By Catherine Hornby
ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti spoke of the importance of women's rights on Monday, while his election rival Silvio Berlusconi sought to have his latest hearing in a trial for underage prostitution postponed.
Berlusconi's "Bunga Bunga" sex scandal was one of the factors that cut short his last spell as prime minister in late 2011 at the height of the euro zone debt crisis.
Monti, who took over as a "technocrat" premier, used a conference on female genital mutilation to underline the importance of women in Italy, which ranks 80th in the world for gender equality according to one league table.
"We must not allow people to abuse and exploit women and then forget them because they are no longer considered useful. We must acknowledge their intelligence, humanity and qualities that can be developed at all stages of their lives," he said.
Around the time Monti was speaking, judges in Milan agreed to a request by Berlusconi's lawyers to postpone by a week his trial for paying for sex with an underage prostitute, due to his busy agenda of interviews as he bids for a fifth term.
Several young women who had aspired to be showgirls on Berlusconi's television channels have described lurid stripteases during parties at his Milan villa. He has said the parties were "elegant dinners" and denies any wrongdoing.
Monti said abuse of women was often due to "the loss of moral values" and that the "dignity of women" needed to be guaranteed, reviving one of the main slogans of an anti-Berlusconi protest in February 2011, which brought more than a million Italians out onto the streets.
The protest was organized by women who had long complained about how they are portrayed in Italy's media, particularly on channels owned by Berlusconi, where young women are commonly seen in skimpy clothes as cameras zoom in on their breasts and legs.
Berlusconi's chauvinistic quips had also fuelled ire, with him once telling the matronly Rosy Bindi, a 61-year-old, bespectacled political opponent, that she was "more beautiful than intelligent" during a television debate.
Monti said on Monday it was important that women were not only recognized for youthful good looks.
"We should be able to unleash all the potential of women in society, and this isn't only a social duty, it is also essential for economic growth," he said.
Italy's ranking on the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap fell to 80th in 2012 from 74th in 2011, weighed down by women's low economic participation in Italy, where the female employment rate, at 46.5 percent, is the third lowest in the European Union after Malta and Greece, according to EU data.
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)