ROME – To mark the UN’s International Day against Violence against Women and Girls on Sunday, a personal note from Pope Francis has been made public by a well-known Italian woman whose face was permanently disfigured in 2012 after her husband showered it with acid.
Speaking on the television program A Sua Immagine (“in his image”) on the main public network Rai Uno, Filomena Lamberti read the brief note aloud, the key phrase from which was: “I ask your forgiveness, and I pray for you so that the courage you’ve shown with singular beauty will become a blow against indifference.”
The letter was sent to Lamberti on June 11, but this was the first time she’s revealed its existence in a public setting.
Launched in 2009, the UN has slugged Nov. 25 as “Orange Day,” a day to highlight the persistent reality of violence against women and girls around the world. It’s part of 16 days of activism leading up to Dec. 10, which is the UN’s International Human Rights Day.
According to the global body, 1 in 3 women and girls experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, most frequently by an intimate partner. One in 2 women killed worldwide were killed by their partners or family in 2012, while only 1 out of 20 men were killed under similar circumstances.
Violence, the UN reports, is as serious a cause of death and incapacity among women of reproductive age as cancer, and a greater cause of ill health than traffic accidents and malaria combined.
“It terrifies me to think of the cruelty that disfigured your face, offending your dignity as a woman and as a mother,” the pope told Lamberti. “For this reason, I ask your forgiveness, taking upon myself the burden of a humanity that doesn’t know how to ask forgiveness of those who, in the prevailing indifference, live daily offended, trampled upon and marginalized.”
“Don’t feel alone in this journey,” Francis wrote, “even if God’s help often reaches us in ways different than our expectations, because his ways and his thoughts are different than ours.”
“The healing power of God, which is without limits and both irreducible and indefinable, expresses itself more with love than with strength,” the pope said.
Lamberti is from Salerno, a port city in Italy located southeast of Naples, and it’s the capital of the southern region of Campania. Now 58, Lamberti and her husband, identified in media accounts only as “G.V.” because he’s a criminal defendant, operated a fish shop in the small nearby town of Eboli along with their three children when their marriage ran into problems and they decided to separate.
Lamberti met her husband at a dance club in Salerno when she was just 16, and she endured 35 years of what she would later describe as a troubled and difficult marriage, which included periodic bouts of violence directed not only at Lamberti but also the three children.
In April 2012, Lamberti learned that her older son had struck his fiancé, and she worried that her husband’s behavior was influencing the children. She said she told G.V. that she wanted a divorce, beginning with a physical separation. The husband initially appeared to accept the request, but on the night of April 28, while Lamberti was sleeping, he came into the bedroom and doused her face with a bottle of acid.
The injuries were serious enough to be considered life-threatening at the time, and she subsequently underwent 25 different surgical procedures. Today Lamberti’s face is badly scarred and she’s often compelled to wear dark sunglasses to protect her fragile eyes from bright lights.
Upon being arrested, G.V. told investigators that it was actually Lamberti who had grabbed the bottle of acid, and that in a resulting struggle it accidentally poured out over her face. He was eventually sentenced to 18 months in prison and served only 15, and today he’s a free man.
“I didn’t get justice,” Lamberti said of the outcome.
“My identity was violated, but it’s just the life of a free woman,” she said. “He had lovers everywhere, but it was all taboo. You have to denounce the very first form of violence. At the first act of violence, you have to say ‘no’ and leave him.”
Francis has made the promotion of women’s rights a cornerstone of his social agenda. This June, for instance, during one of his impromptu morning homilies which are often the best indicators of the pope’s most personal concerns, Francis said women suffer from a throwaway culture, and that Jesus “changed history” by ending women’s second-class status in society.
Jesus’ words about women acknowledged their equality with men, the pope said, whereas before they were little more than “slaves” that did not “even have complete freedom.”
“Jesus’ doctrine about women changes history. Before Jesus the view about women was one thing but after Jesus they are another,” Francis said, according to Vatican News, a service of the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communication.
“Even in our everyday life, without going to those places, there is this ugly way of thinking, of rejecting women or seeing her as a ‘second class’ person. We need to reflect more deeply about this. And by doing this or saying this, by entering into this way of thinking, we despise the image of God, who made man and woman together with his image and likeness,” the pope said.
Francis called Christians to “think about the marketing of women, a trade, yes, trafficking, that exploitation which is visible but also that trade which we can’t see but is taking place out of sight. A woman is trampled underfoot precisely because she is a woman.”
Lamberti has published a book on her experiences titled, Another Life: It’s not a Romance, it’s the Courage to Testify.