ROME, May 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Italy announced its coronavirus lockdown in early March Anna Levrero, who runs a shelter for abused women in the worst-hit region of Lombardy, knew it would bring a spike in calls. But she was already grappling with another challenge.
Centres for domestic abuse sufferers in Lombardy in northern Italy have since last year been required to give regional authorities the identities of the women they are helping to qualify for state funds.
Many have refused, calling it an invasion of privacy, and as a result they say they are having to cope with a significant reduction in funding, just as their services are most needed.
Regional authorities said the data was needed to formulate policy. Before the requirement to give women’s tax numbers came in, there was a risk of duplicating data when someone visited more than one centre, they said.
“From our point of view this is absurd, because if a woman has suffered abuse it’s not as if she enjoys going from one centre to the next,” Levrero told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Many countries have reported spikes in calls to domestic abuse hotlines, even as lockdowns make it harder for services and charities to reach women isolated at home.
Every three months of lockdown could result in 15 million more cases of domestic abuse than would normally be expected, according to United Nations research.
DiRe, Italy’s national network of anti-violence centres, said calls to its helplines between Mar. 2 and Apr. 5 were 75% up on the same period in 2018, the most recent comparative data available.
Its Lombardy director Cristina Carelli, who is also coordinator for the CADMI anti-violence centre in Milan, said some centres had lost a large portion of their funding after refusing to comply with the new official requirements.
“For us it is a very great loss, because the anti-violence centres are already struggling to get all the funds we need,” said Carelli.
“Because we do really a lot of work, we welcome a lot of women, and this work needs sustaining with adequate funds.”
Two refuges on the outskirts of Milan that relied entirely on regional funding have had to close as a result of the decision, she said.
Carelli said Lombardy was the only Italian region to introduce the tax code requirement so far, although both Umbria and Calabria had considered it.
A European Council group of experts on women and domestic violence expressed concern over the practice in a January report, saying it would “undermine the relationship of trust between victims and service providers”.
Previously, centres in Lombardy would assign users a random alphanumeric code, sharing this anonymised data with the authorities.
Silvia Piani, Lombardy’s minister for family, parenting and equal opportunities, said the region had been trialling the new system since 2014, and 90% of centres had agreed to the terms.
She said regional authorities only looked at aggregated data, which would not violate individuals’ privacy.
“Before, a woman came to the centres, the centre would fill out a form, and the form stayed in a desk drawer,” she said, adding the new system provided data on victims’ age, employment status and family situation.
When the central government ordered Lombardy into lockdown on Mar. 8, the Assistance Centre for Abused Women (CADOM) in the city of Monza that Levrero runs had to shut its doors, but it kept the phone line open.
“For the first two weeks we heard almost nothing,” she said.
“Then bit by bit, a large number of calls started coming in, not so much because there was an emergency, but for support, to hear a friendly voice, to know that when this was over they would be able to come back to us.”
CADOM runs several refuges in Lombardy, but has had to hand over management of three of its help centres to other operators that did sign the agreement.
Carelli said DiRe was talking to Italy’s Minister for Equal Opportunities and Family Elena Bonetti to try to find a way forward.
Bonetti told the Thomson Reuters Foundation they were looking for solutions that reconciled the administration’s need to acquire data on how public funds were being used with victims’ right to their anonymity.
"We don't want to say to the women, we'll help you only if you give us your tax code," said Carelli. "It's a way of doing things that is very present in violence, no? It's a kind of blackmail." (Reporting by Elaine Allaby, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org)