A quarter of women have been physically, emotionally or sexually abused by their husband or partner, according to a study which reveals, for the first time, the prevalence of domestic violence on the island.

More than half of abused women have never sought help, the groundbreaking study also found.

Emotional abuse emerged as the most prevalent followed by physical and sexual abuse. Over 60 per cent of battered women suffered severe violence that included being kicked, punched, dragged or threatened with a gun. Three per cent were beaten by their partner while pregnant and carrying his child, with some suffering a miscarriage or still birth.

The results also showed that 11 per cent had contemplated suicide and some actually tried to end their lives.

The study, based on interviews with 1,200 women, was undertaken by the Commission for Domestic Violence and carried out by Marika Fsadni. It will be tabled in Parliament.

The findings were launched during a seminar yesterday organised by the commission as part of the activities held to mark the European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion.

Former Domestic Violence Commissioner, Marceline Naudi, who chaired the seminar and under whose watch the study was commissioned, said the findings would help guide policies and improve services offered to women.

“The findings reflect international figures that say that one in every four women are victims of domestic violence... Now that we have the figures, showing us that more than half do not seek help, we need to ask ourselves what we can do about the situation,” Dr Naudi said.

The study was based on interviews with a representative sample of women aged between 18 and 59 from a number of localities in Malta and Gozo.

“What struck me was that domestic violence is prevalent all over the island and across different ages. Young women too have a high risk of abuse despite the fact one might think their generation would be different,” Ms Fsadni said when asked what struck her most about her findings.

The study showed that 54 per cent (75) of those who experienced physical violence by an intimate partner never sought help. Of those who did, about a quarter went to the police and others resorted to a variety of sources including lawyers, the civil courts, a priest or religious leader, hospital or health centre and social services including the government’s support agency Appoġġ and its night shelter.

Sina Bugeja, chief executive of the Foundation of Social Welfare Services, said the findings highlighted the need to encourage victims of abuse to speak up and seek help.

She called a revision of the Mediation Act, which forces couples to go through mediation even if there is abuse involved. “The study highlights a clear and resounding lack of resources,” she added.

Dr Naudi agreed, adding the commission had been battling for more resources since six months after it was set up in 2006.

A woman’s voice

Maria’s husband always told her she was worthless and, after hearing those angry words repeatedly barked at her for years, she believed him.

She fell into a severe depression and, like 11 per cent of abused women, became convinced the only way out of her abusive marriage was to take her own life.

“Walking away from my marriage was not an option. I didn’t want to break down my marriage,” she said with the comfort of hindsight.

After trying to hurt herself, Maria ended up at Mount Carmel Hospital where she found the support she needed. The hospital staff, coupled with support from her family, helped her realise it was the atmosphere at home that was making her miserable.

After spending over 20 years in her marriage, a few years ago Maria plucked up the courage to walk away. She had finally realised it was her husband who had a problem and not her.

Her husband never laid a hand on her but abused her emotionally. He made her feel that everything was her fault and she was worth nothing without him.

“I used to ask him what he ate for lunch to make sure I cooked something different for dinner. He would come home in the evening, take his plate from the table and empty it into the bin without even tasting it...

“The few times we had sex, he would turn me away from him so he would not see my face,” she recalled.

His attitude towards her was the same even before they got married. She thought back to how silly she had been to think marriage would change him.

Now that she has left the matrimonial home and started separation proceedings, over two years ago, she is waiting for the court to settle the matter and split their assets.

“It feels wrong that I am the victim and I am suffering. At the moment, I’m struggling to make ends meet and pay the rent... All the court has to do is divide our assets,” she said.

“My message to women is: If I managed to get out of it, so can they... I would also want to fight the stigma surrounding Mount Carmel,” she said.

The name Maria and some details have been changed to protect her identity.

Domestic violence in numbers

• 23 per cent (266 women in the study) experienced emotional abuse by an intimate partner, 12 per cent (140) were physically abused and nine per cent (109) sexually abused.

• 56 per cent of women abused by an intimate partner fought back.

• 73 per cent (878) believed that family problems should remain within the family.

• Four per cent (49) were forced to have sex or perform a sexual act. In half the cases, the abuser was the boyfriend.

• 6.4 per cent (77) were touched sexually or made to do something sexual before the age of 15.

• 6.5 per cent (78) were beaten or physically mistreated. Of these, 37 per cent were abused by their father.

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