ROME (AFP) – Thousands of women took to the streets of Italian cities Sunday calling for "dignity" and greater rights after a series of lurid prostitution scandals involving Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
"We are defending the dignity of women," read a placard held up at one of the rallies in Palermo, where thousands of women marched through the city.
Thousands more rallied in Bari, Trieste and Venice -- with men also joining.
Solidarity protests by women abroad were also expected, with a small rally of around 100 women held outside the Italian consulate in Tokyo earlier Sunday.
"The importance of this rally is in the common participation of men and women, young and old, intellectuals and workers," Naples mayor Rosa Russo Iervolino said as she marched through the southern Italian city.
The initiative has been organised by sisters Francesca and Cristina Comencini, both actresses, who argue that Berlusconi's playboy antics and his sexist comments are part of a much wider problem in Italian society.
"Neither right-wing governments, nor left-wing ones have ever done anything," Cristina Comencini said ahead of the protests.
She also criticised "discrimination in the job market due to a lack of day-nurseries, family helpers and part-time jobs."
In Italy, where the birth rate is one of the lowest in Europe at 1.4 children per family, only one woman in two works -- compared to 59 percent in the European Union -- despite women being, on average, better educated than men.
The Italian leader's scandals have added to the resentment.
"Berlusconi has long shown a violent contempt for women with his misogynist remarks," Francesca Comencini said.
The Italian leader is fighting off allegations that he paid for sex with a 17-year-old prostitute nicknamed Ruby the Heartstealer and then used the power of his office to try and cover up the crime.
Berlusconi and Ruby, real name Karima El Mahroug, deny having sex but many people have been offended in the way the Italian leader has defended himself.
"I have never paid a woman," Berlusconi said in one interview last year.
"I have never seen the satisfaction that there could be in it without the pleasure of conquest," he said.
And in a speech in November he remarked: "It's better to be passionate about beautiful women than to be gay."
Berlusconi's supporters have condemned the rallies.
"The women taking to the streets today are not very numerous and are rallying only for political ends," Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini said.
Fabrizio Cicchitto, a member of Berlusconi's People of Freedom party, said participants "belong to the leftist anti-Berlusconi movement."
More than 50,000 women have signed the movement's manifesto in just a week.
It denounces "the indecent, repetitive representation of women as a naked object of sexual exchange" in newspapers, advertising and on television.
It also said that macho sentiment in Italy has become "intolerable".
And although those involved have been asked not to politicise the demonstration, several members of parliament who recently broke away from Berlusconi's centre-right ruling party had said they would be attending.