Roberta Lepre, whose name is synonymous with advocacy for victims of crime, is stepping down as director of the NGO Victim Support Malta nearly a decade after she took up the post. The lawyer tells Sarah Carabott there is a lot more to be done, especially when it comes to child protection.

Roberta Lepre: “We really need to beef up child protection services by increasing resources.” Photo: Matthew MirabelliRoberta Lepre: “We really need to beef up child protection services by increasing resources.” Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Why are you giving up the post now?

I would like to focus more on my private practice – something I was meant to be doing while still VSM director. I invested a lot of my time and energy in VSM and after nine years I felt it was time to focus a bit more on my career, as I was not doing enough legal work. I’d be very happy to continue contributing and I will be staying on as a board member.

So it was not a matter of giving up on the cause, was it?

No, I still very much believe in the cause and there is a lot more work to be done. We have only just started.

Things have improved slightly but I don’t think it needs to take so long to implement some of the required changes. Especially when changes have taken place in other sectors that nobody would have thought possible. We had a complete revolution within the LGBTIQ sector because there was the political will and drive. Why can’t we employ the same drive towards the most vulnerable, where change has been a long time coming?

Did you ever come close to giving up over the past nine years?

Discouraged is the word. Over the years I have taken part in various working groups and sat on different commissions and committees but we are still talking about the same issues. It is a little bit demotivating for me.

The political will seems to be there. I think what we need is the investment. I have been saying this for years and I do not want this to sound like it is all about the money, but it is very much about the money. You cannot train a whole police force, or create protocols, without a budget. You cannot maintain the same workforce and not increase human resources when the caseload has doubled.

We also need to start recording data properly. The courts and the police do not collate the data and publish it, and the force provides it only upon request. Lack of available data is one massive failure. It is very difficult to develop policies and programmes without the data. We need to record data from the beginning of the process, when a person files a report, to the very end, when and if someone is granted parole.

Meanwhile, institutions need to work together more. This applies to State entities, which need to work together and with NGOs.

So what kept you going throughout these years?

My colleagues, a good cohort of volunteers and service providers.

Working for an NGO is challenging, especially on the financial side. The allocation of funds is nowadays mostly project-based. For NGOs like VSM, which offer a service, it is a challenge and a headache to cover operating costs.

I also think it would be more effective and efficient if people joined existing NGOs rather than create new ones.

VSM actually branched out of Mid-Dlam ghad-Dawl more than a decade ago, providing support to victims of all crime. However, people associate the NGO mainly with domestic violence. Did priorities change?

The aim of VSM remains that of supporting and advocating for victims of crime in its widest sense… sometimes there is no clear line between victims and offenders. Research has shown that a victim of sexual violence could be an offender in a different context.

We can support them through the process, but not fight their fight

The highest crime trend in Malta is that of theft, however the vast majority of people who approach VSM are victims of domestic violence. Not a lot of theft victims seek help. Sometimes it takes years for someone who was robbed to seek help. Over the past three years we have seen an increase in victims of sexual violence following the launch of the sexual assault specialised service. Usually, a spike is related to the nature of an ongoing project.

Last year for example, we saw an increase in the number of bullying victims seeking help. Awareness is very effective and sometimes encourages people to seek help a whole decade after being victimised.

As you pointed out, the number of reports of domestic violence has increased. Is this reflected in the number of convicted people?

The percentage of convictions remains low – we are failing in terms of protection and punishment.

What are your thoughts about the legalisation of prostitution?

There are for and against arguments, and I have not yet carried out enough research to make up my mind. Instinctively, I don’t like the idea of prostitution, as I find it exploitative, but I have come across professionals who have worked with sex workers and insist they are doing it freely. On one hand I look at prostitution as something that is exploitative but on the other hand I don’t want to be patronising and moralistic.

The point I would like to make is: how selective is law enforcement? We have so many other crimes that people are hardly ever prosecuted for, such as sexual harassment, which is a criminal offence. It is possible that sex workers are an easy pick. We can draw parallels with traffic contraventions: several are fined for parking on a yellow line but how many are fined for not using an indicator?

The law in itself is not flawed – it is the way we apply the law and enforce it which is wrong.

Which victims, in your opinion, are we ignoring?

Child abuse victims, who do not have a voice. We really need to beef up childprotection services by increasing resources. This includes focusing also on child neglect.

Have victims taught you anything?

I have learned a lot about resilience, coping and accepting. I have also changed my perspective about “winning”. Unfortunately, the outcome for victims is very often not what I would have been expecting. However, I realised that speaking up always helps the victims. Even if the offender is not punished the way I would have expected, the victims feel better and this helps their wellbeing. Their situation becomes a bit more bearable.

Is there one case that has stood out for you?

I will always remember women who turned up at VSM feeling disempowered. After doubting whether I could give them enough courage I would come across them a year later having managed to find a job and get on with their lives. These very simple stories were very motivating.

What is your appeal to victims?

I want to appeal to people to fight. Sometimes, we cannot fight people’s fight for them. We can support them through the process, but not fight their fight. A lot of people give up and are afraid... I cannot blame them because they are scared of retaliation, they are tired, and sometimes it is expensive… but unless people start rebelling and not accepting certain things, there would not be any reason to change anything.

Help at hand

Victim Support Malta provides support and assistance to victims of crimes such as theft, domestic violence, sexual assault, harassment, discrimination and cybercrime. Its services include emotional support to overcome trauma, the provision of legal information on criminal procedures as well as practical assistance. More information on www.victimsupport.org.mt, or get in touch on info@victimsupport.org.mt and 2122 8333 .

sarah.carabott@timesofmalta.com

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