The Victims Femicide Leaves Behind

Italy is one of the only countries with a law to provide for those orphaned by femicide—and it could serve as a model for the rest of Europe.

The Wall of Dolls, a memorial to the victims of femicide in Italy
The Wall of Dolls, a memorial to the victims of femicide in Italy, is seen in the Piazza Navona area of Rome in on Aug. 6, 2017. Raquel Maria Carbonell Pagola/LightRocket via Getty Images

On Oct. 6, 2015, 20-year-old Giordana Di Stefano was murdered in her hometown of Nicolosi, Sicily, by her ex-boyfriend. She left behind a young daughter, Asia. The period immediately after Di Stefano’s death was excruciating. Di Stefano’s mother, Vera Squatrito, struggled to explain to Asia that she would not be coming home. At first, Asia’s grandmother told her that her mother was an angel or a star in the sky.

Asia, now nine years old, is one of Italy’s orfani speciali, or special orphans—children and adults whose mothers were killed by their husbands, partners, ex-partners, or stalkers. Researchers estimate that between 2000 and 2015, around 1,600 children and adults were orphaned by domestic violence in Italy.

In January 2018, Italy became the first country in Europe and one of the first in the world to pass a law providing for these orphans’ specific needs: scholarships, legal aid, and funding for medical and psychological care. About $13.5 million in funds for Italy’s orfani speciali were released with a decree in November 2019, and the money was allocated and made available in early July this year.

A law that provides specifically for these orphans is a novel concept. Except for a few sporadic studies, little data has been collected on the children who are left behind by domestic violence or femicide. While there are issues that Italy’s law does not address—it can’t speed up the judicial process—it is nonetheless an important victory for the orfani speciali and their advocates. The legislation could also serve as a model for other countries. Over the past decade, many states—particularly in Europe—have begun recording data on femicide and implemented laws that punish the perpetrators. But almost none have codified ways for dealing with the consequences of these crimes on their living victims.

Italy’s law is unique in considering nearly every aspect of the orphans’ lives: assisting them through civil proceedings, providing them with free therapy, and giving them the means to become educated and enter the workforce. At the same time, the law ensures the orfani speciali receive their inheritance and prevents the perpetrator—if it’s a spouse—from receiving a survivor’s pension. The law also allows them to change their surname, which some adult orphans who bear the name of the father who murdered their mother say is more important than the economic assistance.

Italy’s government has released the funds for orfani speciali amid growing concerns about femicide worldwide. Restrictions on movement because of the coronavirus pandemic have caused a spike in domestic violence incidents. A study by the Violence Policy Center showed that murders related to intimate-partner violence in the United States steadily increased from 2014 to 2017 after declining for decades.

 The other three countries with laws on the books to care for those orphaned by femicide are in Latin America. Argentina, Peru, and Uruguay have also passed decrees that offer monthly allowances and medical and psychological care for orphans of femicide. (More recently, Luis Abinader, sworn in in August as president of the Dominican Republic, proposed a program that would support orphans of domestic violence.) But Italy’s law goes a step further in its protection of the orphans’ right to inherit property and state pension funds from their mothers. Furthermore, it clearly defines a femicide as the killing of a woman by a husband, ex-husband, partner, ex-partner, or anyone with whom she has cohabited—preventing the exclusion of orphans whose mothers were not killed by their fathers.

 Italy’s public funding for orfani speciali amounts to 14.5 million euros for 2020 and 12 million euros for each successive year until 2024 that will be directed toward scholarship funds, medical and psychological assistance, and job training, along with a 300 euro monthly support stipend for families caring for the orphans. The law earmarks 70 percent of the funds for minors, while 30 percent will go toward adult orphans who are not economically self-sufficient.

The legislation was inspired in part by the experience of its author, the lawyer Anna Maria Busia. In 1998, a woman in Busia’s hometown in the province of Nuora was murdered by her husband, leaving behind a six-year-old daughter, Vanessa. Busia said she took on the case “practically for free,” and the next 20 years of legal battles—first to receive Vanessa’s mother’s survivor’s pension, and then to obtain the right to her family’s house—showed Busia that Italy lacked the legal instruments to help victims like Vanessa, who eventually won both cases.

“Our [legal] system looks at the perpetrator of the crime. … It’s not concerned with protecting the victims.”

“Our [legal] system looks at the perpetrator of the crime,” Busia said. “It’s concerned with punishment, it’s concerned with sentencing, it’s concerned with detention, but it’s not concerned with protecting the victims.”

Busia, then the regional counselor in Sardinia, drafted the orfani speciali bill in 2017, at first seeking to close the loopholes that allowed perpetrators to inherit from their deceased spouses. Roberto Capelli, a lawmaker from Busia’s party, the Democratic Center, became the bill’s first signatory and others soon pledged their support.

During the parliamentary debate, amendments were added that drew on the pioneering research of the Italian psychologist Anna Costanza Baldry, who died in 2019. She found that only one-third of orphans she and her team interviewed had received psychological help. More than 60 percent of caregivers said they had received little or no support, economic or otherwise. Based on Baldry’s guidelines, the changes provided the funding for medical and psychological expenses, scholarship funds, and job training.

Long before the national government approved the legislation, regional governments and local, privately funded organizations were already filling the gap.

Lazio was the first of only a few regions in Italy to create a fund for the families of orfani speciali. Instituted by a 2014 law, the money became available in 2016. (Emilia-Romagna, Veneto, Campania, Piedmont, and Lombardy now have similar provisions.) Lazio’s fund disperses 10,000 euros per child the first year after the mother’s death, and 5,000 euro for each year up to the age of 29.

In 2015, when Patrizia Schiarizza founded il Giardino Segreto, a Rome-based organization that assists the orphans and their families, she planned to provide legal and psychological help. But she quickly realized that their needs were varied: One needed a job, another a place to stay, and a nervous grandmother needed reassurance over the phone.

Orfani speciali often fall into the care of grandparents, aunts, and uncles. One of the grandparents receiving assistance from Schiarizza’s organization was Squatrito, now raising Asia. “She thought that [her mother] had abandoned her because she had been a brat,” Squatrito said, adding that Asia became rebellious and emotionally closed off.

In Lazio, Rossana—who requested anonymity—has taken care of her two granddaughters—now ages nine and six—since 2015, when her daughter’s partner killed her before killing himself. The grandmother came to il Giardino Segreto for advice about her elder granddaughter, who was afraid to detach herself from her grandmother.

Raising orphans of femicide also presents financial difficulties. The cost of school and extracurricular activities adds up, and both grandmothers paid for private therapists. Squatrito said that although the state had briefly provided them with psychological support after her daughter’s death, “Once you finish the course [of treatment], they abandon you.”

While the regional funding is a help to Rossana, she still worries about money. After her daughter died, she requested her retirement pension in advance. “I emptied all of my savings,” she said. “If I retire soon, I’ll get a ridiculous sum, and I don’t know how I’ll raise these girls. And this is an extremely serious problem.”

Giordana Di Stefano and Asia in 2014 (L); and Vera Squatrito and Asia in Sept. 2020.

Giordana Di Stefano and Asia in 2014 (L); and Vera Squatrito and Asia this September.Family Photos

Both grandmothers wanted to ensure their granddaughters were treated the same as their peers. When Asia asked for dance lessons, Squatrito said yes, although it added financial strain. For Asia, it was a connection to her mother, who was also a dancer. And after discovering that her seven-year-old grandchild was searching her mother’s name online, Rossana requested the “right to be forgotten”—an EU provision that allows people to delete personal information from search engines.

Some advocates already foresee issues with Italy’s law, particularly the cumbersome process for obtaining the funds from the government: Victims or their guardians must submit a request to a local government before it is sent to Rome and approved by the central government. There is no standard form through which the orphans can apply for the funds, Schiarizza said. Additionally, the funds must be formally renewed each year, with paperwork signed by the “parent exercising parental responsibility”—in many cases, the father who is in prison.

Since the law passed, il Giardino Segreto has received many requests about the promised funds. For more than two years, Schiarizza had to tell the families that the money wasn’t accessible, and now she is still figuring out how to navigate the system set up in July. “These funds, modest as they may be, are still useful,” said Schiarizza. “These families have so, so many needs that any sum at this point is good.”

Mara Carfagna, the vice president of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, published a letter in July expressing similar concerns about the bureaucratic process. “There should not have to be complicated procedures, requests on stamped paper, reimbursements for medical loans,” Carfagna wrote. The government has said it is working to simplify the process.

Italy’s law could be adapted for other countries, particularly those in the European Union.

Italy’s law could be adapted for other countries, according to experts, particularly those in the European Union. The Italian law could also serve as a model for other countries where laws have also presented issues with implementation. For example, a report earlier this year found that few families received their provisions under Argentina’s 2018 law, a result of “bad interpretation of the law, failures of justice, confused or misogynistic sentences, bureaucratic labyrinths and a lack of support and access to rights.” Since the report was published, the monthly allowance has increased to about $218, but only a fraction of Argentina’s estimated 3,000 children orphaned by femicide during the past decade have received any funds.

Busia said that a “common defect” of other countries’ laws is “the lack of protection for the victims of a crime.” She said that she hopes Italy will inspire other countries to create instruments that will prioritize the unique needs of these “special victims,” including the specific provisions to change their surname and the guarantee of receiving a survivor’s pension.

Meanwhile, many adult orphans and their families have dedicated their lives to speaking out against domestic violence. Squatrito travels around Italy telling her murdered daughter’s story and educating children about domestic abuse. At times, her emotions still overwhelm her. “It’s as if you yourself are living a parallel life,” Squatrito said. “From that moment on, for me, it was another life.”

Emilia Otte is a graduate of New York University’s global journalism program with a concentration in European and Mediterranean studies. She is currently a reporter at the Connecticut Examiner. Twitter: @EmiliaOtte