August 21, 2013

Domestic violence has reached epic proportions in Italy. So much so that Prime Minister Enrico Letta this month issued a 12-point legal decree imposing harsher penalties for perpetrators of all manner of domestic abuse ranging from murder, to rape to stalking. But women’s rights advocates in the country say the problem is not a lack of laws against domestic violence. According to the New York Times, it is a lack of charges, arrests and prosecution of and against the mostly male offenders. It is also a lack of resources to help women stuck in violent relationships to get out and stay out.

This situation is of great interest for several reasons. First, Italy, at 1.41, has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world. The reason for that is Italy also possesses a huge concentration of educated women. At one point in the past decade it sported the highest rate of female PhDs in the world. An educated female populace is not as subject to high rates of domestic abuse as an uneducated one. When a woman can earn a good living on her own she is not trapped in an abusive relationship. She has options. She can leave.

Italy’s domestic violence problem is similar to our own. It worsened during the great recession. A Centers for Disease Control study released in 2011 showed rates of domestic violence had risen to historic levels. "More than 1 in 3 women (35.6%) and more than 1 in 4 men (28.5%) in the United States have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime…The findings in this report underscore the heavy toll that sexual violence, stalking, and intimate partner violence places on women, men, and children in the United States. Violence often begins at an early age and commonly leads to negative health consequences across the lifespan.”

Especially horrific is the rate of rape and the age at which American women are raped. The report goes on to note that from among the fewer than one in five American women surveyed who said they had been the victim of a completed or attempted rape at some time in their life, the following is true. One-fifth of them were first raped before they were 12 years old, and one third were between the ages of 12 and 17. Imagine the lifelong damage this does to a large percentage of our women.

When sorting through reasons in an attempt to explain why societal violence is rising, one easily conjures the following: poverty, lack of education, a denigration of common culture by violent movies, videos and so on. Those factors are all true in American culture. I’m not sure whether they all apply in Italy or not. But one unexpected factor does tie our domestic violence plague to theirs. 

Earlier this month a report published in the journal Science found that climate change (and the more virulent storms and rising temperatures it produces) is tied to increasing violence around the world, including increased domestic violence.

The report, by Princeton University and the University of California at Berkeley, “found similar patterns of conflict around the world that were linked to changes in climate, such as increased drought or higher than average annual temperature. Examples include spikes in domestic violence in India and Australia; increased assaults and murders in the United States and Tanzania...”

That is quite a mouthful, I understand. But it also provides some insight into otherwise inexplicable events. The senseless murder of an Australian tourist in Oklahoma this week by three teenagers self-described as, “bored” or a rise in domestic violence in U.S. homes, or the murder of a Sicilian woman by her ex-husband in front of their son and the man’s subsequent taking of his own life. There must be a common thread to such insanity. Perhaps climate change is it.