International Women’s Day is a global affirmation of women’s rights marked across the world with marches, protests and celebrations. This year, the #MeToo movement has added extra urgency to the issue of sexual harassment. But a fair question might seem: beyond a few pictures in the newspapers, what does the day actually achieve?
Five years ago, in southern Italy, it was the moment for a social earthquake.
Calabria, the toe of Italy, has been dominated by the local mafia, the ’Ndrangheta, for more than a century. From Calabria, the ’Ndrangheta controls three quarters of the cocaine supply in Europe, manages billion-dollar arms, embezzlement and extortion rackets, and launders money for itself and organised crime syndicates from around the world, earning it $50-100 billion a year, much of which passes through London’s financial and property markets. By almost any measure, it is the most powerful mafia on earth, with an empire that touches more than 100 countries.
Not coincidentally, almost no one has ever heard of it – including, up until a few years ago, the Italian state. So total is its secrecy that it wasn’t until Lea Garofalo testified against her mafioso husband in 1996 and 2002 that Italian prosecutors had one of their first peeks inside the organisation. Lea’s evidence not only helped the Italian judiciary understand the enormity of what they were confronting, she also detailed how the silence shrouding the ’Ndrangheta – omertà – was maintained by a murderous misogyny based on ancient family clans that was scarcely changed since the late 19th century. Men and boys ruled. They beat the women even for stepping outside the family home unaccompanied. Fathers paired off daughters as 13-year-olds like medieval kings, to seal clan alliances. A woman who was unfaithful, even to the memory of a husband dead for decades, would be killed, and it would her brother, son, father or uncle who did it, before burning the body or dissolving it in acid to be sure of erasing the family shame.
Lea was pursued across Italy by her husband, Carlo Cosco, for thirteen years before the day in November 2009 that she ‘vanished’ in Milan. A handful prosecutors understood that her case demanded a rethink of the fight against the ’Ndrangheta. At a time when they still struggling to understand the monster in their midst, Lea had shown that women, the natural heart of any organisation based on family, not only had extensive knowledge of the ’Ndrangheta but were likely to leap at a chance for themselves and their children to escape its clutches. ‘Freeing their women is the way to bring down the ’Ndrangheta,’ said prosecutor Alessandra Cerreti.
One woman prepared to speak out was Lea’s teenage daughter, Denise. Cerreti found two other mafia wives who agreed to testify, Giuseppina Pesce and Maria Concetta Cacciola. As I recount in The Good Mothers, the ’Ndrangheta would try for years to kill all three and tragically, in one case, it would succeed. But on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2012, holding banners featuring the names and faces of Lea, Denise, Giuseppina and Concetta, the people of southern Italy rose up a series of mass demonstrations that shook the world’s most powerful mafia to its core.
Five years later, the ’Ndrangheta is yet to recover. And that’s one example of why International Women’s Day matters. It is a day to demand due rights. But it is also a moment to remember the courage of those who came before, and to honour four women from southern Italy who risked everything to rid us all of a terrifying criminal conspiracy.
Alex Perry is a correspondent, author and writer for television and film. Author of Falling Off the Edge, Lifeblood and The Rift, Perry lived and worked for fifteen years in Asia and Africa, specialising in investigations into conflict, corruption and organised crime for TIME, Newsweek and others. The Good Mothers is his latest book.