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What is Helena Dalli’s track record on gender equality?

Helena Dalli
Equality Minister Helena Dalli.

Helena Dalli is Malta’s candidate for the European Commission, where she has been nominated for the Equality portfolio.

Dalli will undergo a confirmation hearing before the Committees on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM) and Employment and Social Affairs (EMPL) on Wednesday to evaluate her suitability for this role.

Joseph Muscat congratulated Dalli on the potential appointment, positioning it as “Testament to Helena’s resolve and Malta’s track record in this area. A (sic) EU Commission with gender parity will only be the starting point.”

But what exactly is Dalli’s track record when it comes to gender equality, and what were the achievements of the government she served?

When Dalli came to office in 2013, the newly elected Labour Party promised that it would mark the beginning of Malta’s most feminist government. There was much to do. In 2013, Malta sat at 84th place (out of 136 countries) on the World Economic Forum Gender Equality Index.

The new government began its first term by introducing free childcare for working parents, widely considered to be a positive step despite some serious shortcomings on the issue of equality.

But five years later, in 2018, Malta had fallen to 91st place (out of 149 countries), regressing instead of improving. 

Dalli did well on LGBTIQ rights

When speaking about the achievements of Dalli as Equality Minister, she is praised for Malta’s achievements in the area of LGBTIQ rights. 

During her five year tenure, Dalli introduced the Marriage Equality Bill, which was approved by parliament in July 2017, giving same-sex couples the right to marry and the right to adopt children. 

Dalli went a step further in 2015 by introducing the ground breaking Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Act, which allowed for a quick, transparent and accessible gender recognition procedure based on self-determination, and foresees pro-active equality measures for trans and intersex persons. 

These achievements were the result of the government’s ‘LGBTIQ Equality Strategy & Action Plan (2018 – 2022)’ that placed Malta among the most advanced countries in this area, on paper.

She gets failing grades on gender equality

Unfortunately, Dalli failed to make similar progress on gender equality.

Rather than produce a similar comprehensive Action Plan along the lines of the government’s LGBTIQ strategy, her Ministry instead rushed out a flimsy four-page consultation document called ‘Towards a Gender Equality Mainstreaming Framework’ in March 2019.

Malta still lacks the clear mainstreaming action plan for gender equality that the document claimed the country was moving towards.

Dalli was also accused of ‘fake feminism’ in April 2018 after she allowed her spokeswoman at the Equality Ministry to attack a respected academic and women’s rights activist. Anna Borg, director of the Centre for Labour Studies, had spoken to the Times of Malta about the country’s increasing gender pay gap and the lack of progress in areas related to equality between women and men.

Rather than challenging the facts she raised, Dalli’s spokeswoman attacked the messenger, insinuating that Borg was biased and had ulterior motives for her criticism because she had been an electoral candidate and secretary general for women with the Opposition Nationalist Party some 20 years earlier.

The accusation was immediately condemned “in the most absolute manner” by the Malta Confederation of Women’s Organisations (MCWO), which spoke highly of Borg’s credentials, noting that she had “for decades worked tirelessly to improve the situation of women”.

Little progress on women’s rights

Dalli also boasted that she ratified the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women in 2014. It was not until November 2017 that a related Strategy and Action plan was put into place. 

In spite of the ratification of this Convention, professionals working in this area regularly complain that police officers in Malta are not taking appropriate action to protect victims of domestic violence. 

In June 2019, the Women’s Rights Foundation filed a judicial protest against Dalli’s Equality Ministry to protest against “shameful” amendments to temporary protection orders that went against the spirit of the Istanbul Convention by placing the burden of protection on the victim, putting women at greater risk.

In 2019, Malta still lags far behind the rest of Europe when it comes to women’s rights.

Abortion is illegal in Malta and carries a prison sentence. The number of women in the Maltese parliament is negligible, and it is decreasing. Sexism is palpable everywhere you look. 

All of this must be framed within a national context where the country’s most prominent female investigative journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia, was assassinated nearly two years ago. Those who commissioned her assassination are still free and enjoy total impunity under the government that Dalli served.

She ignored a woman killed

Dalli has never spoken up for justice for the assassinated journalist, just as she never confronted her Party on the corruption scandals plaguing the country that the journalist investigated. She has never said a word about the government’s daily clearing of the protest memorial in the journalist’s name in the country’s capital, or the dehumanisation campaign her Party sustained against Caruana Galizia.

During the country’s Report of the Working Group on the  Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the United Nations Human Rights Council 40th Session (UN HRC40), the Maltese delegation led by Dalli was repeatedly criticised for Malta’s weaknesses in areas pertaining to freedom of expression, media freedom, media independence, the safety and protection of journalists, and lack of investigation into who commissioned Caruana Galizia’s assassination.

When her colleagues in parliament hurled abuse at Opposition women MPs on misogynistic terms, such as when a Labour MP threatened MP Marlene Farrugia with rape,  Dalli was silent. And when she was accused of nepotism because her entire family lives off the government gravy train, she had no concerns on equality of opportunity.

The government’s failures in the area of gender equality — and the partisan attacks under her Ministry — do not reflect well on Dalli. If her nomination is accepted, she will be expected to accomplish more for women in Europe than she did in Malta.

Maria Ressa GIJN 2019

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Petra Caruana Dingli at The Shift News

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