A passionate, political appointment… | Simone Cini

On taking up the role of Domestic Violence Commissioner, television journalist Simone Cini has had to contend with criticism and reminders of her ‘political past’. How much of her appointment was down to political nepotism… and how much to her self-avowed passion for social causes?

There has been some criticism directed at your appointment as Domestic Violence Commissioner: some media have questioned your credentials, and others have suggested the appointment was a case of political nepotism. Was this something you expected? How do you respond to this sort of criticism?

First of all, I feel that questions about my appointment should really be asked to those who appointed me. But I do feel sometimes – while I’m working, or trying to work – that sections of the media are being a little unfair towards me. I’ve said this before, but… this is no iced bun. I’m not doing this for the money: the remuneration is only 2,300 euro a year. I’ve heard that it might be set to go up to 4,000 by the end of 2019: but if so, I can assure you the decision had nothing to do with me.

I’m doing this out of my own free time, because it’s something I feel passionate about. I have an interest in anything that touches on social concerns; for the past 20 years, I’ve been dealing with such issues on my television programmes. I’ve built up contacts with experts and social workers in the field; most of them have been my guests. I imagine that’s why I was approached for this position in the first place. Bear in mind that the role of commissioner is not to directly administer the social or legal aspects of the issue. It’s to co-ordinate between the various experts and professionals on the board. It’s an organisational role: and that is something I do have experience in, even if it’s not directly related to domestic or gender-based violence. But you could also turn the question around: should I not have been chosen, because of who I am?

Well, the argument is more along the lines that other potential candidates, who may have been better qualified, may have been by-passed…

[Shrugs] I don’t know about anyone being ‘by-passed’; but it’s possible that others were approached, but didn’t accept. After all, the remuneration is not very attractive. [Pause] This is also why I feel I am being unfairly judged: especially in an environment where we’re seeing so much money going out to so many people. Every day, we see journalists uncovering how much public officials are being paid. ‘Persons of trust’ appointed everywhere, sometimes on six-month contracts as consultants… and none of this money properly accounted for. Perhaps this is why there was so much criticism directed towards me… perhaps they think I’m one of those.

But it’s not just about money. The question some people are asking is: Why you? What do you bring to this role – which is, let’s face it, a sensitive social issue – that others don’t?

Let me put it this way: some people could have a lot of professional experience, and be very knowledgeable on the subject. But they’re bad managers, bad co-ordinators, have bad organisational or communication skills… and they fail. Even if they are very good at working in the field. I am not going to ‘work in the field’. It is not in the commission’s remit. What we do is policy-based. I am not a social worker; but I work hand in hand with social workers. I turn to the experts; I listen…

Looking at your appointment from the opposite perspective: There also seems to be a widespread culture of instantly attacking anyone who accepts a public post in this country. Would you agree?

Yes, I do agree with that…

And though it may be a generalisation, would you also agree that the attacks seem to intensify when the target is a woman… especially a woman in politics?

Yes. Unfortunately, some women don’t support other women. If you look at the people who have criticised me the most, you will probably find that they are mostly women. It is ironic; and it hurts, because after all, I did my fair share trying to challenge this mentality, in my own way.

When I first entered ‘public life’, I was in my 20s. A lot of my work in television was dedicated to challenging gender biases. And I contested an election, too. I wasn’t successful, and – at the time – it may have had something to do with the same culture. I’m not saying women should vote for other women just because they’re women… I have never believed that… but what I can say, from my own experience, is that things are tougher for women, no doubt about it.

This brings us to the reasons for the existence of the Domestic and Gender-based Violence Commission. On paper, Malta seems to have a very serious, recurring problem with domestic violence; which also means that while we have progressed by leaps and bounds in other areas, there has been no corresponding improvement in such a sensitive area. Why do you think we have remained so regressive in this one area?

If you ask me, it’s a question of changing a national, cultural mentality. This is a cultural challenge, first and foremost. It is not something that can be achieved just by enacting a law. But I don’t think it’s fair to say that there has been no improvement; there has been change, and a lot of that change has been accepted. But there is still a small minority that resists change. And up to a point, our social structures have also held us back. Today, we have women in their 70s who, ever since they got married at 23 or 24, have lived a life of abuse. Culturally, we have always been taught to tolerate this; as by-standers, we were brought up to never get involved in such cases. There was, and still is, a certain ‘omerta’, too. We have to change all this.

What is being done about it as we speak? Your role as Commissioner, for instance:  what does the job entail, on a practical day-to-day basis?

Today, we have a new law which transposes the Istanbul Convention into Maltese legislation; so now, we have the necessary tools. But just because we have the tools, it doesn’t mean we know how to use them. The Commission is there partly to assist in setting up the necessary structures. At the moment, we are offering a series of training programmes for professionals. Yesterday, we had a session for doctors; and the day before, for lawyers. For that meeting in particular, we were overwhelmed by the attendance. A lot of lawyers came to us for training, including some well-known names in the field. This is something we have been stressing from the beginning: nobody is so qualified or experienced that they don’t need additional training. It was rewarding to see that the sentiment is shared by professionals…

You mentioned the Istanbul Convention, which has been transposed into Maltese law. There is also the implementation aspect, however. What remains to be done before we can say it has been fully implemented?

The Convention is based on the so-called ‘Four Ps’: Prevention, Protection, Prosecution and Policies.  As commissioner I attend inter-ministerial meetings, for example, and meet with all the stakeholders: Appogg, Caritas, the social welfare departments, and so on… speaking of which, I also think we need to broaden the list of stakeholders. A case in point is the education sector. Guidance and Counselling services are already represented; but I would like to see the people who draft the national curriculum at those meetings, too; so that we can talk about what needs to be done in schools. After all, they will ultimately have to revise the curriculum. In fact, we are already in preliminary talks, and should be meeting soon. Meanwhile, I feel strongly that we need to work hardest with young schoolchildren. We could introduce them to concepts through the school curriculum… instead of just an occasional PSD lesson about ‘violence’ or ‘gender’ here and there.

But some people might be concerned at the idea of exposing ‘young schoolchildren’ to concepts such as gender-based violence…

That’s not our aim, however. We want to talk about domestic violence, yes, but without mentioning ‘domestic violence’. Last week, for example, we brought an expert to address an ITS foundation class of 15/16-year-olds… he didn’t talk to them about violence; he spoke about respect, and equality between the sexes. It’s a positive approach. And of course, the method will vary between a class of six and 16-year-olds. We have to start at a young age, but it doesn’t mean we ignore the older children who ‘missed out’ in kindergarten. We’re trying as much as possible to target all the age-groups, with approaches that are appropriate to the different ages. In other countries, for instance, these concepts might be introduced even during a maths lesson: it doesn’t have to be one hour reserved only for PSD. I would like to see the same approach taken by our own curriculum. And when I say ‘I’, I don’t mean myself alone. I never go to meetings alone. I have to have the support of both the board, and the secretariat. Here I have to mention Katya Unah, for instance, who worked so hard on our national strategy document…

Would you say the institutional set-up, as it stands, is sufficient to address the sort of problems it caters for? My impression – not just in the case of domestic violence – is that Maltese governments tend to traditionally rely on the voluntary sector, instead of providing the services themselves. Would you say this is true of social services connected with domestic violence?

I wouldn’t agree, as government agencies like Appogg do a lot of sterling work, with the limited resources they have. But in a general sense, it is true that governments – all governments, in case what I say gets interpreted politically – have always relied a lot on voluntary or Church-run services. The way I see it, we have a system which used to work well in the past. But in future – especially with the crisis in vocations: not just in the Ecclesiastic sense, but also in the voluntary sector – I do see the need that governments will have to have their own structures in place. Not that I expect it to happen in my own term; but it is something I feel strongly about. Especially, when it comes to children’s institutions. Here we have to be careful, however. Government does provide some services for children; but definitely not enough. But the concept of an ‘institute’ has also changed. We’re no longer talking about ‘homes’ for children… or the elderly, for that matter. We have to revise our policy approaches, as well as the individual structures themselves.

Meanwhile, there is also talk of a shortage of social workers. Is this true, and if so, to what extent?

It’s serious enough to be called a crisis. At least, I think so. We definitely need more social workers. We need to talk about creating incentives, so that more students graduate in social sciences from university. There are issues we need to face. From what I’ve heard, the pay might not be attractive enough… though it has been increased recently. But it’s not just about money. For let’s face it: to work everyday in that environment… I myself am already affected by it. There are times when you get down, hearing about so many terrible cases. People who work in the field tell me that sometimes they need a therapy session themselves. So it’s important that we look after our social workers; value them more, provide the necessary resources, as well as encourage more people to get involved. We also need to protect them. They are the ones working in the field; and this is a field where the protection of the social worker is important. One of the things we’ve been told by a visiting trainer, for example, is that we need to create safe working environments, where no social worker, at any point in time, ever feels alone or threatened. We need to have the necessary structures in place. It’s one of the things we are working on right now…

Coming back to criticism of your appointment: has it affected the way you approach your job?

To be honest, I do get demoralised… and I have had thoughts about quitting. But I feel I also have to say it would be very unfair on all the people who now depend on me; and who may have seen, in me, a ray of hope that… [pause] because I do listen to people; the social and educational aspect have always been part of my work. It was always the role I took as a journalist. I was never a financial person; don’t give me financial stories, because they mean nothing to me. But I do feel, where people and animals get hurt. In fact, I feel so much, that I make them my own problems, when sometimes, quite frankly, perhaps I shouldn’t…

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