Berlusconi faces the wrath of Italy's women

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Hundreds of thousands of women gathered in cities across Italy yesterday to protest at Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's incorrigible sexism and in particular his fondness, in the words of his estranged wife, for consorting with minors – a penchant that may see him charged with sex-related offences in the coming week. Some of the protesters, who were demanding the Prime Minister's resignation, carried banners that said: "Italy is not a brothel."

Organisers say the 74-year-old premier's antediluvian attitude to women has been made clearer than ever by the allegation that he paid for sex with a 17-year-old Moroccan belly dancer, Karima "Ruby" el-Mahroug.

"The Ruby case has revealed a system of political selection based on an exchange of sex and power," said Iaia Caputo of the organising committee of the protests. "We want to send a message to the country and to the parties that do not see themselves a part of what has happened over the last few weeks – it's possible to change route."

In 230 city squares, from Palermo to Bolzano, women – and men – heard a mix of campaigners, celebrities and female politicians denounce the culture of the casting couch, which they say has seen Mr Berlusconi surround himself at parties with pretty starlets seeking a leg up in politics or a job in the mogul's Mediaset television empire.

At one of the biggest demonstrations, in Milan's Piazza del Castello, Cristina Pecchioli, of the CGIL union, said: "This long political season has produced a culture and images about which we want to say 'enough'."

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