Friday 20 July 2018

Wanted: A strong lobby for domestic violence victims

This article first appeared in Malta Today

The construction industry has one, the business community has one and the gay community has successfully proven how even ‘radical’ laws can be introduced if you know how to use one with a great deal of savvy.

I’m talking about lobbies.

At a time when the new administration is still basking in the glow of a resounding electoral victory, there is probably no better moment for a wide-ranging variety of women’s groups and organizations to come together and lobby politicians on behalf of domestic violence victims. Ideally, of course, this collective lobbying should have been done prior to the election, putting pressure on MPs and the respective party leaders to find out who is ready to really do something about the lack of enforcement and victim protection, and the inhumane, unacceptable delays in our Courts when it comes to these cases. But since that didn’t happen (that I know of), then it needs to happen now that the new Cabinet and the new backbenchers have settled in their roles and want to “look good” in the eyes of those who elected them, if only to show the electorate that they have made the right choice.

Of course, it should not have to come to this kind of cynical maneuvering, because it should be a matter of course that a left-wing party in Government takes up the cause of women and children who continue to suffer at the hands of violent perpetrators, because of so many holes in the system. Maybe it’s because championing the rights of women who are battered black and blue, not only physically, but emotionally, psychologically and mentally, with their kids witnessing all this, is not a very uplifting topic. After all, here one is dealing with the human condition at its worse where one person raises their fist to strike another, or makes their life a living hell, just because he holds all the controlling power, which often includes the finances. And this from the person who was supposed to “love and cherish you” and with whom you may have children.

As Roberta Lepre, who recently stepped down from her role as Director of Victim Support Malta after nine years, pointed out in an interview with the Times of Malta, the situation in the field of domestic violence has only improved slightly. The following sentence was telling, “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?”

Indeed, why not? The lack of political drive is particularly glaring – we know very well that when PM Joseph Muscat wants to get something done, he will turn over any obstacle and do it, come hell or high water. There have been many incredible changes in society, thanks also to Minister Helena Dalli and the people in her ministry who have steered through a lot of the reforms.

And yet we have half the population who cannot seem to get their voices heard to push through much-needed reforms and apply enforcement on a social issue which is affecting thousands of abused women and their families. Where is the outcry and outrage when you hear of a woman who was told by the Court not to return to her marital home because of her ex-husband’s violent disposition? The man, accused of domestic abuse and marital rape, was released on bail and ordered not to return to the matrimonial home. However, according to the news report on this case: “To avoid further trouble between the couple, the court further recommended that the victim should also refrain from returning to the matrimonial home which appeared to have been a bone of contention ever since the woman had decided to break off her relationship with the accused. ‘Don’t make matters worse!’ were the court’s final words of advice.”

If this woman, who happens to be a police officer, gets this kind of treatment, one can imagine how much protection an ordinary civilian feels she is afforded by the system.

Part of the reason feminists clamour for more female representation in Parliament is so that issues such as domestic violence are brought to the top of the agenda and prioritized by the Government of the day. And yet the most recent news I could find quoting Minister Dalli on this pressing issue is from March of this year when she was reported as saying that “Malta is currently working to achieve full implementation of the Istanbul Convention across all laws, and on the repeal of archaic provisions that are not in line with the Convention.”

(The 2014 Istanbul Convention on Domestic Violence characterizes violence against women as a violation of human rights and a form of discrimination. Countries should exercise due diligence when preventing violence, protecting victims and prosecuting perpetrators. States which ratify the Convention must criminalize several offences, including: psychological violence, stalking, physical violence and sexual violence, including rape, explicitly covering all engagement in non-consensual acts of a sexual nature with a person. The Convention states that sexual harassment must be subject to “criminal or other legal sanction”.)

To be fair, there was some movement a few weeks ago when the European Union signed the Istanbul Convention, “following a historic agreement reached by the Maltese Presidency of the Council of the European Union. This development was possible following the lead taken by the Maltese Presidency of the European Union in the prioritisation provided to the negotiation of this dossier.”

The first reading of the Gender-based Violence and Domestic Violence Bill took place in November 2016 and the parliamentary process will continue in due course. There is also another project underway called ‘Full Cooperation: Zero Violence’, to implement much needed structural reforms and training programmes, which is meant to be concluded by the end of 2018. This is commendable, but in comparison to other laws which have moved at lightning speed, this all seems to be dragging on far too long, especially since women’s lives are at stake.

There is another aspect to this lack of progress to help domestic violence victims, although I will probably get a lot of flak for pointing it out. Sometimes I think the problem also lies in the fact that there are simply too many women’s groups and NGOs all working on their own, rather than joining forces and working together. I realise there are some issues on which there is complete disagreement such as the Morning After Pill and embryo freezing, but surely when it comes to domestic violence these groups should all be on the same page? And yet I often get the impression that everyone is too busy working in their own little niche, fighting their corner for their own pet causes and are unwilling to put their differences aside to unite on this major concern (I would be very glad to be proved wrong on this, but that is how it appears to me).

In contrast and in comparison, it seems to me that the LGBTIQ community was one united front, and knew exactly which specific laws required changing and how to go about it. This lobby also put considerable pressure on the politicians concerned, and ensured that the pressure never let up by reminding them just how many people were affected by this lack of legislature for equal rights, how important it was for those of a different sexual orientation to feel they belonged in today’s society, and how this could only be achieved if laws were reformed and changed. Did they use leverage on the Labour Party by constantly pointing out just how many votes could be gained by enacting this legislation? Yes, I’m sure that happened too. When you want the quality of life of the people you are fighting for to improve, you will use any means necessary.

If the Labour Government wants to be calculating about it, it could simply look at this as a way of gaining even more votes. But if it wants to be a truly left-wing, socialist Government which cares about those who are most vulnerable, it needs to search deep and rediscover its soul. It needs to create better, more well-financed structures, increase human resources, invest in a more well-trained police force, enact laws, and enforce them diligently to improve the lives of those who still live in constant fear.

And it needs to do it as fast as possible.

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