WIN Women's International Network Emergency and Solidarity

Women's Associations Facing Emergencies.

Experiences from different parts of the world

Rome, 18 th - 19 th June 2001

Association Sicilian Women against Mafia

Antonia Cascio


In tracing the history of women in the antimafia movement, one has first of all to get rid of the stereotype that has them shut up in their houses and absent from social life. A considerable number of Sicilian women were already occupying leading roles under Fascism. For example, in Piana degli Albanesi, out of a population of 9000 inhabitants, 2500 men and 1000 women were active party members; the latter had an independent section and were claiming work and equality. Later on, in the demonstrations against the war and in the peasants' revolt of the Forties and Fifties, women participated as workers and relatives of workers and were arrested and sentenced. At Portella delle Ginestre they fell in the massacres during both the struggles and the festivities. Some called themselves “professional revolutionaries" and there were many women in the forefront of the movement. The "Association of Campagna Women" was born.


1980 – The Calabrian and Sicilian women delivered a people's petition to the President of the Republic and the regional governments of Sicily and Calabria; it was signed by 30,000 women asking for justice and truth on mafia crimes. Rita Costa and Giovanna Terranova, the first signatories and widows of two magistrates killed by the mafia, led the delegation to Rome. There they met President Pertini who as a young lawyer had met a courageous Sicilian woman, Francesca Serio Carnevale, mother of a young trade-unionist also murdered by the mafia.


In December 1982, the trial was celebrated in Palermo against Rosario Spatola and another 120 mafia members and drug traffickers, instituted by Giovanni Falcone. The "Women's Committee against the Mafia" decided to institute a civil action, but its request was rejected with the justification that the committee had not suffered direct damage. However Falcone publicly lauded the gesture, acknowledging its great political and social worth. This request was reiterated at the trial against those accused of the massacre of via Pipitone Federico in 1983 in which the magistrate Rocco Chinnici was killed.


In May 1983, a conference was held in Palermo in which women from Sicily, Calabria and Campagna compared their experiences; it was decided to organise a national demonstration against the mafia a year later in Rome.


In January 1984, the Sicilian Women's Association for Combating the Mafia was formally established with Giovanna Terranova as chairwoman. It is an association of women with differing political ideas. What is most significant, however, is that mafia widows are members alongside a great number of women from varying social and cultural backgrounds who feel the need to commit themselves to the fight against the mafia for ethical, moral and political reasons.


In a document of the "Women's Committee Against the Mafia" of 1982 we wrote: Sicilian women did not wait for the latest dramatic chain of crimes that has shaken Sicily and the entire country to rise up against the mafia, to call attention to the need for a great, mass movement and a commitment from institutions to combat the violence and barbarities, the negation of freedom and life that these forces represent……We are women who have not resigned ourselves to a destiny that seemed immutable, because time-honoured, of subordination, inequality and marginalization. We are no longer willing to submit to those who want to impose a new domination over society, over institutions, over all our lives through the financial power acquired with drug trafficking and systematic violence, abuse, blackmail and illegality.


Over the years, the association's activities have increased, intensified and diversified with the promotion and organisation of debates, of work with schools and assistance to women who institute civil actions in mafia processes. In 1984 Maria Benigno had already asked for the association's presence in the process against Leoluca Bagarella; in the "maxi" mafia trial we are with Vita Rugnetta and Michela Buscemi, alone together with the Centro Impastato (the rest of "civil" society commits itself only to the civil parties of the servants of the state).


In 1988, the national women's demonstration “Against the Mafia and all Forms of Violence” took place in Palermo with the participation of thousands of women from all over Italy. The association became better known and it received numerous invitations and requests to participate in conferences and debates also outside Sicily and abroad. It gained recognition on a national and international scale; we received the Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa prize.


After the Capaci massacre the emotional tension grew; Palermo started to move and the city participated in numerous demonstrations; other associations and initiatives were created. The association established a prize dedicated to the memory of Francesca Morvillo and for several years organised meetings and seminars on issues concerning women and minors on the anniversary of her death.


The initial years were years of commitment and participation and many women were active in the life and work of the association, which had become a political and cultural benchmark and also a centre for informal assistance. However in recent years the association has considerably reduced its activities, we have become part of a cartel of associations “Palermo anno uno,” and perhaps this has lost us some of our visibility and the autonomy we used to have. Our diminishing commitment has also meant that old members have left and have not been replaced. Society has changed as well, there is a tendency to turn the mafia and the fight against the mafia into a public spectacle. And we who had chosen to keep a low profile have probably paid the price by disappearing or at least by being less visible.


Earlier on there was also another moment which marked the life of the association: the choice to support women who decided to institute civil actions was not an easy one. For many of us it was a decision in line with our ideas. To be against the mafia is everyone's duty; but for those who, because of their cultural background, are on the side of the State, on the side of legality, it is simple to claim justice for a death. But it is not equally simple for those who are part of the mafia world or for those who reside in that grey area which is not complicity but cultural vicinity.


Therefore, for each of those women who chose justice and legality after their husband, son or brother had been murdered, we were convinced we should support that request for help, also for the children of those women who did not always understand their choice. I would like to stress that often this choice meant the loss of affection, of friendship and of economic guarantees; it often mean solitude and poverty. The association still exists, but it is certainly no longer the point of reference for schools, for women and for the young generations we had hoped it would be. However, it is true that in 1980 when we started to talk about the mafia either people did not really understand what our message was or they ignored us in homage to the code of omertà.


Today the mafia is spoken about freely in schools and among young people. At our prompting legislative initiatives have been created, such as regional law 51 that financed schools for anti-mafia activities and provided other economic support and employment for mafia victims.