X-rays of broken bones lay bare domestic violence in Italy

Milan (AFP) –


The X-rays speak louder than words. Especially since the women whose shattered bones are visible in the sterile black and white images rarely speak out.

Coinciding with Monday's International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, a Milan hospital is displaying X-rays from victims of domestic violence who have passed through the doors of the facility seeking help.

The display at San Carlo Borromeo hospital was the idea of trauma surgeon Maria Grazia Vantadori, 59, who wanted to show the stark reality of what she has seen in her 26 years of practise.

Although women arrive at the hospital bloodied, sometimes cut, burned, or with acid thrown in their faces, Vantadori opted for the more sterile images of X-rays, deeming them more powerful.

"I didn't want it to be gory, just to show something true, real and not fake. This is telling the truth, it's not made up," Vantadori told AFP.

"The good thing about X-rays is that we're all the same, substantially. Our bones are all the same. So any of these could be any woman," she said.

In Italy, 142 women were killed through domestic violence in 2018, up 0.7 percent from a year earlier, according to Italian research institute Eures, a number those working to help these women say is disturbingly consistent.

In the last five years, 538,000 women were the victims of physical or sexual abuse by their partners, according to Italy's national statistics agency Instat.

- Scared to be counted -

Experts say those numbers are conservative because women are reluctant to come forward, partly due to fears of leaving their homes and children.

The show in the hospital's lobby features about a dozen images: X-rays of a broken nose, a shattered wrist, crushed finger, shin or rib snapped in two -- interlaced with quotes from anonymous women.

One recounted how her partner smashed her face against the kitchen wall and pummelled her with blows, 43 times.

"I counted the blows to try to distract myself from the pain, otherwise I'd be dead," the woman said.

In one of the most powerful images, a long butcher's knife is seen encased within a ribcage. That woman miraculously lived, said Vantadori, who views her role as a surgeon more expansively than someone who merely patches up patients and sends them on their way.

"My job is to make sure that doesn't happen," she said, pointing to the X-ray with the knife.

To stop the cycle of violence, the hospital provides more comprehensive help to victims of domestic violence, via a women's centre that offers psychological support and social services, including legal help.

The centre has already followed 322 women this year, 40 percent of them from outside Italy, a challenge that also requires the help of cultural intermediaries, the centre's director, Pavahne Hassebi, said.

Most important, said Hassebi, is that women know such places exist. There were 253 such assistance centres in Italy, according to Instat, as of 2017.

- All classes hit -

Although awareness has grown over the decades, the phenomenon persists, said Vantadori, unrelated to class, race or socioeconomic background.

A current member of Italy's parliament, Lucia Annibali, began her political career after being burned in the face in 2013 by acid by two aggressors sent by her ex-boyfriend.

Public outrage against violence against women has been most visible in France, with President Emmanuel Macron vowing new measures to fight it.

AFP has estimated at least 115 feminicides thus far in France this year.

On Saturday, thousands of people, mostly women, protested in Rome against gendered violence. Many carried signs calling for justice for Mimo, the Chilean street artist killed by police in October in Santiago.

In Paris, more than 49,000 people joined the demonstrations, according to the independent tracking agency Occurrence.

The United Nations estimates that 87,000 women were killed globally in 2017, over half of them either by their spouse, partner or own family.