Femicide cannot be listed as a crime or an aggravating offence to homicide since murder, irrespective of gender, already carries the maximum punishment of life imprisonment, Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis has said.

He was responding to a University of Malta and Women's Rights Foundation report that recommended femicide should be made a criminal offence or an aggravating offence of homicide.

The report was released 48 hours after the murder of Polish woman Paulina Dembska, who was raped and strangled at Sliema’s Independence Garden early on Sunday, 2 January.

“Addressing femicide - defined as the killing of a girl or a woman because she is a girl or a woman - is not necessarily about legislative changes," Zammit Lewis said.

Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis on femicide. VIDEO: Jonathan Borg

"We have to look into administrative and social changes through better education, enforcement and training of those who come into contact with victims and perpetrators,” he said.

 Zammit Lewis said it did not make sense to add femicide as an aggravating offence since, by definition, an aggravating office resulted in a harsher punishment.

In this case the punishment for murder was the harshest allowed by Maltese law - life behind bars.

“What happened recently was a social shock,” he said. “However, legal amendments are not a knee jerk reaction to what happens,” he said. While Malta had ratified the Istanbul Convention, clearly there is still a lot to be done, he said.

What does the law say on gender-based violence?

In 2018 the Gender-Based and the Domestic Violence Act was enacted, when Malta ratified the Istanbul Convention, the legal framework on tackling gender-based violence.

Under the law anyone found guilty of committing a crime because of a person’s gender must face an increased punishment. Gender based violence includes psychological and physical violence, stalking, rape and other sexual violence, sexual harassment and human trafficking.

At the moment Maltese law does not mention the word ‘femicide’  - defined as murdering a woman, because she is a women. While certain crimes carry a harsher punishment if they are deemed gender-based, this does not apply to murder. But murder carries the harshest punishment possible.

Dr Marceline Naudi, senior lecture at the University of Malta’s Faculty for Social Wellbeing, said that while recognising femicide in the law was important, one of the biggest issues faced by women experiencing domestic violence remained court delays.

Too much time was passing between the time a woman plucked up the courage to file a police report, the time when the perpetrator was charged in court and then the duration of the court case. As the process dragged on for years these women remained vulnerable as the perpetrator was out and about and, in some cases, the violence continues, she said.

Paulina Dembska's lifeless body was found ten days ago. 

Murder suspect, Abner Aquilina, 20, has not yet been charged as he is being kept under observation for a mental health assessment at Mount Carmel Hospital.

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