The fight for equality is not over yet

It would be a mistake to believe the job is done and it is now up to Edward Zammit Lewis to strengthen what has already been achieved and to reach higher and continue to drive change

Joseph Muscat’s government can be applauded for pushing civil liberties and equality at the centre stage of the national agenda.

Since taking power in 2013, the government has pushed for wide-ranging reforms.

From the historic introduction of civil unions in 2014 when same-sex couples could, for the first time, have their union officially sanctioned by the State, to gender identity legislation that recognised those who had been living in the shadows, Muscat’s government has been reformist and progressive.

While this drive can be credited to the Prime Minister, who did not fear putting his name to each of these changes, Joseph Muscat found a strong ally in his former equality minister, Helena Dalli.

Dalli believed in the change that materially improved the lives of many people. She also roped in key people in her ministry with experience in the field, who helped channel the political will for change into meaningful and radical legislation.

In this respect, Maltese society today is more inclusive and equal than it ever was. Malta’s top placing on the Rainbow Index of LGBTIQ rights is testament to this achievement.

But it would be a mistake to believe that the job is done. Helena Dalli’s departure from Cabinet after being nominated by Muscat as Malta’s European Commissioner, may give the impression that government has fulfilled its mandate.

The fight for equality is not over yet and this leader hopes that Dalli’s replacement, Edward Zammit Lewis, will dedicate as much energy to the cause.

For starters, there is the reality on the ground that in some aspects has not caught up with the legal changes.

The appreciation of diversity in schools remains, to a certain extent taboo because of the conservative mindsets of some.

There is also the growing reality of foreigners living and working in Malta, who risk becoming the new underclass unless concrete action fostering integration and enforcement of labour laws is undertaken.

And there is also the ‘classic’ fight for equality between women and men. The gender pay gap remains a blight on the progress registered over the years.

Addressing this requires the State to address some of the root causes that put women at a disadvantage.

There are some key policy areas the government has been toying with over the years that so far have failed to come to fruition.

Increasing paternity leave is one such policy. If men and women have equal parental leave, it makes no difference in the eye of the employer whether the person in front of him is male or female.

In a situation of parity, a man would be as likely as a woman to go out on leave if he becomes a father, removing the disadvantage for women.

Another issue that has often been floated is the introduction of sick leave for parents when children are sick. This measure will help reduce the stress on parents, most especially women, when children are sick and cannot be cared for by someone else.

There is also the issue of representation and the lack of women in decision-making roles.

More has to be done so that government bodies and public institutions better reflect gender balance in their top echelons.

The government’s drive to introduce legal changes to push for more women in Parliament was a positive development. But it must not be allowed to fall by the wayside.

Equality is not a goal that is reached and forgotten. It must be cared for and translated into new goals that reflect a changing society.

Dalli’s departure from Cabinet must not signal an end to this drive.

It is now up to Zammit Lewis to ensure that what has been achieved in a relatively short period is strengthened. But it is also his duty to reach higher and continue to drive change.

Equality must remain top of the government’s agenda.

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