For any real change to better protect women, activists have said there needs to be the political will backed by a generous budget and adequate human resources to deal with the ever-increasing load of crimes against women.
Replying to The Shift’s questions about the conclusions of the inquiry into the death of Bernice Cassar, the chairperson of the Malta Women’s Lobby (MWL), Anna Borg, noted that the MWL, together with key activists and other NGOs had been highlighting these shortcomings for years, “with few results”.
“For us, the most important thing is not the vindication from the inquiry, but that recommendations are implemented, and if they are not, the people responsible are held accountable”, adding that “the buck stops with the ministers responsible”.
Bernice Cassar was shot dead last November while driving to work at Corradino industrial estate, Paola. Her estranged husband, Roderick Cassar, has been charged with the murder and pleads not guilty. Cassar had repeatedly sought protection from her estranged husband.
Before Bernice, there was Rita Ellul, who, in February, was strangled to death in Għajnsielem, and her partner, Lawrence Abina, has been charged with killing her. Rita Ellul had also reported him to the police for domestic violence.
Immediately following the death of Bernice Cassar, the government launched an independent inquiry to establish whether any state institutions failed to prevent her killing.
In a letter, Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri and Justice Minister Jonathan Attard asked Judge Geoffrey Valenzia to determine whether the authorities were or should have been aware that Bernice Cassar’s life was in danger and if there were any failings in implementing domestic violence law.
They also asked him to investigate whether there were systemic inefficiencies and negligence by the responsible officials.
In his conclusions, Judge Valenzia noted, among other things, that the entire system for handling domestic violence cases didn’t work as it was meant to work, as it didn’t protect those repeatedly asking for protection.
The reasons were primarily a lack of resources and an increasing workload. This included a delay in the processing of reports, bad or no risk assessments and inadequate or slow responses by Malta’s police. The courts’ lack of resources and the Magistrate’s workload were the reasons behind the delay in cases being assigned and heard.
Another set of recommendations to ignore?
Several of the judge’s observations and recommendations were highlighted by activists and NGOs as well as national and international assessments, which Valenzia points out before listing his own set of proposals.
“There is as much research as you like, and sermons have been delivered for years, but in practice, nothing is done, although it is known that the system is not working,” he observed.
Valenzia’s recommendations can be added to the Council of Europe’s first baseline evaluation report by GREVIO, which was published at the end of 2020 and had already concluded that there was insufficient training of law-enforcement officials concerning violence against women.
The report also recommended that the relevant authorities conduct risk assessments systematically and speedily. It noted how protection orders in their current form are inadequate in preventing a crime.
Nonetheless, in keeping with its overall attitude towards suggestions, the government failed to address GREVIO’s recommendations with the urgency they deserved.
More recently, the Times of Malta reported that a study into domestic violence commissioned by the government and finalised in 2021 remained unpublished.
The study also found court delays and a lack of police resources, among other issues as well as under-resourcing, understaffing, burnout and a lack of overall coordination between the entities involved.
When asked whether there are areas of concern currently being ignored, Borg reiterates that anything related to women’s issues is not taken seriously enough, and for far too long, these issues “have been relegated to the back burner with clear consequences”.
This includes the “piecemeal approach” to setting up Gender-Based and Domestic Violence Unit hubs across the country that are being proposed without proper consideration of what women seeking help might need.
“All this indicates that there needs to be proper consultation and planning with women in mind adopting a holistic approach that focuses on how the many parts of the systems relate together,” Borg concludes.
It goes beyond the political will to better protect women, it is also a societal matter when people who harass and maltreat women, also openly in public (as one has noticed in some articles years ago) can carry on unhindered and in the end get away with it.
In our times, it also starts with similar malbehaviour on social media and once the distinction between the virtual and the real world vanishes, the threshold to commit acts of violence also gets lower. The threats to people are easily dished out. I remember the indicent of a young female student who stood at a podium in public in order to protest against the PL govt and, like everyone who does likewise, most prominent in such an example was Daphne Caruana Galizia, gets the full scale of hatred, often carried out by male responders (‘hobby horse insulters’ more like).
Some men are of a weak character and can’t stand to have a women airing her voice and her opinions, quickly reacting on that by ridiculing her and if that’s not enough to shut her up, the sexist remarks follow suit. I have noticed that often and when one confronts such people and treats them the way they deserve verbally but without swear words and insults, as I have done, one can easliy spot their way of panic in their reactions. One doesn’t have to agree with the opinions of others, but one should at least respect them and not decline one self to such a low level of misogyny. It’s not easy to call them out for what they are, but it’s at least a start to go with in order to expose them for what they are. Pity that such people still find sympathy among others.
If the state can’t act properly in order to protect a women who is exposed to domestic violence and reports such incidents to the Police on and on, it is clear that a part of the institutions doesn’t work, but the family of a women in distress should at least give her shelter and protect her. But this also has its limits as the case of Mrs Cassar shows very clearly. Maybe the Malta Police will have to set up a special response squad for cases like this, so that they can be in no time at the spot of the incident and well, do what is necessary and appropriate in such a situation in order to stop the aggressor. That’s the most problematic thing to do, to act and react in such difficult situations and preserve the life of the potential victim.