A talk with Valeria Ajovalasit: on saving women’s lives and sustaining the paradise island of Ustica

The reported killing of women is up to the rate of one per month in Sicily.  Often these deaths are at the hands of former partners or family members, but they all involve the killing of women for being women – the Italian word is “femminicidio.”[1]  Domestic abuse is an Italian national emergency, with a a high death toll.  The Italian national rate of “femicide” (as The New York Times has translated the Italian term) is one death every 2.5 days, according to a recent article in Corriere della Sera.  The Times cites a recent United Nations report, in turn citing data from 2006, with the conclusion that 90% of Italian women who were raped or abused did not report it to the police.  According to Corriere, 33.9% of women who experienced violence at the hands of a companion, and 24% of women who were abused by an acquaintance or stranger, spoke with no one whatsoever about it.  The Times reports that the women’s shelter for all of Rome consists of one three-room apartment.  That’s it!  Just in August, Prime Minister Enrico Letta signed a decree with measures against femminicidio, stalking and other forms of domestic abuse, but the deaths have continued since then.[2]

Working to stop the murders is Valeria Ajovalasit, Director of the women’s organization, Arcidonna, which began in Palermo but has grown to have offices throughout Italy.  Her research has shown that, as opportunities for women have increased in Sicily, there have been men in the traditional society who have refused to accept the changes and have erupted in violence.  The thirty years of Berlusconian control of television, marked by a prevalence of “show girls,” have contributed to mass conceptions of women as objects. 

To address the violence, Arcidonna has developed and implemented a high school curriculum on gender roles.  Teachers ask students to submit anonymous responses to photos that evoke gender stereotypes, and these anonymous replies are then read aloud as a catalyst for discussion in small groups.  In another exercise, students are asked similarly to list anonymously their conceptions of what it means to be male or female.  Students are also given statistics on women’s subjugation; for example, a report of the Office of the Prime Minister in Italy, dated 2006-2008, says that female managers make 26% less than their male peers, and 78% of work in the home is still the exclusive obligation of women.  In addition to educating youth, Arcidonna is also involved in working toward equal opportunity through legislative solutions in Italy, as well as European initiatives.  The organization has been accredited with consultative status with The United Nations.

Casa Gramsci, Ustica

Because the economy is crucial to women’s opportunities, Valeria Ajovalasit has also accepted the position of Commissioner of Sustainable Economic Development in Ustica, an island very near Palermo with a marine reserve that is a snorkelers’ paradise.  Ustica offers tranquility.  When I visited in July 2013, a nice Palermitan family adopted me on the bus and took me to a swimming area by the lighthouse, where there were around ten Italian families splashing in the shallows - a nice alternative to Cefalù and Mondello, which can feel like cinematic beach parties. 

Ustica’s island economy is dependent on seasonal visitors.  While awaiting the hydrofoil back to Palermo, a fisherman, with whom I chatted, told me his son was able to find jobs in Ustica during the summer but had to travel to Switzerland every winter for resort work, while his wife remained in a municipal position at home.  

I asked Valeria Ajovalasit whether the increasing global demand for artisanal, traditional and organic cuisine could be an opportunity for economic development for Ustica.  I noticed an extensive display of organic olive oil, lentils, wine made from the zabibbo grape in the tourist office.  By the time I arrived there, Ajovalasit had already founded and established a communal olive oil press for the island, so that every person on Ustica with a tree could bring their harvest to obtain extra-virgin oil.  Since the press started functioning, some local residents actually have planted new olive trees for this purpose. 

Ajovalasit suggested that there could be a community-supported agriculture and cuisine system, not unlike the CSA cooperatives that have become familiar in New York.  Ajovalasit said that a community-supported cuisine system could enable consumers to reserve shares of organic farm produce or local cuisine in advance to ensure sufficient demand.  As of now, Ajovalasit said that many individuals in Ustica already run small local businesses out of their kitchens, for example to produce indigenous pasta sauces with the fresh local fish, prepared and preserved in cans or jars by processes conforming to the standards of the European Union.  To take these kinds of small businesses to the next level, there could be a system by which consumers could make reservations in advance to purchase seasonal artisanal and organic foods, rather than wait to purchase after production. 

Ajovalasit suggested this cuisine reservation system could work internationally, although she noted that an international enterprise would not keep food local.  The local food movement in Italy is called, “Chilometro Zero,” suggesting that each product ideally should be transported zero kilometers, so as to reduce the pollution caused in transit and spread the nutritional benefits of fresh produce. 

A community-supported Sicilian cuisine reservation system could be founded within Italy, rather than internationally.  For example, through a system of online reservations, a hypothetical vacationer from the Veneto, after spending a week in Ustica one summer, could continue to purchase the products of Ustica throughout the year over the Internet. 
Among the many things that Ustica’s peacefulness has to offer visitors, according to Valeria Ajovalasit, is an answer to the worldwide failure of capitalism as a way of life, with all its relentless running from place to place.  In Ajovalasit’s words, Ustica provides a slowing down of time, “il rallentamento del tempo.”


[1] G. Corrao, “Femminicidi, uno al mese in Sicilia,” BlogSicilia, August 14, 2013: http://siracusa.blogsicilia.it/femminicidi-uno-al-mese-in-sicilia-avola-piange-la-morte-di-antonella/205012/
[2] M. Serafini, “Letta, approvato il decreto anti femminicideo: ‘Via di casa il coniuge violento,’” Corriere della Sera, August 8, 2013: http://www.corriere.it/politica/13_agosto_08/letta-conferenza-stampa-sulle-attivita-di-governo_8aa8ce84-0017-11e3-b484-e2fa3432c794.shtml; E. Polvedo, “A Call for Aid, Not Laws, To Help Women in Italy,” The New York Times, August 18, 2013: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/19/world/europe/a-call-for-aid-not-laws-to-help-women-in-italy.html?pagewanted=all