Unplanned pregnancies may no longer be taboo but the impact on the expectant mothers remains the same, says Maria Attard, 68, who was at Dar Ġużeppa Debono from the start.
“This means that the number of those who seek our support has remained constant, but sadly we have had to stop our residency service for underage mothers because of lack of resources.”
Dar Ġużeppa Debono is a Church NGO that supports parents of unplanned pregnancies and promotes the importance of healthy relationships.
The youngest girl hosted at the house over the years was 13 and the oldest 42. The house opened 32 ago years ago as a residence for teenage mothers as well as married women who got pregnant as a result of an extramarital affair.
“Back then, pregnant women used to come to Gozo from Malta either because they were kicked out of their house, to get away from gossip or just to seek respite and reflect on their lives. Most often these pregnancies were unplanned.”
The women – or their relatives – would knock on the Gozo Church’s door, and the expectant mothers would be taken to a nunnery, some private accommodation or a hotel room.
In the meantime, Ms Attard, a secondary school teacher by profession, was observing schoolchildren going through a “rebel phase” and she felt these teenagers needed a place of respite.
When someone is in need, what should we do?
Mgr Manuel Curmi, then in charge of Gozo Caritas, approached her in 1985 and together with other volunteers started looking for a place that could serve this purpose.
So the Church refurbished part of Lourdes home in Għajnsielem, originally founded by Ġużeppa Debono as a children’s home.
“I still remember the first woman who sought refuge at the house on January 4, 1986. It’s something you will not forget, especially when unplanned pregnancies were still taboo and a dishonour for some.”
Back then, some had scorned the philanthropic organisation.
“People who looked down on us expressed some sense of superiority… but, at the end of the day, we are all the same from the sky downwards,” she told The Sunday Times of Malta.
Wasn’t she perturbed by this antagonism? “The liturgy tells us to welcome people who cannot give us anything back and to not judge anyone. When someone is in need, what should we do? Turn our back on them or welcome them? When we point our finger at someone, there are another four pointing at us. Rather than be concerned about their actions, we should be concerned about their dignity.”
The home, which is open to people of all religions and denominations, welcomes everyone, including those who have gone through with an abortion. One case that she will always remember is that of a girl, aged 17, whose father wanted her to have an abortion and made the necessary arrangements. Just as she was about to leave the island, her aunt took her to Dar Ġużeppa Debono, where she stayed on and eventually gave birth to a boy whom the grandfather immediately fell in love with.
At the home, expectant mothers do not only find a roof over their head but are also provided with counselling on how to maintain healthy relationships, continue their studies or work and learn new skills, such as money management. The NGO also holds seminars at secondary schools and sixth form about the dynamics of relationships and abusive symptoms, among others.
Ms Attard believes that the need for the NGO’s services remains.
“Rather than stopping the service and creating a vacuum, we have updated it along the years. It has been very challenging for us, as we are constantly trying to find new ways of acquiring funds, since we are an NGO.”
Despite taking on the role of running the house as a volunteer, Ms Attard spent 25 years sleeping at the house, so that Dar Ġużeppa Debono could be able to provide a 24/7 service.
Unfortunately, this is no longer available for underage women and the NGO is looking for a way to be able to restart this service.
“We are looking for someone with management skills – and a human touch – who is willing to take on the role. While we still host women over 18, we are getting requests for underage expectant mothers to stay there, whom we cannot keep.”
Log on to www.darguzeppadebono.org for more information.
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