“Walk with your head held high. It is not true that you are weak. Indeed, it’s just the opposite,” says Martina Pastorino, a 29-year-old woman in Italy.
“In our country, we tend to consider female victims of violence who decide to report mistreatment and abuse as less strong,” she says. “But instead, these are courageous women. Do you have any idea how much strength we need to make such a choice, especially if, as in most cases, the aggressor is a family member?”
Pastorino stops, her breathing becoming less labored. She takes a moment to summon Kira, her energetic young dog who has just sprinted off in pursuit of a lizard in a meadow. “I want to say to women who report these cases: Walk with your head held high,” she emphasizes again. “And continue on your way.”
It’s late July, and Pastorino’s adventure with Kira ― who has the body and face of a Jack Russell terrier and the curious and cheerful character of a beagle ― is coming to an end. A few days later, they will arrive in Rome, the endpoint of the journey they began on July 5 in the city of Alessandria in the northern Piedmont region. Some 422 miles on foot along the Via Francigena, the route once trod by medieval pilgrims, to achieve Pastorino’s goal: “to raise awareness of the issue of violence against women.” To bear witness that “a woman can and must feel confident that she can face a solo journey,” that “each of us can and must find her way even alone,” that “to be a woman is to be strong.”
That is what the project is called: “To be a woman is to be strong.”
The town of Ovada ― where Pastorino, a physical education teacher, lives — sponsored the initiative, which was supported by various private partners and the local Lions Club. The Piedmontese association me.dea, which is part of D.i.Re, a national network of anti-violence centers, helped promote it. Pastorino and Kira left on their mission from the me.dea headquarters in Alessandria and stopped at another anti-violence center in Tuscany along the way.
The numbers of female victims of violence have had a real impact on their new torchbearer. The Alessandria anti-violence center alone has helped 1,500 women, with about 180 new cases registered every year since it opened in 2009. At the center in Tuscany, 243 women received support in 2017. That figure increased by more than 30% in 2018. This year, by mid-July, there had already been 127 cases.
I intend to continue the work begun with this journey. I want to lend a hand in associations and in anti-violence centers whose work is essential but sadly undervalued. Martina Pastorino
“These numbers are just too high,” Pastorino tells HuffPost Italy with a sigh. “On the one hand, of course, the increase in cases means that more and more women are finding the courage to file a claim. But the battle ... increasingly needs to be approached in terms of changing the culture.”
The president of me.dea, Sarah Sclauzero, highlighted the symbolic value of the end of Pastorino’s journey. Women who experience violence take a long journey when they set out to report abuse, she said, and getting support from the “network of women for women who help every day” is key. More than fatigue, more than the memory of fear ― “which, of course, at some point, early in the morning or in the solitude of the forest, was there” ― more than the suffocating heat of these recent days, she suggested that newfound awareness can really be felt.
Pastorino sees violence against women with new eyes now: those of one who has watched center staff talk about what they have observed, looked at the numbers that led this problem to be classified as “an emergency,” and sees for herself that this is an everyday fight. She is now committed to making her own contribution to the battle.
“I will certainly do it,” Pastorino says. “I intend to continue the work begun with this journey. I want to lend a hand in associations and in anti-violence centers whose work is essential but sadly undervalued.”
Pastorino says the role that anti-violence centers play is not given enough consideration. “They should be supported by government actions, given more acknowledgment. A closer collaboration between [a range of institutions] is needed,” she says. “I am thinking of the emergency rooms. When a woman arrives there one, two, three times with a swollen face, bruises on her arms, on her body ― it is difficult to fall one, two or three times down the stairs. A channel should be activated immediately with the facilities that can support, guide and protect that same woman, most likely a victim of violence.”
During Pastorino’s journey, the Italian government took a few steps toward addressing violence against women, but some women’s rights organizations worried those moves wouldn’t help enough.
Pastorino was in the middle of her journey when these things happened and says she has not been following the news. She calls Kira, again on the hunt for lizards, and then adds: “I realize that the road ahead to reach concrete and increasingly effective actions to combat violence against women is still an uphill struggle.”