Women angered by Dembska murder: ‘A reminder that misogyny and sexism are still present’

Women react to the murder of 29-year-old Paulina Dembska, and call on the government to do more to ensure the safety of women

29-year-old Paulina Dembska
29-year-old Paulina Dembska

Femicide remains prevalent within Maltese society and the authorities are not doing enough to get to the root of the problem, a leading women's rights activist said.

Lara Dimitrijevic from the Women's Rights Foundation was reacting to the murder on Sunday of 29-year-old Paulina Dembska, a Polish woman.

Dembska's murder is the first femicide of the year and it appears that she had no link or relationship with the murder suspect, 20-year-old Abner Aquilina.

Her body was found at the Independence Garden in Sliema, just below the popular promenade, by a passer-by just before 6:30am. Dembska is believed to have been raped but police would only confirm that she had signs of violence around her neck and head.

Dembska frequented the garden where she fed the cat colony.

READ ALSO: Dembska murder suspect Abner Aquilina under medical observation ahead of charges

“If you compare us to other European countries, we have a high rate of femicide - this is because the root of the problem lies in inequality and misogyny,” Dimitrijevic said.

Dimitrijevic said that until the root of the problem is treated, Malta is still far away from ensuring that women will not be abused and killed on account of their gender.

“Right now, we are just dealing with the symptom,” Dimitrijevic said.

A culture of hatred towards women

Activist Pia Micallef told this newspaper that the murder of Dembska was a stark reminder that misogyny, sexism and the normalisation of violence against women was not left in 2021.  

“Her brutal murder is a direct result of the culture of hatred towards women that we have allowed to foster. And while it may have taken a single individual to take Paulina’s life yesterday, it took a village to let it happen. We are all responsible for this,” Micallef said.

Micallef said that every time the normalisation of victim-blaming and shaming is allowed, another perpetrator believes that their violence is justified.

“We can implement a million great policies, including the Istanbul Convention - an instrument of great importance to combat violence against women, but without a societal shift in mentality vis-a-vis how we view our ownership of women and their bodies, we will continue to face the same harrowing experiences over and over again,” she said.

'Why did interrogation stop?'

Director of the Centre for Labour Studies Anna Borg said that Malta has a duty to critically interrogate the construction of rape/murder as a mental disorder. 

I fear we risk normalising rape and murder even more if we simply file it under the 'excuse' of mental illness. For example, why was the interrogation process halted in this case? These are some of the things which need to be discussed with the experts,” Borg said.

In a statement on Monday, the police confirmed that they suspended the suspect's interrogation after doctors at Mater Dei Hospital referred the murder suspect to Mount Carmel Hospital.

Murder suspect Abner Aquilina (left) is currently being held for observation at Mount Carmel Hospital
Murder suspect Abner Aquilina (left) is currently being held for observation at Mount Carmel Hospital

Women for Women Founder Francesca Fenech Conti said that in her 53 years, she does not remember a case of this sort occurring on the island.

“This is a very, very sad and tragic story for all involved, of course, especially for Paulina and her family and friends. I don’t know enough about the perpetrator, but as a society, we failed him too,” Fenech Conti said.

She questioned why the perpetrator was not being correctly and professionally cared for and looked after.

“I think our mental health services need to take a long hard look at our support systems for people with issues such as Abner’s to make sure they are getting the help they need to keep themselves safe, but especially to keep all of us safe, too,” Fenech Conti said.

State and society failed twice

Meanwhile, politicians have also reacted to the brutal murder.

Labour MP Rosianne Cutajar said the frequency of femicide in Malta is "alarming" and required more work in society to address the causes.

"If Abner truly suffered from mental health problems, then we doubly failed as a state. We failed to give him the care he needed in an environment that is safe for him and for others. We also failed as a state and society because in some way we gave him the impression that a woman is a more vulnerable target than a man. This woman was not killed only because the alleged aggressor suffers from mental health issues but because she was a woman," Cutajar said.

Opposition leader Bernard Grech described the murder "a horrifying act". "We must do better. No woman, no wife, no sister, no daughter should fear this fate," he said.

Equality Minister Owen Bonnici said he was shocked by the murder. "While police investigations into this case must be allowed to take their course, I cannot but express my anger in front of this tragedy. As a father to a daughter I want my country to be a place where all women feel they can live without the threat of gender-based violence."

Labour MEP Cyrus Engerer remarked on the importance that the EU ratifies the Istanbul Convention against gender-based violence. "We ratified the convention in Malta but more has to be done."