Femicide: a nightmare from which we never ‘wake up’

As the NCPE reminded us, almost exactly a year ago:  This entails a concerted effort from all sectors and authorities, and from all citizens and residents, both women and men'

With hindsight, there is a certain irony in how the shocking murder of Pauline Dembska was reported back in December 2021.

At the time, the National Commission for the Promotion of Equality (NCPE) issued a statement that would be reflected in virtually all editorial commentary about the same murder:

“The femicide of Paulina Dembska should serve as a wake-up call to seriously examine and address the unequal power relations between women and men in our society. This entails a concerted effort from all sectors and authorities, and from all citizens and residents, both women and men.”

To be fair, it would be inaccurate to say that this advice went entirely unheeded. Since Dembska’s murder, Malta has introduced ‘femicide’ as an aggravating offence to the Criminal Code: extending the definition to include “domestic violence, honour killings, misogynistic intentions, as well as religious practices such as genital mutilation and sexual abuse.”

Nonetheless: femicide seems to be a recurring nightmare, from which Malta never seems to quite ‘wake up’.  Even before 2022, previous cases such as that of Chantelle Chetcuti – stabbed to death by her estranged partner in 2020 - had already rung the alarm bell about an apparent spike in domestic violence cases resulting in murder.

Chetcuti was, in fact, the 14th woman to have died at the hands of her partner in the past decade. Christine Sammut, Irena Abadzhiev, Karen Cheatle, Yvette Gajda, Margaret Mifsud, Meryem Bugeja, Silvana Muscat, Caroline Magri, Eleanor Mangion, Maria Carmela Fenech, Antonia Micallef, Shannon Mak, and Lourdes Agius had all suffered the same fate before her.

To this grim list, we must now also add not just Pauline Demsbka, but also Bernice Cassar: a 40-year-old mother-of-two who was shot dead while driving to work yesterday, allegedly by her estranged partner.

At which point, the resemblance between these many femicides can no longer be dismissed as merely ‘coincidental’.

This was, in fact, the conclusion of a 2015 report by Malta’s chief pathologist: who issued a statement highlighting that, in the preceding five years, 25% of all homicide victims had been ‘victims of femicide by a partner or ex-partner.’

More disturbingly still, this year’s country report for Malta, by the FEM-UNITED project, concluded that: “over the years, femicide due to intimate partner violence (IPV) was the most common form of femicide reported”; and that in several cases, “the perpetrator was fuelled by coercive controlling behaviour and jealousy. His refusal to accept the status of the relationship between himself and the victim, led to the femicide. [This] strengthens misogynistic and patriarchal behaviour, and reinforces the idea that women are objects belonging to men.”

But not only were all those women killed for more or less the same reason: it turns out that many of them had even alerted the authorities beforehand, about the danger of their predicament.

Bernice Cassar herself was certainly no exception. Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri has confirmed that the victim had filed judicial proceedings last August, asking the court to hear her case with urgency; and that the court went on to issue a protection order in her favour.

But Camilleri also admitted that “the charges in court were not enough to avoid what happened this morning.”

More poignantly still, Cassar’s family and friends have also accused the authorities of ignoring her many pleas for assistance. “She reported and cried for help but the authorities never really cared,” her sister said; to which her aunt added: “Six months we’ve been living this nightmare, and no one took [the perpetrator] to court.”  

At the time of writing, the police have not yet responded to these serious allegations: which, in any case, are now subject to a magisterial inquiry. The same inquiry will also be looking into many other procedural shortcomings, that appear to have hampered efforts to offer Bernice Cassar the protection she so clearly needed.

As such, it may be imprudent to speculate, at this early stage: except to say that all the legal procedures that exist, on paper, to protect victims from intimate-partner violence, have once again proven to be futile in practice.

This calls to mind the words of sociologist Angele Deguara, who – in reaction to the 2020 Chantelle Chetcuti murder – had told this newspaper that: “On a legal level, we have certainly taken huge steps forward since 2000 and in recent years. We have ratified the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention [on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence], introduced heftier penalties, new gender equality laws, and so on. But at the risk of repeating a cliche, legislative changes, on their own, do not bring about equality. It is the mentality that needs to change.”

This includes the mentality of individual police officers, and other officials who are involved in the handling of domestic violence reports; but the rest of society, too, has to make an effort to change a mentality that still – unaccountably – regards women as ‘objects belonging to men’.

And as the NCPE reminded us, almost exactly a year ago: “This entails a concerted effort from all sectors and authorities, and from all citizens and residents, both women and men.”