It’s not just about numbers | Rosianne Cutajar

Parliament’s youngest member Rosianne Cutajar on gender-representation in Maltese politics; dealing with political harassment; the regulation of prostitution, and how women’s NGOs don’t always speak on behalf of all Maltese women

For some time now, we have been talking about the need to increase female participation in politics: possibly through a quota system. Your own election to parliament last June seems to belie this impression. At 28 you are the youngest MP: yet neither age nor gender seems to have worked against you. How do you account for your political success, in a country which has a reputation for not electing women?

Let’s take it even further back: my political career did not start with the 2017 election. I was elected mayor [of Qormi] in 2012... at the time I was the youngest female mayor ever elected, and the first female mayor of one of the biggest local councils in Malta. Then I got re-elected in 2015. What I noticed between 2012 and 2015 is that the fact that I was elected seemed to have opened the door to a lot more women getting into local councils.

When you look at the number of female councillors elected in 2015, you will see there was an increase. So I already feel I somehow contributed in this respect. To be honest, however, when it came to the 2017 general election, I expected to do better. I got 2,000 first-count votes. Everybody expected that the fact that I was the only woman candidate on the district, at a time when there was more awareness about gender issues, would work in my favour. But the reality is that I still feel that political parties do not push women candidates enough. Often I switch on TV, and all I see are panels of men discussing issues.

I am one of those who believe that at least the national broadcaster should have a rule: if it’s going to have discussion programmes, there have to be women represented on the panel. Sometimes, however, it comes from the parties themselves. To give an example: on the pre-electoral Xarabank debates – which many feel to be crucial – the Labour party sent three men. The Nationalist Party also sent three men. I think it would send a clear message to have at least one woman to represent the party. Now, however, I am pleased to see that we have reached a stage where there is a formal commitment, ‘LEAD’. We’re not just saying, ‘we’re going to discuss the possibility of having more women’. Now, there is a commitment that by 2027, half the Labour Party’s candidates will be women.

Yet the fact that you won the highest number of first-count votes in the local council elections also means that your constituency, at least, has no issue with voting for female candidates. Why, then, do we even need quotas?

Another thing about the Qormi constituency is that it has regularly elected Marie Louise Coleiro Preca by a landslide. For us, in our district, it is not something out of this world to vote for female candidates. However, I still think that, deep down, the problem is that not enough women candidates actually step forward... that’s why I feel it was important that at least there is a commitment by one of the parties to increase its female participation to 50%.

Then again, the issue is not whether it’s exactly 50% or less; the important thing is that the electorate will have a choice. To be honest, you don’t need 50% to have equal representation. This is not just about numbers. But it remains a fact that women are not properly represented, with only 11% in Parliament. I think it should be a race to find people who really do have something to offer to the country. I would be happier with fewer candidates of higher calibre, than just finding candidates to hit a 50% quota...

This concern is reflected in some of the criticism levelled at the ‘quota’ proposal. Some argue that it could lead to a situation where women are chosen just to make up the numbers, rather than on the basis of personal merit...

Yes, that’s why I think the parties have to be intelligent in choosing candidates. As for quotas, what I can say is that my initial opinion was dead-set against. I myself got elected mayor twice, and won a seat in Parliament, without any need for quotas. Maybe I’m an exception... not in the sense that I’m better than other women: far from it.

Actually I think there are a lot of women out there who are as capable as myself, if not more, and who should be in politics. But somehow, even though I was against the idea to begin with, I also acknowledge that something has to be done. We can’t keep on like this: just grumbling that there aren’t enough women, and not doing anything about it. While I know that we Maltese do not like comparing ourselves to Arab or Middle Eastern countries... it is an interesting fact that some Middle Eastern countries – Jordan, Egypt, Iraq – already use a quota system.

So even countries which are certainly less ‘liberal’ than we, when it comes to women’s rights, acknowledge the existence of a deficit when it comes to female representation in parliament.  So how is it that Malta, a European country that considers itself ‘liberal’... and we are, in fact, liberal: when you think we introduced divorce, civil unions, and now marriage equality... are we now going to hesitate to introduce quotas?  Personally, I think it is the next step. I only hope that they will be effective. It has to be pointed out that quotas are not always effective. For example, if we introduce quotas for a 10-year period, and then phase them out... we have to ensure that female representation remains strong even after the 10-year quota period.

There is another argument, however, to the effect that Parliament is not considered ‘family friendly’ enough as a working environment. There isn’t a childcare facility, for instance; and the fact that Parliament operates on a part-time basis results in awkward working hours which may conflict with family life...

The way I see it is this: Parliamentary sessions, at the moment, start at 6pm. Let’s be realistic; would it be more family-friendly if Parliament started at 2.30pm instead? I don’t think so. The only time a parent can really bond with the children is after school hours. Moving back the hours for parliamentary sessions is not going to solve anything. Nor would simply having a childcare centre.

After all, you still won’t be spending quality time with your children, just because they’re in another room in the same building. I think the only real solution is to make Parliament full-time. Not just because of family issues, either. I don’t like the fact that our Parliament is part-time.  It’s not professional to have part-time politicians. If you enter politics, you’re doing it out of choice. All other interests have to go.

Speaking for myself: I was a teacher. Being a teacher and a politician is not a good combination. I would spend long hours correcting after school... then working at the local council, and getting home after 11pm... the set-up wasn’t working for me. So what did I do? I gave up my career as a teacher, and found alternative employment. It wasn’t an easy choice; I was sorry to let the teaching profession go. But life is made up of choices.

Is it ever a realistic option, though? Given a choice between a lucrative professional career, and a less well-paid – and far less stable – job in politics... many people would take the safer option and avoid politics altogether. This will surely limit the number of capable people (male or female) choosing to enter politics in the first place...

I can confirm that politics is an unstable career option. The only professional qualifications I have are a BA Honours and a PGCE. At the back of my mind, I tell myself: I’m still young. Let’s say I do 15 years in politics. Am I going to re-enter the job market at around 40, with only a BA honours and a PGCE?

I would like to do a Masters or an MBA... so that, when I retire from politics, I won’t find myself unemployed and having to start over from scratch. These are choices I have to start thinking about from now. For one thing, I didn’t enter politics to come out of it aged 80. Far from it. I think I have a number of years ahead of me... I will give my utmost contribution to the electorate during that time... then I’ll step aside to make room for younger candidates.

Having said that, age isn’t everything. I am 28 years old, but I still feel more experienced than some other older MPs. Why? Because at least, in my baggage, I have five years’ experience as a mayor. There are some people who ended up on the parliamentary bench without any political experience whatsoever. So even when they keep saying I’m the ‘youngest MP’... OK, it’s a fact that I am the youngest age-wise. But I don’t feel I’m the youngest on the level of experience and political credentials. 

Apart from professional considerations, there is also an undeniably hostile political climate to contend with when making that choice. You yourself have been the target of considerable hostility in recent years: often taking the form of highly personal accusations. Do you consider this climate to be a factor which discourages people from entering politics?

We have to distinguish between criticism, and personal attacks. There’s a big difference. I don’t mind if someone criticises one of my proposals. Take my proposal to reduce examinations in primary school, for instance. It’s absolutely fine for a journalist to write that I am talking rubbish, and to supply arguments to prove it. But if someone attacks you personally... and lies about you... THAT is the problem.

Today, I can say that I am thick-skinned enough to handle it. In fact I didn’t even sue Daphne Caruana Galizia when she put up her blog about how I was supposed to be an escort-girl working in Sicily. To me, it was so ridiculous... so out of this world... that I didn’t feel the need to sue for libel. But the problem is also that I felt at the time... let me put it this way: in Malta, the legal situation concerning libel is such that even if you are 100% right, you still have to have the proof that you are right. I was always afraid – and bear in mind I was 22 or 23 at the time – that... what if she goes on to win the case, even if it’s a lie? My political career would be over...


But in libel law, the onus of proof rests with the person making the allegation...

Yes, and I am absolutely certain that she had nothing whatsoever to show in the way of proof. But let me give you an example. When the prime minister lost a libel case over the ‘freezing of minimum wage’ issue... do you remember? Joseph Muscat never said he would freeze the minimum wage. Yet for some reason or another, he still lost the case.

I’m projecting that scenario onto my own circumstances. And don’t for a second think that I wasn’t tempted [to sue]... I had my family to think about, at the time I had a boyfriend as well... but I wasn’t ready, at the beginning of my political career, to waste my energy fighting someone in court, when there was no certainty of winning. I say ‘no certainty’, not because what she was saying about me was true... but because, at the end of the day, the law courts don’t always work out the way we like to think they do.

I’m not saying the law courts don’t take their job seriously; but there have been many instances where people lost libel suits, when – in my opinion – they should have won. If that happened to be, I would have been left bearing the stamp of this libel case I lost. So I decided to ignore her. As it turned out, the people ignored her too... because in the 2015 election, even after three years of being attacked incessantly over the same thing – I still got elected, and even increased my votes by 500. That shows how little she influenced public opinion. But what also happened is that Nationalist activists continued to hold it against me. Among them David Thake, who would keep calling me about it... dedicating songs to me, like ‘It’s Raining Men’ ... giving out my private number over the radio, saying it’s for ‘escort services’...  they were ready to descend to such low levels. But somehow, I never let these things get to me. Because I believe you must never lose your focus. 

Speaking of ‘escort services’ and prostitution in general: the Labour government has floated the idea of regulating prostitution... which did not go down too well with local NGOs such as the Malta Confederation of Women’s Organisations. As both a woman and a Labour MP, what are your own views on the issue? 

Sometimes I get the impression that local women’s NGOs are ‘feminist’ to the point that they lose sight of some of the issues. Prostitution is a good example. Not everyone who ends up in prostitution does so because they were abused, or coerced, or because of drug problems. There are some who do so out of choice. So to cite the ‘Swedish model’, which criminalises the client and not the prostitute... in reality, that won’t solve a thing.

To me, these NGOs are so feminist that they only ever see ‘prostitution’ as a case of men abusing women. They don’t see prostitution as a choice. There are a lot of realities – in other countries more than Malta, perhaps – where a young woman will still be at university; she might choose to spend part of her life prostituting herself to be able to pay for her studies. I’d much prefer the discussion to also look at other models apart from Sweden.

In Germany and Austria, for example, prostitution has been regulated. It doesn’t mean that every prostitute in Germany or Austria is licensed and above board; but at least, the State is helping to safeguard the health of both the prostitute and the client. Apart from distributing condoms, in those countries they also regulate the salaries of prostitutes, to safeguard against industrial exploitation. I have no doubt the working conditions of prostitutes are much better in those countries, than here.

That’s why I question the way NGOs are approaching this issue. Do these NGOs ever pause to consider that, by regularising prostitution, we will also be ensuring that prostitutes at least get paid for their work? That they will have regular medical tests, and that their health will be better safeguarded? Do they ever look at these things? To give another example: in German and Austrian brothels, if a prostitute is harassed or threatened by a client, they can press a buzzer and summon security.

I don’t think we can say the same for local escort services, or for the prostitutes in Gzira, among others. Those often end up getting beaten up. Regulation along the lines of Germany or Austria offers more protection to the prostitute. Naturally, there will still be some women who will not want to enter into a regularised environment. But just think how much more dangerous it is when unregulated. If there is regulation, a prostitute would be able to go to court when her rights are violated: for instance, if she wasn’t paid.   But if there’s no regulation: what’s she going to do? Is she going to take the case to court and try to win it? No. I honestly think we need to broaden this discussion. And I’m sorry to have to say this, but I, as a woman, sometimes don’t feel represented by women’s NGOs.