Malta has a crisis

Bernice did not need courage. She found the courage and did all she could to protect herself and her children. What Bernice needed was concrete and timely action by the institutions – the police and the law courts

Malta has a crisis: Women are unsafe in their homes, in their families, at their place of work and on the street.

Bernice Cassar’s cold-blooded murder on the street, just a few blocks away from her place of work, was the alarm ringing again after being put on snooze twice this year in the wake of Paulina Dembska’s and Rita Ellul’s murders.

Bernice’s murder was just the ultimate sacrifice she paid for finding the courage to stand up and move away from an abusive and possessive husband.

Bernice did not need courage. She found the courage and did all she could to protect herself and her children. What Bernice needed was concrete and timely action by the institutions – the police and the law courts.

Just 24 hours before her face and chest were butchered by two shots from a shotgun, Bernice had reported to the police, yet another breach of her protection order by her husband. But Roderick Cassar was not arrested and brought in for questioning. He even ignored a request to go to the police station.

A police report filed in May after Roderick Cassar put a knife to his wife’s neck led to charges being filed in court. But the case was only due to be heard 18 long months later. A protection order was issued in favour of the victim two months later after her lawyer filed a court application in the wake of more threats.

Roderick Cassar repeatedly breached the court’s order and yet he continued to roam the streets, hounding his wife – physically and in the social media space.

Bernice trusted the system to protect her but it failed her because domestic violence and misogyny are still brushed off too easily as minor transgressions by a male-dominated culture.

A culture, where masculinity is determined by strength, violence, possession and aggressiveness. A culture, where women are expected to obey and bow down to men. A culture, where it is OK to denigrate and belittle a woman simply because she is a woman. A culture that still blames the victim for the violence perpetrated in their regard.

But this culture has to change. In an opinion piece accompanying our exposé on domestic violence, James Buhagiar from Men Against Violence argues that “we need more work in dismantling patriarchal power structures by working with men and boys and challenging harmful and rigid notions of masculinity”. He is right in saying that we need to stop victim blaming and acknowledge that solutions to the personal are collective. And men and boys have to play their part for this change to happen.

Statistics put forward in parliament show that there are 1,429 domestic violence cases awaiting court hearings and only one magistrate assigned to them.

The police domestic violence unit has only four inspectors and waiting times for victims who report to the unit at the Floriana depot can be as long as seven hours. Our report today, quoting a police source, reveals how domestic violence cases are treated on a first-come-first-served basis, primarily because the unit is understaffed and overwhelmed.

And to put things into wider perspective, we also dug out the Council of Europe’s GREVIO report from two years ago to find out that the police and judicial shortcomings that failed Bernice, had already been flagged.

Despite making femicide an aggravating offence in homicide cases earlier this year in response to the gruesome rape and murder of Paulina Dembska; despite the expressions of shock; despite the strong words from politicians; despite everything that has been said, done and written; the institutions that matter have not caught up with society’s expectations.

From inadequate resources to poor responses; from inept officials to cultural barriers; women continue to be failed by the system and society.

Sociologist Angele Deguara had in a reaction to 2020 murder of Chantelle Chetcuti 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 cliché, 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’.