On International Women's Day last Saturday a 67-year-old Sicilian woman was received by President Napolitano at the Quirinale [the President of the Republic's official residence] and invested with the honour of the Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana.
The woman was Franca Viola, a tenant farmer's daughter from Alcamo [Trapani]. At the age of 17, Franca was kidnapped by her former fiancé, Filippo Melodia and some of his friends. Franca's father had ended the betrothal because Melodia was a member of a Mafia gang. The Viola family home had already been burned down as a reprisal.
Franca was held for eight days and repeatedly raped. Her father pretended to be cooperating with Melodia's gang but actually he was helping the police, who on the eighth day found and released Franca. Her kidnappers were jailed.
In those days, rape in Italy was regarded as an offence against public morality rather than an offence against the person and a man who had raped a woman could be absolved of the crime if he married his victim. The woman would agree to the marriage to save her reputation.
Franca, however, refused to marry Melodia and her father supported her. This took incredible courage amid the threats that the family received and in the cultural climate of the time but both were determined.
The story has a happy ending, for Franca married her childhood sweetheart in 1968 and had two children. She is now a proud grandmother.
The law whereby a rapist could be absolved of his crime by marrying the victim was abolished in 1981 and Franca Viola was instrumental in bringing about the change. Rape was not designated an offence against the person in Italy until 1996.
On International Women's Day 2014 the Quirinale was bathed in red light in remembrance of victims of femicide in Italy.