Some two months ago, the Women’s Rights Foundation (WRF) launched a position paper on abortion, kicking the doors wide open for a public discussion about the divisive topic – a hitherto unprecedented state of affairs, in a country where even mention of the word itself was considered taboo.
The four points have now been discussed and rediscussed by pretty much everyone in Malta and Gozo. The woman behind the paper? Lara Dimitrijevic, human rights lawyer and WRF director, and long-term and vociferous champion of women’s rights.
Because abortion and reproductive rights, she passionately believes, are indeed a question of human rights – the right to bear children, or to not bear them. But, although the WRF as an entity has been in existence for about five years, Lara’s work in the field started much before that, spurred on by her choice of specialisation in the legal profession.
“In truth I always felt that my mindset was very different to that of most people in Malta. It was one of the reasons that made me want to leave the island. But then, I met Alex – now my husband. He had already moved country once. He was done with moving, and it was understandable. I decided to stay and, despite not fitting in, embracing the challenge,” she tells me with a smile.
It is a polite, soft-spoken woman that sits in front of me for the interview. Certainly, not the face of a murderer, as the voices spearheading the pro-life lobby would have us believe.
Good humour shines through in her demeanour. Although, given the continuous insults publicly thrown in her direction – many of them obscene – and the (ironic, if only they would realise) death threats would be enough to make anyone lose it.
I ask the obvious question: given such vociferous resistance, does she every get discouraged, tempted to throw it all off?
“No. When I decided to stay in Malta, I also decided to do everything in my power to challenge the status quo. This is why I can’t let myself be discouraged. And also, I do see a form of progress, no matter how minimal.”
“Well, people are actually talking about abortion. There is a discussion, when before there wasn’t even that. It’s a pretty historical moment, from that point of view. People are expressing an opinion. Whether it’s an informed opinion, is a different story. The important thing is that the matter is being discussed,” she tells me. Pressed about this not-inconsiderable matter of an ‘informed opinion’, Lara sighs.
“We do lack critical thinking. You can see it everywhere, from the way people debate a point to the way University students interact. I remember always being an activist, leading protests for various causes ever since my student days. Most of us took an interest. We thought about what was happening around us, we analysed it, and we protested if need be. Today… I’m not so sure that this type of critical thinking still exists,” she tells me.
A state of affairs that was made even more obvious to her when she re-joined University as a mature student. Everywhere she looked, apathy reigned. “I saw a huge presence of everything that I had wanted to run away from. The majority were extremely materialistic. Cars, possessions, this was all that mattered.”
This was at the time that cars belonging to the Jesuit community were vandalised, back in 2006, shortly after the priests had spoken out against racism. The reactions on campus, Lara remembers, were far from exemplary.
“No-one cared. They couldn’t see why it was important to support these people, to stand up and be counted. They were all like sheep, moving from one popular thing to the next, and this realisation upset me no end.”
Spurred on by a strong sense of justice, Lara completed the law course, in the optimistic belief that at the law courts, at least, she could serve justice.
“Of course, it turned out to be the opposite. I was already active in a number of women’s rights NGOs by then and the situation at the law courts only further dismayed me. The gender imbalance was huge, with women being grossly disadvantaged. And, I could also see that most existing NGOs were not really doing enough,” the lawyer reminisces.
It was the last straw in a series of such annoyances – and thus, the Women’s Rights Foundation was born in 2013. Because, the lawyer adds, a lack of power over their own reproductive rights is only one aspect of the everyday problems women face.
“There’s violence, pay gap, sex education, unequal opportunities, juggling motherhood and career…” The latter cause is especially close to her heart, given that she has experienced this exact problem herself.
“At one point, I was struggling to run my own business while fulfilling all those duties that are expected of me as a mother of three. I just couldn’t cope. The family had to take a decision. My husband and I weighed all pros and cons and finally we decided that he should be the main child carer, while I focused on work and business.” How did that work out? Very well, it turns out.
“At first I struggled, and still kept trying to do everything. The idea is so ingrained in me… Then Alex kept reminding me that I didn’t need to and we gradually got into a new routine. Nowadays, the children are used to it, as it’s what they know. They don’t think there’s anything odd about it.
“Malta fares very badly when it comes to women and time, as in the time that women have for themselves. The responsibilities have not yet shifted to sharing. Ever since my husband took over that side of things, the difference in our quality time together as a family has been incredible,” she says.
So what is the cause of the problem? Is this an infrastructure, government issue? Or does it stem deeper? Lara believes that it’s not necessarily a problem with the legal framework.
“We do have a number of facilities in place to help mothers manage work and parental duties – this is not to say that it’s the ideal situation. Do we really want to ‘institutionalise’ our kids within a pre-school setting, for want of a better verb, so early on in life? I think we might see repercussions to this later on. Still, I do think that the problem is a cultural one, based on society’s expectations, more than anything else.”
Will things ever change? Lara is hopeful that, slowly, they will.
“My work mostly involves trying to bring about a shift in thinking, a change in the way we approach things. As a country, we have gone through great changes – some of them too fast, maybe, but here we are. We did it. The same can be extended to other issues,” she tells me.
The discourse, she adds, is currently very much focused on the new IVF legislation, as is to be expected.
“After that is done and dusted, the abortion issue needs to be picked up again. It is important for Maltese women; the WRF’s position paper was also heavily inspired by the recent rise in STDs in our country, especially among adolescents. Our teenage pregnancy rate is also through the roof. All this is very alarming, especially as mother to a teenage daughter. The stories she tells me about things she hears at Junior College, how casually other students confide that they ‘picked up an STD’. Clearly, something is very wrong.”
How does abortion fit in all this. The issue, Lara believes, cannot be approached in a vacuum. On the contrary, abortion rights are the very last link in a long chain that includes sex education and access to contraception.
“Sex education needs to be objective and science-based. We can’t keep on feeding our children ineffective lies, like abstention. We have seen that it doesn’t work. Harping on that is irresponsible.”
Lara also believes in the value of a sex education that starts off at a very young age. She mentions Norway as an example, where school-children are given the facts at a very young age – including, famously, through a state-funded TV series – and where teenagers become sexually active at a much later age than Malta.
“The facts speak for themselves. We need to act now, or we are guilty of doing a disservice to the younger generations of women,” Lara concludes.
This interview was first published on the Sunday Circle magazine.
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