The ugly reality of violence against women

It may be worth recalling recent warnings about the extent of this problem, which seems to be greater in Malta than in other European country

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

The grisly murder of Eleanor Mangion Walker serves as a stark reminder that violence against women remains a very real problem in this country… and one that appears to be getting worse, despite various initiatives to raise awareness.

Sadly, it always seems to take a murder to underscore the worrying reality of domestic violence in Malta. And while murders such as this tend to hog the headlines and attract attention, they must also be viewed in a context of countless other cases which do not necessarily result in deaths, and are consequently rarely brought to light.

It may be worth recalling recent warnings about the extent of this problem, which at a glance seems to be more keenly felt in Malta than elsewhere in Europe.

In 2015, CrimeMalta published a study revealing that reports of domestic violence had increased tenfold between 2007 and 2014, while threats and public violence had “practically trebled” since 2008.

Given that the findings were limited only to reported domestic violence – by definition, a minority of cases in all countries – one can only ponder the extent by which unreported cases must also have grown. 

The previous year, a report by the EU’s fundamental human rights agency FURA found that one in seven Maltese women had experienced physical or sexual violence since the age of 15, and a further 16% of Maltese women said they suffered from physical violence before their fifteenth birthday. 

To put those figures into perspective: the average for the whole of Europe was only one in three women reporting violence since the age of 15: making Malta’s statistic more than twice the EU norm.

Moreover, it was revealed that 10% reported being victims of sexual violence before the age of 15, and 23% stated that they had suffered physical, sexual or psychological abuse prior to turning 15.

Already worrying in themselves, the figures may even be an understatement. Neil Falzon, of Aditus, commented at the time: “It must be noted that these numbers… may be much lower than the truth. For example, the women surveyed admitted not having reported serious incidents of physical and/or sexual violence by a partner. The women did not contact police because they preferred to deal with the violence themselves or believed it was a family matter (35%), felt that the incident was minor (22%), were afraid (13%) or ashamed (12%), or decided to keep it private — presumably not telling anyone (13%).

“A significant 41% of the women surveyed indicated that they knew women in their circle of friends and family who had been victims of some form of domestic violence,” Falzon added.

Ominously, it transpired from the survey that just two per cent of Maltese women reported physical or sexual violence from their current partner, while 4% said that their previous partner had physically or sexually abused them.

Meanwhile, 22% of women in Malta divulged that they had suffered psychological violence from their current partner, and 59% reported that they suffered such abuse from their previous partner.

From this point on, the death of Eleanor Mangion Walker can only be viewed as one of the more tragic, visible symptoms of an otherwise invisible social malaise that is, regrettably, deep-rooted in our culture. Without entering the merits of this particular case – which is still under investigation by the police – one might therefore ask what is being done to address the underlying cultural problem that is now staring us in the face.

As we speak, parliament is getting ready to discuss a framework of changes to the Domestic Violence Act and the laws against gender-based violence, specifically in the wake of Malta’s ratification of the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence in March 2015.

Among other things, this treaty characterizes violence against women as a violation of human rights and a form of discrimination, and urges countries to exercise due diligence when preventing violence, protecting victims and prosecuting perpetrators.

The Social Dialogue Ministry is to be commended for readying a list of proposals so soon after the ratification of the Istanbul convention. It remains unclear, however, why parliament has dragged its feet on the issue since March; and above all, why the discussion was postponed until after the summer recess.

Among the various changes under discussion are a few that, while not necessarily pertinent to the Mangion Walker case, are nonetheless long overdue. Traditionally, one major stumbling block in the prosecution of domestic violence is the lack of police jurisdiction to investigate cases where no official report is filed.

At present, the police are powerless to intervene in a domestic violence case unless the victim files a complaint. Clearly, this is a legal loophole: no such restriction applies to other violent crimes, in which the police are at full liberty to take action on their own initiative.

With the new law in place, evidence of physical violence would suffice for the police to take legal action regardless of whether or not victims are willing to proceed. It may seem like a small change, but it implies elevating the specific crime of violence against women to the level of seriousness it so clearly deserves.