In 2022, three women were murdered – Paulina Dembska, Rita Ellul and Bernice Cassar. Three men, former partners in the latter two cases, were charged with their murder. In June, the government introduced the concept of femicide into Maltese law. Is it enough in the light of growing cases of domestic violence that are set to reach a record high this year? Claudia Calleja reports.
The decision to introduce femicide into Maltese law has been welcomed by women's rights campaigners as a step in the right direction. But it remains a first step.
Many of those at the heart of femicide and domestic violence – those who lost mothers, daughters, friends to reality – believe nothing will change unless it is backed by real commitment: resources and education.
One such person is Karl Schembri, whose father, Anthony, was charged with stabbing his mother, Doris Schembri, to death in a hospital bed in 2005.
“For as long as we’re surrounded by police who don’t get it, law courts that postpone serious domestic violence cases to next year and other institutions that are incompetent or focused on other lucrative and corrupt practices, the femicide law will just be good to maybe add more years of a murderer in prison. But women and vulnerable children will keep getting killed and made motherless,” says Karl.
He echoes the words of the daughter of another femicide victim, Catherine Agius, who was stabbed by her husband in 2009.
In a recent interview, Catherine’s daughter, now an adult, said: “Femicide. It’s a word. What will be different? If a woman going through abuse comes forward, what difference will it make if no action is taken?” Catherine’s daughter, and her two siblings, spoke up after the murder of mother-of-two Bernice Cassar who was shot dead in November. Her estranged husband has been charged with her murder.
Bernice was the third femicide victim this year. In January, Polish student Paulina Dembska was raped and murdered in Sliema on January 2. Abner Aquilina has since been accused of the crime.
Dembska’s murder, especially, sparked protests, with women rights’ groups ramping up the pressure to introduce femicide as a crime separate to homicide. Femicide, by definition, is the killing of a woman or of a girl by a man on the basis of her gender.
In February, Rita Ellul was strangled to death in Għajnsielem. Her partner, Lawrence Abina, has been charged with killing her.
Femicide. A crime in its own right?
Edward Zammit Lewis, who was justice minister at the time, recalls the debate: introduce femicide as a separate crime or include it into the law on homicide?
“Those in favour of establishing femicide as a separate criminal offence argue that such a step helps in raising awareness and in identifying this specific form of crime. On the other hand, those who are not convinced of the necessity of such a step argue that a specific offence would be more difficult for prosecutors to prove and, at the end of the day, would not really help the fight against such violence…”
The ‘specific offence’ approach is sometimes also criticised as being sexist but the counter-argument is that there is a much bigger problem of women being murdered by men than vice versa.
In June, the law came into force. It did not introduce the crime of femicide but provided for a motivation of the crime of homicide, whereby, in such cases, the judge ought to consider the highest form of punishment: life imprisonment. The law also removed the argument of ‘crime of passion’ as a defence in such cases.
Zammit Lewis adds: “Establishing a separate offence would have taken us into largely unchartered legal territory.”
Positive first step
This was seen as a positive first step by women’s rights groups as well as by the commissioner on gender-based violence and domestic violence, Audrey Friggieri.
“The introduction of the concept of ‘femicide’ is of utmost significance for our country. It has to do with equality, acknowledging the female of the species, her particular presence and lived experience and her equal rights to those of the male of the species, the latter having been arbitrarily selected to refer to and cover all genders in existence,” says Friggieri.
She adds: “History, as we all know, recounts the story of ‘mankind’, the evolution of ‘man’, the expression of wisdom in terms of ‘man’… The meaning of homicide stems from ‘cide’, from the Latin ‘cida’, referring to killing, while the Latin ‘homo’ means ‘man’. This makes homicide the ‘killing of a man’.”
Lara Dimitrijevic, founder of the Women’s Rights Foundation, notes this is the first time that the law recognises situations of violence against women.
“To date, our laws have been gender-neutral and, as activists, we have been saying this gender-neutral approach is causing more harm because it fails to recognise that women are disproportionately more affected than men when it comes to domestic violence and intimate partner violence. Introducing the concept of femicide is a welcomed step in the right direction.”
But it is not enough. This is recognised by everyone: from victims’ children, to the former minister who introduced the law.
“A lot has been done. It is important, however, that the present administration continues to invest in proper training of the police and the right administrative structures for the prevention of such situations and granting adequate and timely help and protection to these victims. This applies as well to our law courts where it must be ensured that cases involving domestic violence and violence involving women and girls are treated with urgency,” Zammit Lewis said.
Many promises have been made in the wake of Cassar’s femicide.
The government launched an inquiry into the “system that failed her” as a victim of domestic violence who filed previous police reports and whose court case was scheduled for November 2023. The government also said it would add another magistrate to deal with the backlog of domestic violence cases, which are currently handled by one magistrate.
Urgent need of resources
The police have spoken about the lack of resources at the domestic violence unit where officers face burnout.
Dimitrijevic and Friggieri agree on the urgent need for resources and a serious commitment to address the root causes of gender inequality, gender stereotyping and harmful attitudes and behaviours that continue to feed and perpetuate the cycle of violence.
Dimitrijevic says: “There needs to be ongoing professional training to all frontliners, including the police, courts and lawyers, serious financial investment to ensure that service providers and stakeholders, including, once again, the courts, have the capacity to deal with cases of domestic violence with expediency. There needs to be access to protection orders and ensure that, when they are breached, there is immediate and effective action taken.”
Friggieri adds: “We need to change our ways of thinking and being, stop acting on autopilot, repeating patterns of behaviour that we have inherited from tradition and reflect on our behaviour and the meaning of human rights. This concerns all educational institutions including all media, especially social media.”
But will this talk get us anywhere? Will the government allocate the resources where needed? Will people learn from this?
In the words of Agius’s daughter: “Whenever there is a case [of femicide], everyone becomes an expert and talks about how ‘the system failed her’. People write poems and sing songs. But no one helped when she needed it. If someone asks for help, it should be immediate.
“People spoke before us. Nothing changed. I wish something I say could change things but this will not be the last case, I’m sure.”