UN experts on Friday expressed disappointment at the rejection of the government's original abortion bill, which they said had a broader scope. 

The experts said the choice to terminate a pregnancy is at the core of women's fundamental rights to equality, dignity and bodily autonomy. 

The experts form part of a United Nations working group on discrimination against women and girls, which ended its 12-day visit to Malta on Friday.

"Data from the World Health Organisation has demonstrated that criminalising termination of pregnancy does not reduce the number of abortions," Dorothy Estrada-Tanck told journalists at a news conference. 

Tanck is the chair of a UN Working Group on discrimination against women and girls, who, alongside member Elizabeth Broderick, concluded their first official visit to Malta on Friday. 

The delegation met with a number of local authorities and stakeholders to understand the key challenges of gender discrimination. 

Tanck also highlighted that their visit came at a critical point in Maltese history when changes to Malta’s abortion laws were unanimously approved by parliament and became official law. 

The new law allows doctors to terminate a pregnancy only when a woman’s life is at risk or her health is in “grave jeopardy which may lead to death.” In the latter case, the termination must be approved by three separate doctors and the foetus must not be viable outside the womb. 

Abortion in Malta remains illegal in all other circumstances, including rape, keeping it one of the strictest legislations in the world. 

Research shows that countries where women have the right to termination of pregnancy, and are provided with information and methods of contraception, have the lowest rates of termination of pregnancy.

The delegation noted that Malta has achieved significant advancements in gender equality in recent years, but concerns remain as patriarchal culture continues to discriminate against women and girls.

“Malta has made significant progress in gender equality, particularly in the area of women’s economic empowerment, but we see that significant challenges also remain and patriarchal values and expectations of gender roles are holding back the possibility of women and girls from enjoying their human rights fully,” Tanck said. 

The delegation highlighted that such shortcomings in gender equality leads to deep-rooted gender stereotypes, the persistent under-representation of women in leadership roles, the prevalence of violence against women, and the existence of gender pay and pension gap. 

Lack of data on gender-based violence a primary concern

The delegation also highlighted their concerns regarding gender-based violence in Malta, highlighting how three women were murdered last year and another 17 were killed by their partners in the past 10 years. 

“We have consistently heard that women face substantial barriers to justice, including delays, cumbersome procedures and inconsistent responses depending on who they encounter in the system,” Broderick said. 

She said the lack of data on the prevalence of gender-based violence against women and girls was a concern, and recommended the government expand the data collected by the National Statistics Office through a regular statewide survey. 

Both experts praised the strong network of women’s civil society organisations that work in improving gender equality on the island. 

Women are under-represented in leader roles 

Looking at women and girls in public and political life, the delegates noted that the introduction of the gender mechanism in 2021 resulted in a significant increase in women’s participation in parliament. 

Despite this, the delegates still noted a lack of women in political roles, noting how they are only two female ministers, and five women out of 25 members of the cabinet, which is below the EU average. 

The percentage of female mayors in local councils is just 16%, and women in diplomatic service make up almost half, of which 22% are ambassadors. 

“Many women in public life also told us they faced more criticism than men and experienced more gender-based discriminatory speech."

They noted that gender discrimination starts in the family and recommended that schools adopt the theme of gender equality in all subjects. 

The UN group hoped that State authorities, along with younger generations and all sectors of society will commit to the transformative actions necessary to continue to bring positive change.

The Working Group will present a full report on the visit to the UN Human Rights Council in June 2024. 

The experts' statement in full can be read here.

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