The Femicide of Giulia Cecchettin and the Fight Against Gender-Based Violence

by Elsa Rollier

On November 18, 2023, the body of Giulia Cecchettin, a 22-year-old Italian engineering student at the University of Padua, was found with multiple stab wounds in a ditch around a lake in the north of Venice (Kassam, 2023). This discovery occurred after one week of search following the disappearance of Giulia and her ex-boyfriend, Filippo Torretta, a 21-year-old engineering student at the University of Padua, on November 11, 2023 (Kassam, 2023). Torretta, whom Giulia had recently broken up with, is allegedly responsible for her murder (Kassam, 2023). This has been backed by evidence of roadside cameras which captured Giulia’s ex-partner hitting her (Kassam, 2023). Torretta was arrested in Germany, on November 19, 2023, and was later extradited to Italy (Kassam, 2023). He arrived back in Venice on November 25th, 2023, and was due to be transferred to a prison in Verona for further investigation (Kassam, 2023). According to his family and some friends of Giulia Cecchettin, Torretta allegedly did not accept Giulia’s decision to break up their relationship (Kassam, 2023). He was also said to be jealous and possessive (Camilli, 2023).

This recent femicide has sparked a wave of outrage and anger across the country (Kassam, 2023). The murder of Giulia also contributed to bringing attention back to gender-based violence in Italy, where one woman is killed every three days on average (Kassam, 2023). A femicide “specifically refers to the intentional killing of women or girls because they are female” (Camilli, 2023). Following Giulia’s death, Italy’s prime minister Giorgia Meloni herself reacted by expressing her grief, as well as denouncing gender-based crimes: “We all hoped in recent days that Giulia was alive. Unfortunately, our greatest fears have come true…Every single woman killed because she is ‘guilty’ of being free is an aberration that cannot be tolerated and that pushes me to continue on the path taken to stop this barbarity” (Kassam, 2023). Also, the Italian Senate approved on November 22, multiple measures to expand protections for women vulnerable to gender-based violence (Kassam, 2023). These include “stricter restraining orders and heightened surveillance on men found guilty of gender-based violence” (Bettiza, 2023). Giuseppe Valditara, the Italian minister of education, promised a campaign addressing gender-based violence in schools (Kassam, 2023).

However, feminist group “D.i.Re, the Women Against Violence Network” member Silvia Menecali points out that instead of working with anti-violence centres and feminist associations, this project is being coordinated by a psychologist known for having previously “negated the existence of gender-based violence”(Kassam, 2023). Furthermore, many critics were quick to highlight that despite Meloni’’s apparent voluntarism to help women’s cause, her party was one of those who abstained when the EU voted to ratify an international treaty aiming to prevent violence against women earlier this year (Kassam, 2023). Moreover, according to NGO ActionAid Prevenzione Sottocosto’s latest report presented on November 13: “Despite the increase in funds recorded in the last decade, the number of women killed by men within the family has remained essentially stable over time”, suggesting “the inadequacy of the anti-violence policies adopted” (Camilli, 2023).

As University of Bologna researcher Cristina Gamberi notes, Giulia’s murder is a scenario that feels familiar, “This is a script that we know very well” (Kassam, 2023). Indeed, 106 women have been killed in Italy since the beginning of the year, and the majority of them (55), were killed by their partners or former partners (Kassam, 2023). However, although cases of femicides are unfortunately common in Italy, Giulia’s death seems to have pushed for a different framing and consideration of gender-based violence and crimes compared to the traditional media coverage of such violence. This is due particularly to her older sister, Elena Cecchettin (Kassam, 2023). Indeed, as Gamberi notes, Elena has been “fighting back with a very strong determination and anger”, going as far as to say Giulia’s sister could be “giving voice to a new collective awareness that is really widespread among the younger generation.” (Kassam, 2023). Giulia’s sister has expressed herself through interviews and social media, highlighting the responsibility of the normalization of toxic male behavior, in Giulia’s death (Kassam, 2023). Elena exposed the roots of femicides and gender-based violence, roots that some officials and some people seem to (willingly?) ignore or disregard. She affirmed, “Femicide is not a crime of passion, it is a crime of power” (Kassam, 2023).

She also clearly highlighted men’s responsibility in fighting patriarchal standards and calls for their direct action to end gender-based violence: “No man is good if he does nothing to dismantle the society that privileges them so much”, and “It is the responsibility of men in this patriarchal society to call out friends and colleagues. Say something to that friend who controls his girlfriend, say something to that colleague who catcalls passers-by. These behaviors are accepted by society, and can be the prelude to femicide” (Kassam, 2023). As she puts it: “It is often said ‘not all men’. But they are always men”. She explicitly denounces the state’s responsibility in femicides and gender-based violence: “Femicide is a state murder because the state does not protect us.” (Kassam, 2023). Elena also opposed the idea that such crimes are exceptional acts of violence, being perpetuated by “monsters”: “Filippo is not a monster; a monster is an exception, someone external to society, someone society should not take responsibility for. But here that responsibility exists” (Camilli, 2023). As Camilli notes, Elena “turned private grief into a political movement” (2023). This is not insignificant, for it shows that gender-based violence and femicide do not come from nowhere, and do not arise from passion or “sudden outbursts”. Rather, they are “preceded by a crescendo of physical and psychological abuse, manipulation attempts, blackmail, stalking, gaslighting, obsessive and controlling behaviors that can go on for months or years, mostly tolerated by society” (Camilli, 2023).

Elena adds that violence is a way to “restore the hierarchy that some women have dared to question” and that “it is an expression of a millennia-old power system in crisis but still deeply rooted in everyday behavior.” (Camilli, 2023). Indeed, as feminist writer Lea Melandri notes in her book Amore E Violenza, Il Fattore Molesto Della Civiltà (Love and Violence, the Annoying Factor of Civilization): “This is why even the most independent of women can become victims of heinous violence: it is their “no” that triggers anger, breaking a pact of submission that has lasted for millennia.” (Camilli, 2023). Many Italian women agreed with and relayed Elena’s words. But Giulia’s sister also faced critics, accusing her of being “ideological”, for instance by League councilor in the Veneto region Stefano Valdegamberi (Camilli, 2023).

This reframing and reconsideration of the way gender-based violence is perceived is essential, for it influences the measures to be taken against them. In this case, by emphasizing and exposing the roots of gender-based violence, Elena Cecchettin highlights the need to implement preventive measures instead of only relying on punitive actions like has been the case for years. Indeed, according to ActionAid, between 2020 and 2023, only 12% of the 248.8 million euros allocated to resources against gender violence were dedicated to prevention (Camilli, 2023). But funds are not the only issue. Indeed, it is the whole system of patriarchal norms that harms women, and that needs to be dismantled. These patriarchal standards are symbolized for instance by the idea, very present amongst Italy’s judiciary and law enforcement that “survivors of violence are somehow to blame or not to be believed” (Kassam, 2023). Menecali also adds that Italian media needs to stop “emphasizing the point of view of the murderer, explaining what motivated him to kill a woman,” for that “carries on legitimizing femicide as a reaction to a woman’s behaviour” (Kassam, 2023). ActionAid’s report asserts that “Only cultural work that counters customs and patterns of violence against women and girls can reverse the trend,” (Camilli, 2023). It is not enough to reform or amend things; change has to be radical (Camilli, 2023). Giulia’s sister again illustrates this necessity: “We need widespread sexual and emotional education; we need to teach that love is not possession. We must fund anti-violence centers and provide opportunities for those in need to seek help. For Giulia, don’t take a minute of silence. For Giulia, burn everything,” (Camilli, 2023). This refusal to stay silent was followed by students of the University of Padua, who, instead of observing a minute of silence, spent that time singing, reading poetry, and clapping; to make their voices heard (Bettiza, 2023).

As Zampano notes: “Violence against women and girls remains one of the most pervasive human rights violations in the world” (2023). Giulia Cecchettin’s recent femicide illustrates the traditional ways of considering and dealing with gender-based violence, i.e. often not tackling the origins of sexist violence and focusing on posteriori measures. Therefore, Giulia’s death also pushes us to reconsider the efficiency of current measures aiming to protect women and prevent gender-based violence. It illustrates the need to adopt different strategies and measures. We cannot continue to pretend we do not know where this violence comes from and what it is rooted in. The reframing of gender-based violence and femicides as acts entrenched in patriarchy and rape culture, illustrated here by Giulia’s sister Elena Cecchettin, needs to be more universally recognized. This starts by recognizing and institutionalizing the term “femicide”. Indeed, as Camilli notes: “This term is essential in highlighting the gender-specific nature of such crimes and advocating for awareness, prevention, and legal measures to address the underlying societal issues that contribute to violence against women” (2023).

Other measures that could be taken to better fight against and prevent gender-based violence and other femicides could and should take place on the institutional, educational and societal levels through the collaboration of governments with communities and non-profit organizations; in order to “challenge and transform cultural norms that perpetuate gender-based violence”, “hold perpetrators accountable while providing support and protection for survivors” and “create a society that actively rejects gender violence, ensuring that everyone can live free from the threat of harm and discrimination” (Camilli, 2023).

Works Cited

Bettiza, S. (2023, November 24). Giulia Cecchettin’s killing sparks Italian reckoning over

femicide. BBC News.

Camilli, A. (2023, November 27). Murder of Giulia Cecchettin: why Italy is finally saying ‘basta’ to violence against women. Worldcrunch.

Kassam, A. (2023, November 25). Anger across Italy as killing of student highlights country’s femicide rate. The Guardian. hts-countrys-femicide-rate

Zampano, G. (2023, November 25). Tens of thousands rally in Italy over violence against women. AP. 14700533761c8

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