At a stage of transition | Dolores Cristina

The divorce referendum campaign opened the doors to debate on marriage, the family, cohabitation, same-sex relationships, and what civil rights Maltese society is ready to consider. Education Minister Dolores Cristina talks about her take on Malta’s shifting social makeup.

Minister Dolores Cristina is a polarising figure in the current cabinet line-up. Heading a super-ministry that oversees Employment, Social Policy, and Education, she has a lot on her plate, and has seen her fair share of controversy.

This included the now-infamous Erasmus student exchange European funds suspension which, when it hit the headlines in spring of last year, reportedly ruined the hope of studying abroad for over 400 students.

When the EU suspended the programme’s funding after complaining about its mishandling, public reaction was harsh. Many called for her resignation, but she staunchly defended herself by insisting that her hiccup was purely administrative.

Since then, and most prominently during the divorce referendum campaign – an issue intimately related to the family and Social Policy – she has kept an exceptionally low profile.

Sitting in her office on Republic Street, construction works on the new Parliament building droning in the background, I wade in: what was the reason for her silence on such a relevant issue?

“I always had a dilemma about divorce. The first sentence I said in my parliamentary contribution was that I approached the subject with trepidation,” she says, attributing this to her principles, and the fact that she views marriage as a lasting institution “despite society’s constant evolution and the emergence of different lifestyles.”

She adds that her decision to adopt a low profile was also motivated by her desire to avoid politicising the issue.

“Unfortunately, that did not happen,” she notes, saying it was “the biggest disservice we could have done to the country. I think we would have had a better deal all round if the subject had not been politicised at all.”

Instead of looking at principles, “we went into convoluted arguments, discussed the question of whether we should have had a referendum or not.” She says these side issues “obfuscated the crucial points that we should have been looking at.”

In a major incident which added fuel to an already-raging fire, Commissioner for Children Helen D’Amato committed a gaffe by allegedly misrepresenting a report which determined that children suffered equally from divorce, annulment and separation.

Cristina says that she had spoken to D’Amato “and she assured me that it was not her intention to mislead, as she was accused of doing.”

She says that D’Amato had repeatedly stressed that children suffer in all instances of marital breakup, be they divorce, separation, annulment, or even simply a relationship that is breaking up.

“She had said it so many times that she thought that had already been understood. But she was looking at something that was in the report itself,” she argues.

“I am not going to defend Helen D’Amato because she is perfectly capable of doing it herself,” Cristina says, but adds that the campaign was littered with instances where people “picked and chose” sections of studies and reports to support their point.

“Many people did this, but of course Helen D’Amato is the Commissioner for Children, and her office carried weight, more weight perhaps than others,” she concedes.

Might it have been cause of resignation on her part? I ask.

“No, I don’t think so. The way calls for resignation are being made in this country might mean that there will be nobody left to take office,” Cristina says, in what is probably a subtle dig at the Labour Party’s vociferous calls for the resignation of MITA chairman Claudio Grech and Prime Minister Gonzi’s Head of Staff Edgar Galea Curmi.

D’Amato is no mere Commissioner, however. She was elected to parliament in 2003 and served as Parliamentary Secretary for the Elderly in the preceding administration, before being appointed as Commissioner in 2010 when she missed re-election in 2008.

Cristina denies that D’Amato’s political background afforded her any protection from reprisal, as was widely suggested.

She recalled a public disagreement with the former Commissioner for Children Carmen Zammit, where Cristina openly disagreed with what Zammit had said about in vitro fertilization (IVF) in the Social Affairs Committee. Zammit was not asked to resign.

She also argues that D’Amato’s comment was given prominence because of the pro-divorce position that most English-speaking newspapers adopted. “I am not saying it was a judicious comment, but I had no doubt that it was not malicious or intended to obscure facts,” Cristina says.

Following the divorce referendum, the issue of the family – and how this is changing – has been thrown into the limelight. What does the family mean to her? How is it changing?

Cristina begins by saying that the traditional family, composed of a mother, a father, and children, is “a thing of the past,” which has given way to different forms.

“The traditional family is still there and going strong, but now we have single-parent families, reconstituted families (adults who have changed partners along the way, and might have children from different parents living together in the same household), and naturally same-sex families as well,” she says.

“Obviously some people think that is a sign of progress,” she says carefully. “I think it is a sign of moving times and evolving family structures.”

She adds that the role of legislators and government authorities is to look at all forms of family. “I don’t believe that, as minister or as a government official, I stand as judge and jury over the lifestyles of people. That is not my job.”

Cristina says that when it comes to legislating, “we all have our opinions and our principles and we hold on to them, but as legislators we have to consider each person as an individual and also each person as a part of a household unit.”

However, Cristina is categorically against same-sex marriage and the adoption of children by same-sex couples.

“I believe on principle that marriage is between a man and a woman. I will accept civil partnerships but not something called marriage. For me marriage is between a man and a woman,” she affirms.

That is a somewhat traditional perspective, I point out. “Maybe, but it takes all sorts to make up this society of ours,” she says, adding that she is not alone in this and refers to similar statements made by the leader of the Opposition a short while ago.

“You cannot give them the same status as marriage because it would mean redefining the concept of marriage – something that I do not believe in. You can look instead at rights and responsibilities. If two people live together and are in a stable relationship, they should have rights and responsibilities towards one another.”

When it comes to adoption, she says that as the ministry responsible “we try go for the best.”

“In the absence of research that tells me that children adopted by same sex couples are brought into an excellent environment, I will chose to look at the best interest of the child and choose not agree with it,” she says.

I point out that Malta’s gay community has decried this approach in several instances, insisting that recognition through civil partnerships model would make them feel like second class families.

“Not second class families, no,” Cristina responds. “But you cannot redefine marriage.” She concedes however that Maltese society will soon have to examine social concepts and issues which have gone unquestioned for a long time.

These include, civil partnerships, same sex partnerships, she says, pointing out that the controversial cohabitation law will be tabled in parliament when summer recess ends.

“The time has come. It was obvious it would come,” she says, adding that Malta’s accession into the EU brought a shift in how people perceive their personal life styles and what rights they expect.

“We are at a stage of transition, where we are going to look at issues such as cohabitation. IVF is also on the agenda, and the sooner we look at them clearly, the better.”

But can’t marriage be similarly revisited and redefined as society shifts around us? I ask.

“Not in my book, no. For me it is something concrete. It is not just a concept, but it is a structure that should not be redefined,” she says.

I mention how she referred to IVF as one of the social issues on Malta’s horizon, and inquire as to her own stand on the issue.

Cristina starts off by saying that since having been ‘invented’ as a medical procedure following the birth of the first IVF baby in 1978 (Louise Brown), IVF has afforded parents unable to have children the chance to do so, and describes IVF as a “good thing.”

“But when you are talking about freezing embryos, I have reservations about it,” Cristina says, adding that “I am now very pleased that we are looking at freezing not of embryos but of the ova (oocyte vitrification).”

She says that thanks to this method, “ethical and moral issues will fall by the wayside because this is something one can do,” arguing that the ethical and moral issues present themselves only in instances when a fertilised embryo is being frozen.

Cristina however concedes that once the IVF debate starts, experts will call for embryo freezing in exceptional circumstances. “I am not an expert so I am ready to listen and reach my own conclusions.”

Asked to clarify her issues with embryo freezing, Cristina refers simply to “ethical and moral issues” but adds however that she is also deeply concerned with what would be done with embryos not implanted into prospective mothers.

“I believe in the concept of life from a natural beginning to a natural end, which means that I am staunchly against capital punishment, euthanasia, abortion, from the beginning till the end,” she says. “Where life starts is still very much a controversial issue.”

Cristina also says that medical complications that could potentially arise with embryo freezing, such as deterioration of the embryo during the freezing process. She also refers to “hyper stimulation”, or instances when a prospective mother could be negatively affected when multiple embryos are implanted within her.

I also bring up the changing role of women in Maltese society, and whether this is changing quickly – or uniformly – enough. Cristina rolls her eyes when I mention a letter that appeared in a Sunday paper and quickly did the rounds of online social networks.

The letter attributed marital breakdown to the fact that more women are breaking out of their exclusively domestic roles and increasingly pursuing higher education and joining the workforce.

“Thankfully mindsets are changing,” she says, and adds that despite the idea that Malta is far behind other countries, it is not truly the case. “Many countries share the same problems. If it were the case, Commissioner Redding (EU Justice, Fundamental Rights, and Citizenship Commissioner) wouldn’t be telling member states they need to buck up on female representation.”

She concedes however that there is a lot to be done in Malta, and says that we came to the gender equality issue later than other countries.

Cristina argues however that we have come a long way since the days when women had to resign from the civil service upon marriage (1981), and how today the civil service has directors of departments, and even permanent secretaries, who are women.

“I believe in the value of role models, but I am still disappointed in Maltese women. They have not yet taken up the challenge of public office and I am not simply talking parliament, because parliament is only one level,” she says, pointing to a dearth of female representation in local councils, and trade unions.

But is government encouraging the idea that they can step up?

“Politically speaking, we have a perfect situation,” she says, pointing out that Malta is not limited by lists or selection committees that could be a barrier. “On the contrary, we have political parties that woo the women to stand for election.”

She adds that it is true that it is a difficult step, and says she herself was lucky because she had a husband who supported her. “It does need support.”

Cristina adds that the mentality that women are somehow primarily responsible for taking care of the home and the family is also a hindrance. “This seems to be changing, however.”

I suggest that such mentalities are ingrained by other underlying issues, and point to how Malta’s family support system is characterised by a limited concept of paternal leave or paternal care.

“We do have paternal leave, but very few men make use of it,” Cristina argues. “Paternal leave and other measures that men have available are not being made good use of.”

But are these being pushed enough? I counter.

“Who should push them?” she responds. “It’s theirs, if they want to take paternity leave or responsibility breaks, or a career break, they can. They are non-gender specific, and non-discriminatory.”

I point out that paternity leave is shorter than maternity leave, and I wonder whether this is basically the State’s way of saying that women are more responsible for family duties than men?

 “This is the case in most countries,” she says, adding that that maternity leave also takes into account womens’ recovery from childbirth breast-feeding.

Cristina also reiterates that government is not opposing the controversial European parliament proposal to increase maternity leave to between 18 to 20 weeks. Arguing that this was misunderstood, she underlines government’s position that the extension is acceptable as long as EU states have a level playing field.

Asked to clarify, Cristina says that maternity leave is not handled uniformly across the EU. Some countries already have a 18-20 week maternity leave period, while paying only 75% of salary. In certain Scandinavian countries, employees even pay towards family friendly measures, she says.

“It has to be the same all over the EU, not one country providing an extended maternity leave period while however paying employees only 75% of their wage,” she argues, pointing out that Malta’s maternity leave is full salary.

“If the EU is going to establish a period, that period has to be the same in terms of salary and benefit, not simply in terms of weeks,” she says.

It is however unclear if and when EU-wide harmonisation of maternity leave can ever be achieved.

In the meantime, Malta’s maternity leave will remain untouched despite repeated calls by women’s organisations to provide more support for Maltese women who are torn between unfair family burdens, and increasing pressure to join the workforce and offset Malta’s dismal female workforce participation – the lowest in the EU.

The way call for resignation are being made in this country might mean there will be nobody left to take office, says Christina. Damn right you are, you and your corrupted government should have all resigned on mass. Hypocrites.
Luke Camilleri
Why no mention of nepotism in article? . This cost malta thousands of Euros in E.U. funds! Why doesn't the Minister make out a proper call for application and not just employ her son, so the best man/women for the job gets it? . Some Super Women!