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An Italian judge ruled today, that Italy's prime minister must go to trial on charges of paying sex with a 17-year-old girl. The scandal engulfing Silvio Berlusconi has incensed Italian women. On Sunday, an estimated one million took to the streets calling for his resignation. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: In what has become his preferred means of communication, Berlusconi made a phone call to one of his own TV networks to label Sunday's nationwide protest shameful.

Prime Minister SILVIO BERLUSCONI (Italy): (Through translator) I saw the usual one-sided forces mobilized against me by the left which use any pretext to try to topple an adversary they can't beat at the polls.

POGGIOLI: But there were no political flags at the rallies just banners against a man protestors said has disgraced Italy.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

POGGIOLI: The slogan was if not now, when - the title of a book by holocaust survivor Primo Levi. In Rome, hundreds of thousands of women shouted back, the time is now.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

Crowd: (Foreign language spoken)

POGGIOLI: A recurring question in Italy in recent years has been: How could a country, which in the 1970's had one of Europe's most vibrant feminist movements, degrade into one of the West's most sexist. Francesca Leone, a rally organizer, singled out two key factors.

Ms. FRANCESCA LEONE: I think, in general, Catholicism from one side and the macho way from the other, combinated(ph), create a big wall for the woman. I think we have to speak and to start again.

POGGIOLI: Many analysts say the prevailing image of Italian women today was shaped by Berlusconi's commercial TV networks. For 30 years, their main fare has been scantily-dressed women shimmying on a stage, while cameras zoom in on shapely legs, plunging necklines and curvy bottoms.

In the latest Berlusconi sex scandal, leaked wiretaps revealed reports of orgies at his homes and large payments made to would-be showgirls. The protest organizers say Berlusconi promotes a culture in which young women see selling their good looks as a viable career option.

Nicoletta Dentico described what she calls the Berlusconi culture of entertainment.

Ms. NICOLETTA DENTICO: Think about yourself, think about what you can gain today, don't think about tomorrow, think about money; so today we are collecting the fruits of that project. We've lost our bearings.

POGGIOLI: One of the main speakers at the Rome rally was Giulia Buongiorno, an MP formerly in the ruling coalition. She slammed Berlusconi for choosing his party candidates for their sexual expertise rather than their political experience.

Ms. GIULIA BUONGIORNO: (Through translator) As far as I'm concerned, everyone can have all orgies they like. However, orgies can in no way be the key factor in the selection process of political leaders.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

POGGIOLI: The explosion of the women's protest from left to right - has caught Berlusconi by surprise. And it couldn't come at a worse time: he's about to face three long-delayed trials for corruption and the latest sex scandal involving a minor has dealt a serious blow to his popularity. Berlusconi's legal problems are all-consuming most government and parliamentary activity is at a standstill.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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