The Malta Independent 19 May 2022, Thursday

‘Society’s inaction towards gender inequality renders Malta unjust, unsafe for women’ – activists

Shona Berger Saturday, 22 January 2022, 12:52 Last update: about 5 months ago

A number of organisations working in the field of human and women’s rights gathered in front of the police headquarters to express their anger and frustration at how the most recent femicide was claimed “to not be gender-related”, saying that they are “sick and tired” with what is happening.

The organisations held the protest on Saturday morning, calling for the relevant authorities to do more when it comes to preventing violence against women.

A total of 14 organisations took part in the protest, including Moviment Graffitti, Womens Rights Foundation, Malta LGBT+ Rights Movement (MGRM), Young Progressive Beings, Doctors for Choice Malta, Integra Foundation, aditus foundation, YMCA Malta, Men Against Violence, Għajjejt u Xbajt, The Malta Women’s Lobby, Alleanza kontra l-Faqar, Integra, Migrant Women Association and Women for Women Foundation.

This protest comes following the rape and murder of Polish student Paulina Dembska. Her lifeless body was found at Sliema’s Independence Garden on January 2. The main suspect, Abner Aquilina, 20, was charged with rape and murder on Thursday evening. He has pleaded not guilty.

Just before Aquilina was charged in court, a crime conference was held by the Malta Police Force. Anger and confusion erupted over comments made during this crime conference, as it was stated that the brutal rape and murder of Dembska was “not premeditated, random and not linked to her gender despite the rape charge.”

This demonstration also comes in the wake of the attempted murder of a woman in Żabbar. The victim was stabbed multiple times with a chisel in a domestic violence incident.

The activists argued that such statements, presented by three male members, “continue to show the lack of knowledge and awareness about issues related to gender and sexuality, not least about gender-based violence, which in this case culminated into yet another rape and murder of a woman.”

The organisations said that justifying such an “insensitive and uninformed claim”, by arguing that prior to Dembska’s murder, the alleged perpetrator of the crime attacked two men, does not make this crime gender neutral.

They added that the latest femicide, in a string of women murdered by men reflects a patriarchal culture based on gender stereotypes which permeates our society, to the extent that it is normalised, dismissed, trivialised and its existence denied.

“Society as a whole is responsible for gender inequality in society, for not trying hard enough to erase these gender stereotypes, to the extent that victims of gender-based violence, sexual harassment and assault, and other forms of gender-based injustices are often blamed rather than recognized as victims of this patriarchal and misogynistic society,” the organisations said.

 

Demands made by the organisations

 

During the protest, a number of demands were made in a bid to instigate change when it comes to violence against women. The organisations called for more accountability by those in authority and for concrete action in all spheres of society to address stereotypes, misogyny, and patriarchy, saying that “everyone needs to be held accountable and one needs to move beyond the rhetoric and beyond legal mechanisms.”

Addressing the problem of blaming the victim was also among the requests made by the organisations. According to the activists, this needs to be done by reviewing Malta’s sexuality and relationship guidelines in education and by examining how these lessons filter down into the classrooms and what, if any, effect they have.

Victims of sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape also need to be taken more seriously as this in turn might make victims more comfortable and trustworthy of the police and the justice system to report their abuse, the organisations said.

The activists also insisted that society needs to stop blaming the victim, rather than blaming them for being in a particular place, for wearing in a certain manner, for not reporting earlier and so on.

 

“Society is responsible for the series of rapes and femicides in Malta” 

 

“We are sick and tired of seeing ignorance around us about issues related to sex and gender. Ignorance and indifference that continue to negatively affect women of all ages, social classes, nationalities, beliefs and race,” Moviment Graffitti activist Angele Deguara said.

Deguara expressed her frustration in continuously hearing empty promises and statements from politicians stating that women are treated equally in society.

“We are tired of hearing about sexual harassment happening everywhere and not being given the importance it deserves but rather shrug it off by stating ‘it is just a joke’,” Deguara said.

“Is it just a coincidence that the victims of domestic violence and rape, that sometimes even lead to murder, are mostly women?”, she asked.

Women’s rights activist Marceline Naudi went on to express her frustration that another woman has fallen victim to such violence.

“I’m not saying that change has not progressed on this matter as there have been various amendments in laws, social policies, services, NGOs and so on. However, we are once again, here, making our voices heard,” Naudi said.

She urged the public to work together in fighting such matters and to make criticism more constructive and less destructive, with the aim of finding a solution that avoids a similar situation from happening.

“This country thrives on destructive criticism and even personal…stating defensive comments which are aggressive. Maybe it’s time to change our ways. Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that we should put an end to raising our voices, but this matter is of importance, and we need to focus on finding any kind of solution because at this stage, we are not managing,” Naudi said.

 

‘One way that change can start is when more men engage’

 

James Buhagiar, who forms part of the Men Against Violence organisation, urged good men to speak up against sexism and gender inequality.

“There are good men out there. We need more good men to speak up. We need more men to call out sexism, sexist behaviour, sexual harassment, and other violent men. One way that change can start is when more men engage,” Buhagiar said. 

The femicide that took place and others preceding it are serious matters which certainly do not fit in the pretty picture that ‘Malta is a safe place’, he said.

Buhagiar highlighted that although he is convinced that most men are horrified with Dembska’s murder, discussions on changing the culture, on the way society works and on changing men need to take place.

 

‘Education sector has a crucial role to play’ 

 

Meanwhile, LGBTIQ Rights Movement activist Amanda Cossai insisted that the education sector has a crucial role to play in preventing further violence and reducing misogyny in society.

“Equality and respect for women and femininity must start with schools. We still see children, who from an early age, consider girls inferior. A reform of sex education is needed which should start appropriately at the Primary level,” Cossai.

She added that at this point we still live in a misogynistic and patriarchal society were for many women, situations such as comments said about appearances, sexual harassment, and perhaps even stalking, have become commonplace.

Social worker and activist Omar Rababah emphasised on immigrant women, saying that apart from them being immigrants who suffer from certain shortcomings, they also suffer because they are women.

He urged the public to put a stop to gender inequality and to keep in mind, not only these women but also our actions in order to combat this toxicity that is present.

“Saying that this is part of our culture or part of our religion is false and never an excuse. No religion encourages misogynistic and patriarchal societies. Whoever uses any form of interpretation of culture or religion to justify abuse is a liar and a manipulator who should not be respected. There is no tolerance for the intolerable,” Rababah said.

 

‘Not all men are bad, but all women experienced injustice due to sexism’

 

For her part, activist Francesca Zammit who forms part of the Young Progressive Beings organisation, expressed her frustration at society where domestic violence, online and physical sexual harassment, rampant sexism and even femicide continue to be denied.

“But what was your dress like?... How many times have you heard such a question?”, Zammit asked.

“We have heard and heard this discourse against women time and time again. We are tired of defending ourselves while those who are supposed to be there to protect us continue to defend the aggressors,” Zammit said.

Women’s right activist Lara Dimitrijevic said that the reality, facts and statistics speak on their own when it comes to the abuse and violence of women.

She mentioned a number of women including Paulina Dembska, Chantelle Chetcuti, Eleanor Mangion, Shannon Mak, amongst others, saying that they lost their lives solely because a man thought he has the power to take their life. 

“We have reached to the point where all is too much, and time is up. The reality remains that women continue to be murdered and disproportionately violated.  This lack of acknowledgement and sensitivity towards the existence of violence against women is leading them to being killed,” Dimitrijevic said.

 

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