescue. On January 2 1966, Franca was released and the kidnappers arrested.

As expected, Melodia offered un matrimonio riparatore, expecting the law support him. Contrary to Sicilian custom at the time, Franca publicly refused. With the support of her father, she took Melodia to court for kidnapping, rape and intimidation. Her family received threats and their barn and vineyard were burned down. The December 1966 trial received worldwide attention, including coverage by the New York Times.

Melodia’s defence claimed he was love sick and the feeling was mutual.   He claimed that Franca’s family did not approve of their marriage and that the kidnapping was a consentual elopement. Franca denied the claim, stating:

 Io non sono proprietà di nessuno, nessuno può costringermi ad amare una persona che non rispetto, l’onore lo perde chi le fa certe cose, non chi le subisce”. (I am the property of no one, no one can force me to love a person I do not respect. Honour is lost by the one who does certain things, not the one who is subjected to them).

Melodia was found guilty and sentenced to 11 years in prison. He was murdered in Modena 2 years after his release. 7 of his accomplices also received 4 year prison sentences.

Franca Viola became a symbol of freedom and dignity for all women who endured violence, and her example provided others with the courage to say ‘NO’. Her case led to the abolishment of Articolo 544, the article of law where a rapist/kidnapper avoided prosecution by marrying the victim. In December 1968, Franca married Giuseppe who supported her through the trial. They still live in Alcamo with their family.

On International Women’s Day 2014, Franca received the honour of ‘Grande Ufficiale dell’Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana’. President Giorgio Napolitano awarded her with this for her courageous gesture in refusing the matrimonio riparatore, which signalled a fundamental change in the history of the emancipation of women in Italia.

Ciao, Cristina

Photo credits-Cover photo and portrait of Franca Viola-Wikimedia Commons, second photo of Franca from archivo.corriere.it with graphics added by Cristina.