The rape and murder of Polish student Paulina Dembska earlier this month has left many women questioning their safety and has stirred up a discussion on whether it is time for pepper spray to become legalised.

Pepper spray, also known as capsicum spray or mace, is an inflammatory agent and causes an immediate burning sensation and irritation to the eyes, nose, throat and lungs.

Like some other European countries, including Denmark, Belgium and Ireland, it is illegal to purchase or carry pepper spray in Malta.

According to law, members of the armed forces, the police and prison services may carry a firearm or ammunition for use while on duty.

In 2020, a legal notice was issued giving detention officers the authority to carry pepper spray canisters as part of their uniform.

But after Dembska’s lifeless body was found at Sliema’s Independence Garden early on January 2, there was a surge in women wanting to join self-defence classes, others wishing to take matters in their own hands and carry self-defence tools such as pepper spray to protect themselves.

Hairspray and deodorant 'just as effective'

On popular Facebook group, Women for Women, many discussed the use of pepper spray and other alternatives which can be used for self-defence.

“Do you believe pepper spray should be legal,” one woman asked.

“I’m used to carrying it abroad all the time and it does make me feel a lot safer.”

Others say that hairspray and deodorant are just as effective while one woman suggested the use of Deep Heat, a pain relieving and warm spray used for muscle injuries.

“I’m going to start keeping one (Deep Heat spray can) in my bag,” a woman commented, as others agreed it was a good idea.

One mother told her daughter to carry perfume: “I think it’s still good but, at that time, you will be shocked and confused, so it might not come to mind to use it.”

More and more women shared what they usually carry in their bags, ranging from perfumes, deodorants... one even went on to say she carried a pair of scissors at a point in time.

Others said they were concerned using any weapon out of fear that it could be used against them by the aggressor. Some shared their stories of how they carry their keys in their hands when walking home.

“My mother taught us when walking in the dark to hold a key between our fingers just in case someone attacks you… I still do it till this day and passed it on to my kids… and when someone is following you enter the first open door and say: ‘mum, I am home’, ” one woman said.

A petition for the legalisation of pepper spray was set-up days after the murder of Dembska, 29. But what happens if someone is caught using perfume, deodorant or deep-heat for self-defence?

A home affairs ministry spokesperson explained that it must be a clear case that the object is being used for self-defence and that the victim’s life was in danger.

Legalisation is a ‘slippery-slope’

Lawyer and director of the Women’s Rights Foundation, Lara Dimitrijevic explained that the legalisation of pepper spray is a ‘slippery slope’ and is not truly tackling the true issue.

“If we are tipping to the point that we remain in a situation where women and girls continue to feel the need to protect themselves whenever they are outside their house, then, clearly, we are not tackling the root problem,” Dimitrijevic told Times of Malta.

“If we are to allow women to carry such a weapon, it will lead to the slippery slope of ‘I should have the fundamental human right to carry an armed weapon as a man or any gender so that I can feel safe when I go out’,” she said.

“I don’t think it is a matter of whether pepper spray or any other weapon should be legalised to make a person feel safe. Instead, we need to identify the root cause of what is not making that person feel safe and do something about it.”

Dimitrijevic said that change must come from a cultural, educational and legislative level.

“We need to make sure that, when it comes to prosecution and charging the aggressor, the gender motivation behaviour is addressed and offences are placed to show that our legislation does not tolerate it,” she added.

“If change is not holistic and across the board, women will continue to feel unsafe and need to find means to protect themselves. Ultimately, all society, the authorities and the state need to take responsibility.”

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