Tens of thousands of people gathered in Rome on Saturday to protest against a proposed law that would give greater rights to unmarried and homosexual couplesREUTERS/Dario Pignatelli ITALY

With only a few days to go for the Italian Senate to begin a debate on a bill to legalise civil partnerships for same-sex couples as well as unmarried heterosexual couples, thousands of Italians have hit the streets in support of gay rights.

They rallied across 100 towns and cities — from Milan in the north to Palermo in the south — on 23 January raising the slogan "Wake up Italy, it's time to be civilised".

Italy is the only major European country that is yet to cede same-sex couples any legal recognition or protection on issues from pensions to parenthood.

In Italy, same-sex couples are not recognised. They cannot adopt children, inherit pensions or share state-funded benefits. They cannot even visit each other if one of them is on his/her deathbed or in a critical condition. The passage of the bill will allow same-sex couples the right to be recognised the same way as non-married heterosexual couples.

"We don't want to take anything away from the traditional families ... but our families also exist, our children exist and our children need to have both of their parents recognised," said Liliana Rizzo, a member of a gay parents' association, at a rally outside the Pantheon in central Rome.

"In Italy people think that there are those who are allowed to have rights and those who aren't", she added.

The European Court of Human Rights has condemned Italy for failing to introduce a law on civil unions and called it a "breach of human rights".

Meanwhile, Pope Francis has said "there can be no confusion between the family God wants and any other type of union."

On 28 January, the floor of the Senate will begin debate on the bill. The opponents of the bill are planning a counter demonstration organised by Catholic groups on 30 January at Rome's Circus Maximus.

"Finally there is a cultural debate and the whole country is discussing an issue that was previously taboo," said senator Monica Cirinna, the author of the bill, which has already attracted more than 6,000 proposed amendments.