Women on the menu

I remember the time not too long ago when several promoters of women’s rights in Malta were rejoicing at the introduction of the gender-corrective mechanism to the Maltese electoral system.

They believed women would, at last, be fairly represented and the issues affecting them directly put on the agenda. Alas, a few months down the road, nothing of the sort has yet concretely materialised.

I was rather sceptical as I happen to believe that competent women are perfectly capable of being elected without receiving a leg-up but that’s another issue.

Besides, by now I can anticipate how the political parties in parliament operate to retain their monopoly: in the first instance, by colluding to thwart representation, including women, coming from third parties and, to further consolidate the status quo, by elevating acquiescing women to parliament, thereby placating their consciences that they have done their bit in favour of women’s rights.

What they have accomplished in effect is to make the chamber aesthetically more appealing and, possibly, curtailed the flow of testosterone.

Amazingly, not one of the newly elected women MPs has uttered a word on the case of the woman who was assaulted and had a man ejaculate on her in a bus full of people. Not a word of solidarity at such a humiliation and assault. No anger at the accused being granted bail against a personal guarantee of €5,000.

Where do the female MPs stand on the case of the 81-year-old allegedly sexually abusing a five-year-old girl and on the fact that, despite a history of abuse towards other underage girls, he was left to roam free?

Again, a bail deposit of €5,000 and a personal guarantee of €15,000.

Stop quantifying the trauma women undergo. That is what the courts are in effect doing. Money is not enough to fill this black hole that assault, harassment and violence leave behind in the psyche of the victim.

There is this widespread well-grounded perception that no one is taking care of our well-being, that we are on our own and that justice in this country is a myth. Who is taking care of the women reporting domestic violence in their own home? Why are the women MPs in the Maltese parliament not taking a collective stand in the face of a deteriorating situation?

In the first four months of 2022, there were 538 cases of domestic violence reported and, still, Malta is one of the countries in the EU with the least reports filed, due to court delays and low rate of conviction. This situation is generating a sense of helplessness in the victims. Cases seem to be on the increase and the backlog is huge. More resources are needed to fight back this plague.

In 2018, a new domestic violence law came into force which included the possibility to impose temporary protection orders. In a situation where the victim is at risk of further serious and life-threatening violence, the legislation allows a maximum of six hours to put such protection in place.

However, it seems the new mechanism is not proving practical on the ground, as magistrates were now being called at all times of day and especially nights to issue them. So though on paper a positive move to assist victims, this innovation is in effect considered an inconvenience for magistrates in whom the authority to issue temporary protection orders is vested.

Moreover, the observations made in late 2020 by the Council of Europe’s group of experts on domestic violence, GREVIO, remain valid. These include the fact that police officers are not trained on the dynamics of domestic violence, nor of its risk factors and the need to ensure victim protection.

This leads, among others, to barriers to reporting for particularly vulnerable categories of women and insufficient and ineffective collection of evidence in cases of rape and domestic violence. Similarly, a deficient sensitivity by judges was noted, leading to repeat victimisation and low levels of prosecutions and convictions.

Shortcomings were also identified in support services for victims of sexual violence, with child custody supervisors untrained to work with perpetrators of violence against women. Serious risks of loss of evidence were observed due to the long waiting time required for the victim to be visited and the evidence to be lifted.

Crucially, GREVIO had stated it was of “paramount importance that the different forms of violence against women are addressed as a gendered phenomenon because they affect women disproportionately. These forms of violence are directed against a woman because she is a woman and, thus, need to be understood as a social mechanism to keep women in a subordinate position to men.”

In this scenario, it is abundantly clear that the legislation needs to be fine-tuned and the institutional set-up bolstered. If I were one of the newly elected female MPs, I would be working to present the necessary amendments as a matter of urgency.

I would seek cross-party consensus to come up with additional safeguards in the law, which are workable and serve as an effective deterrent, and to put pressure on the government to beef up training and awareness among the key players: support agencies, the police and the judiciary, among others.

We need more protection from the powers that be. We are only asking for our voices to be heard, our struggles given prominence and addressed. Women are being victimised twice over – by perpetrators and by a deficient legislative and institutional set-up – owing to the sluggishness with which these cases are dealt with and the lack of empathy evidenced in the court sentences.

Women are not disposable items to be used and disposed of. It is high time our traumas are addressed convincingly and assiduously. Having an increased number of female MPs in the Maltese parliament serves for precious little if violence against women continues to permeate Maltese society at an alarming rate.

Sandra Gauci
ADPD Deputy Chairperson
Published in The Times of Malta – Friday 26 August 2022