Culture change needed on domestic violence

Whether domestic and gender-based violence is a new reality, or a reality we were largely ignorant of in the past – the latter being the likelier of the two – people are right to be appalled and distressed by the growing perception

Equality Minister Helena Dalli
Equality Minister Helena Dalli

The strategy document on domestic and gender-based violence, launched by the Equality Ministry this week, marks an important step in the evaluation of what appears to be a growing national problem.

One is reluctant to draw certain conclusions from published stories about domestic violence: at times, the individual details may be so unsettling – and the story itself so sensational – that they may distort perceptions of the broader picture. Nonetheless there has indeed been an apparent spike in often alarming reports of serious violence, either inflicted or threatened, targeting women in general. It is, of course, possible that such cases always took place, but were never publicised before.

All the same: whether it is a new reality, or a reality we were largely ignorant of in the past – the latter being the likelier of the two – people are right to be appalled and distressed by the growing perception.

The concern builds when one also considers the legal framework that has existed for years. In an interview with this newspaper last Sunday, the director of the government’s Human Rights Directorate did not mince his words. “We’ve not really been good to the victims of domestic violence,” Silvan Agius said. He wasn’t referring to the perpetrators of the violence itself; he was talking about society as a whole.

When viewed under the microscope, our legal and community aid response to such issues has often clearly been found lacking. Despite the best efforts of the individual agencies involved, we have never previously prioritised the issue enough to have a fully functional policy in place. Until only very recently, domestic violence was defined at law as an offence against family honour, more than against the victim. Rape in general was regarded as a crime against public morals (‘pudur’).

These archaisms may have been written out of the law itself; but there is evidence that the underlying mentality still persists. The law-courts have adopted a consistently lenient approach to sentencing in domestic violence cases. Often, charges are dismissed altogether, on the grounds that the victim ‘forgave’ the perpetrator.

This approach misses the point that violent crime in general – and domestic violence in particular, as it affects the safety of the family home – is also a crime against society itself. The victim may indeed forgive the assailant; but that does not settle the score with a society that has also been aggrieved. This explains the overwhelmingly negative reactions to news reports about ‘suspended sentences’ for perpetrators in such cases. This may be warranted in certain individual cases, no doubt: but as a sustained, consistent court practice, it can only impart a very dangerously mistaken message.

As Agius put it in that interview, “We’re either saying that violence is ‘not fine’ in all circumstances... or we’re saying that it’s ‘fine’, but only until the victim stops accepting it. The latter simply cannot work. Rape is rape. Violence is violence.”

Even more worrying is the claim that reports filed with the police are not always acted upon. If true, this is a serious dereliction of duty. There is no discretion afforded at law to the police to decide which cases of violent crime to pursue, and which to ignore. But even without this consideration, in the present set-up there are indeed certain grounds where the police cannot take action, even if they know a crime has been committed.

Perhaps the most pivotal aspect of the new policy is that it empowers the police to take action on their own initiative, or on the basis of a report filed by third parties. This is a very welcome amendment, but we must also take stock of the implications. Until today, a violent crime that takes place within a household, between members of the same family, has not been treated with the same criminal yardstick as a violent crime in any other context. The police have always had an obligation to investigate a presumed homicide, or an assault and battery case. It seems strange that we had to wait until 2017 – and only after several domestic violence cases did indeed end up in murder – to extend that same basic principle also to crimes committed within the family home.

Ultimately, however, what is needed is not just a policy change in the way the relevant institutions handle individual cases.  The biases reflected in our old laws are in themselves reflections of our own general attitudes towards such issues. Perceptions are changing, but it is undeniable that many still view ‘what happens in the home’ to be somehow subject to different rules and regulations from ‘what happens in the street’. There are still those who argue than ‘rape’ cannot occur between married partners, because the marital bond itself implies ‘consent’. This is nothing but an extension of the primitive view that a ‘wife’ is a property owned by her husband; it dates back to a time when marriage was indeed more of a social transaction than anything else.

As Agius rightly notes, Malta has made giant strides forward in other areas, including its views on gender and sexuality. It is about time we started registering progress on domestic violence, too.