Opening up the conversation on domestic violence and femicide

'When a woman is murdered in this country, the silence, the sense of xejn m’hu xejn about it is maddening.' ROSIANNE CUTAJAR insists that legislation on its own is not enough to combat domestic violence and help the victims of abuse

'Perhaps worse than the silence is the lack of solidarity between women.'
'Perhaps worse than the silence is the lack of solidarity between women.'

Last Saturday, while everyone was getting ready to celebrate equality and gender freedom at Malta Pride, a young woman, a mother, had just met her untimely death in her residence in Paola.

Lourdes Agius was allegedly the fourth woman to have been murdered in the space of less than four months. She left six children behind her, and a newborn, a couple of weeks old.

As the chilling facts came in, any sense of pride that I was feeling, simply wore off. While our country has built such a notable civil rights record in the past few years, the steps we are taking to prevent the abuse and murder of women are way off the mark.

While we’ve worked for equality for same-sex couples, we continue to live in a patriarchal society where relations between women and men remain grossly unequal. And dangerously so.

Lourdes Agius could have been, possibly was, your friend, your mother, your sister, your aunt.

When a protected bird is shot, it gains a lot of attention. There are recriminations. There is noise. That’s fine.

But when a woman is murdered in this country, the silence, the sense of xejn m’hu xejn about it is maddening.

A woman is abused. A woman is murdered because she is a woman. The silence after her murder, the quietism, is an extension of the problem. It makes the murder worse. It leaves us all with no dignity to speak of.

Perhaps worse than the silence is the lack of unity and solidarity amongst women on the matter that goes to show how deep the malaise actually is. How far the patriarchy holds us all in its grasp.

The hushed accusations levelled at the victims rather than at their murderers. “Who knows what she did to him?” “Nobody kills for nothing”. “She had six children at 35, she wasn’t exactly a saint”. “Mhux hi kienet ma’ iswed?” 

It is high time we faced the problem of femicide and of domestic abuse but it is also high time we confronted ourselves in relation to it. 

What did we know about Lourdes Agius ahead of her death? About the circumstances of her life? We need to ask ourselves the same question, in the case of each woman — of the many women — who have met their demise in this country because they are women. 

In their book Sites of Violence, Wenona Giles and Jennifer Hyndman make the important distinction between the past idea of home as a private zone considered to be ‘beyond the purview of public responsibility’, and the approach today that abuse committed in a private residence must be seen as ‘part of broader social, political and economic processes’.

We can no longer allow a situation in which the abuse and murder of women take place as a result of our failure to plan ahead, act and intervene in order to identify and stem risks arising within the home.

The World Health Organisation has emphasised the need to have proper surveillance, data collection and screening of femicide and intimate partner violence. It has also insisted on the training of staff working in the health sector, and of medical examiners and the police.

Locally, the Women’s Rights Foundation has spoken about the need to ensure that laws protecting women against domestic abuse are effectively applied and enforced across the board.

The WHO has also put a lot of emphasis on ‘sensitising’ stakeholders as well as the community at large towards the issue. This, I believe, must be a priority in our local context, both in how we mobilise our community, and in terms of our policy direction as a government.

As a society, we need to make the issue of domestic abuse of women a subject of regular debate and conversation. By speaking about it, by turning it into an ongoing debate and make the point that it will not go away, we will keep the question of abuse current and urgent.

Stigma is a parasite. Silence in the public sphere can only empower those individuals in whose interest it is to keep their victims silent.

As a government, we must build more – and more secure – pathways for victims to come out and to feel safe to speak up about their situation and co-operate in seeking solutions.

While an important first step, legislation on its own will not by some magic translate in the improvement of the lives of those it is intended to shelter and protect.

We need, among other things, to consult widely on this matter – not least, to rope in survivors of domestic abuse, offer them security, and get them too to help us understand how best to address and prevent specific situations from happening. 

In my present role, I will be seeking ways of opening up spaces – both for a continued debate, as well as stronger policy lines to identify and nip the risks of abuse in the bud.

Let’s keep the conversation going. Let’s work to lead it to more effective action.

Rosianne Cutajar is a Labour MP

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