It is incredibly hard to write about violence against women and girls.
It is hard because it is infuriating. It is infuriating because it took the senseless murder of 29-year-old Paulina Dembska for us to be made acutely aware of an endemic problem that would otherwise be shrugged off unless it manifests itself in its most horrifying form. It is hard because policies and public awareness always appear to be reactive rather than proactive.
The latest country report on femicide in Malta compiled by the University of Malta and the Women’s Rights Foundation as part of Project FEM-UNITED opens by stating “Malta’s societal character is heavily framed by patriarchy, seen clearly in the social attitudes, gender roles, and male-dominated discourse in everyday life. The mentality is driven by gender stereotypes, especially the roles men and women should play in the family and in society”.
Underneath all our glitz and the much-vaunted ‘progressive movement’, Malta remains a deeply misogynistic society, and femicide – the gender-motivated intentional killing of women – is the most extreme manifestation of gender-based violence and the most violent manifestation of discrimination against them.
It’s not getting better
In 2018, The Shift had reported how four women aged between 30 and 74 were brutally killed in as many months in instances of domestic violence in Malta.
Over the span of 10 years (from 2011-2021), reported cases of domestic violence have increased in number. According to the 2020 Malta Crime Report, the rate of reporting for domestic violence has increased by 24% when compared to the year 2019 (1,326 to 1,645).
The data presented in April 2021 by the National Statistics Office states that in 2019, 2,565 individuals made use of services available to those experiencing domestic violence. Of these, 80.2% were women.
There have also been cases of alleged violence against women that are unrelated to domestic violence such as the report of a woman who accused a police sergeant of raping her when he – the case is still sub giudice – called at her home as part of a burglary investigation; and the woman who reported a sexual assault at her place of work in 2020 and had yet to be questioned by the police 15 months after the ordeal.
Although Malta introduced the Gender-Based Violence and Domestic Violence Act in 2018, the FEM-UNITED report notes however that the laws which are currently in place still do not fully protect women who experience domestic violence incidents and at times the courts fail to protect women from the perpetrator.
This is not to say that nothing has ever been done to prevent and counter violence against women. Even before Malta introduced the Domestic Violence Act (Chapter 481) in 2006, there were several initiatives to prevent and combat violence over the years. The FEM-UNITED report describes how many potential preventative initiatives such as awareness campaigns nevertheless tend to be project-based and not policy-based, which means they are temporary and unsustainable in the long run.
The Council of Europe’s first baseline evaluation report by GREVIO, published at the end of 2020, found that “while, in principle, Malta broadened its policies to address other forms of violence against women beyond domestic violence, on the side of implementation, the strategy and action plan fail to provide for specific integrated measures to tackle harmful forms of violence against women other than domestic violence.”
In the meantime, data, even at an international level, on violence against women (outside of domestic violence) remains patchy. For example, the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) has yet to compile data at a European level in order to assess violence against women, its latest dataset dating back to 2018.
The last time the Interparliamentary Union, a global organisation for national parliaments, looked at harassment and violence against women in parliaments across Europe was in 2018 – a survey in which Malta did not participate.
In July 2021, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes, and consequences took stock of the progress made to prevent and combat femicide in member states and found that over the last five years progress was uneven.
Stories of everyday violence
On an academic and policy level, there is an increased awareness of gender-based violence in Malta, that much is clear. Whether this awareness has filtered down to everyday interactions that improve the lives of women and girls who find themselves on the receiving end of domestic abuse and gender-based violence or has changed the way women in the public sphere are treated, is less so.
Gender-based violence doesn’t have to be physical. Women in Maltese politics are routinely subjected to abusive and threatening verbal attacks both online and off. We have documented in detail the dehumanising and the misogynistic insults to which journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was subjected prior to – and even after – her death.
Women activists have been called ‘whores’ and have had their personal details disseminated to braying online mobs. A Nationalist Party candidate who dared to express her views on women’s right to choose whether to terminate a pregnancy or not was inundated with unspeakable insults, as was a private citizen simply uploading her political satire sketches on her personal Facebook page. The online comments underneath articles describing violence against women continue to be, at times, stomach-churning.
On Tuesday evening hundreds of people attended a vigil for Paulina Dembska. Her family joined via a WhatsApp group call as womens’ rights activists read out a message from Paulina’s mother expressing her daughter’s love for Malta and Paulina’s own poignant words about life.
Therefore as civil society activists, politicians, and citizens alike call, once again, for adequate protection from gender-based violence, we would do well to remember that femicide, is not an aberration, it is, as the latest report on Malta suggested, the result of a particular vision of men’s and women’s role in society – a vision still deeply ingrained in the country’s collective mindset, whether we wish to admit it or not.
Featured Image: Joanna Demarco