An Emergency Inside an Emergency: How Quarantine Has Changed Life for Women in Italy
"Measuring Up" features new and cutting-edge research related to the status of women and girls, and identifies how evidence-based findings can inform and evaluate policy approaches to global challenges. This piece is authored by Dr. Jocelyn Kelly, Director of the Program on Gender, Rights and Resilience at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI).
Lombardy, Italy's most populous region, is in its third week of wide-spread quarantine. Dr. Jocelyn Kelly 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 richest 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. Needless to say, the hardest hit have been those living in small, crowded apartments.
Professor Luisa Leonini studies gender and women’s rights at the University of Milan, where she directs the Gender & Equality in Research and Science (GENDERS) Research Center. As the quarantine stretches on, she highlights how all of these stressors can strain relationships, “the situation is very explosive.” 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. Elena Biaggioni, coordinator of the anti-violence network Donne in Rete Contro la Violenza, notes that 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 actually going down. 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.
One of the reasons? Women need privacy to safely report violence. And strict quarantine measures has all but eliminated privacy for those living in close quarters. 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 for vulnerable women 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 on the agenda,” Biaggioni notes, “This is an emergency inside another emergency.”
The Longest “Second Shift”
“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.
Dr. Camilla Gaiaschi is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Milan who studies women in the workplace, and particularly women in academia. At the start of the quarantine, she explains that companies were encouraged to implement remote working policies. “However, many companies were not ready to fully comply with progressively restrictive national requirements for isolation.”
As a researcher whose work covers work-life balance, she was optimistic about how remote work – with its emphasis on flexibility – might be especially well-suited to support women. “In my heart, I hoped that this would be a chance to re-balance gender roles within the household,” she explained, emphasizing that this is particularly important in a country where division of work falls disproportionately on women. “I soon realized that my expectations were too optimistic.”
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. Remote work requires a quiet space and dedicated time— 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.
Dr. Gaiaschi describes how the remote working policies implemented in this turbulent phase are much more similar to the old “tele-working” practices rather than to the new “smart-working” ideals. “The former entails a simple shift of the work space from the office to the home, while the latter entails a full cultural change. One’s work schedule should become more flexible; work is evaluated based on results, not time logged; and the employee’s autonomy is increased.”
“Something good will come out of all of this”
In spite of these challenges, Dr. Gaiaschi states that she is trying to stay optimistic. “With all of its limits, this forced situation of widespread of remote working represents a point of no return. In the past, many companies refused to grant employees the possibility to work from home … the COVID crisis may accelerate the ‘smart-working’ movement and, in doing so, it may open up new opportunities for women and more specifically it may reduce the penalty related to motherhood.”
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.”