Should femicide be a distinct crime or aggravating offence?

MaltaToday speaks to lawyers Veronique Dalli, Lara Dimitrijevic and Desiree Attard on whether femicide should be listed as a distinct crime in the wake of the brutal rape and murder of Polish student Paulina Dembska

Different views: Women’s Rights Foundation campaigner and lawyer Dr Lara Dimitrijevic, lawyers Dr Desiree Attard and Dr Veronique Dalli
Different views: Women’s Rights Foundation campaigner and lawyer Dr Lara Dimitrijevic, lawyers Dr Desiree Attard and Dr Veronique Dalli

The brutal rape and murder of Polish student Paulina Dembska has prompted calls for femicide to be listed as a distinct crime or an aggravating offence.

The Women’s Rights Foundation was at the forefront to make such a recommendation in a report on femicide in Malta that was released 48 hours after Dembska’s murder.

In a separate statement, the Malta Women’s Lobby called for a change in the Gender-Based Violence and Domestic Violence Act to bring the definition in line with the Istanbul Convention.

The Istanbul Convention speaks of violence against women but when it was transposed into Maltese legislation the law was made gender-neutral.

Some women’s rights activists want the law to reflect the convention and specifically mention women.

The Women’s Lobby said femicide should be recognised as an aggravating factor to homicide.

Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis disagreed with these voices. He said homicide, irrespective of gender, already carries the maximum punishment of life imprisonment.

“Addressing femicide – defined as the killing of a girl or a woman because she is a girl or a woman - is not necessarily about legislative changes,” Zammit Lewis said.

Homicide vs femicide

Lawyer Veronique Dalli says that laws for homicide already exist, which carry the strictest penalty - life imprisonment with or without solitary confinement.

She says different types of murders fall under the same umbrella of homicide. Just as there is femicide, other descriptions include parricide – the act of killing one’s father or mother – and infanticide – the act of killing children (however, infanticide does not carry a maximum of life imprisonment).

Dalli argues that from a legal standpoint all murders, irrespective of their label, carry the highest form of punishment and so it makes little sense to have distinct crimes.

But she says that making femicide an ad hoc criminal offence to acknowledge the wilful murder of a woman because she is a woman goes beyond the legal realm.

“This is a different argument altogether. We cannot have an aggravated circumstance in the case of femicide with a harsher punishment because the law already contemplates this, however this does not mean it cannot be acknowledged in legal definitions to make it clear what and who the law refers to,” Dalli says.

She notes this is more an anthropomorphic argument rather than a legal one. “Should we make up for centuries of deficiency in protecting women? I would say definitely yes, as it is  our duty to protect women against any form of violence.”

Women’s rights activist and lawyer Lara Dimitrijevic believes femicide deserves to be recognised as an offence within its own merits.

She says that although the punishment for homicide is life imprisonment, femicide is the result of misogynistic and harmful behaviours experienced by women because of their gender and sex.

“The message needs to be clear that such harmful attitudes are wrong and ought not to be tolerated. Our law also provides for excuses that may be raised to justify the killing, such as what is known as a crime of passion,” Dimitrijevic says.

Lawyer Desiree Attard believes Malta has to face the truth that femicide is a reality that happens on the island’s streets and homes. 

“We have to reckon with the way we treat women in Malta and the ingrained and at times institutionalised misogyny and address it. We have come far, but clearly, not far enough,” Attard says.

She understands the calls to classify femicide separately from homicide because the root causes are not the same. “However, I question its practical application, given the very limited resources and training of our prosecutors as well as our courts.” 

“Personally, I’d much rather see a concerted effort by the authorities to actually enforce the laws we already have in place by giving both the police force and our courts the resources and training they need,” Attard adds. 

Attard says that the Criminal Code already provides for an increase in punishment for aggravated or motivated crimes, so the concept already exists.

“Once again, the problem I see is the lack of its application, which is occurring for many reasons, including the lack of awareness on these provisions, or the lack of knowledge on how to apply them and successfully prosecute them,” Attard says.

Istanbul Convention 

Dimitrijevic calls for a more accurate and faithful transposition of the Istanbul Convention “What we have at present is a watered-down version of the convention that has eliminated any specific reference to violence against women. The criminal code recognises gender-based violence or violence on the basis of gender or gender identity; however, this is clearly not enough,” Dimitrijevic says.

She adds that by taking a neutral approach, Malta is detracting from the reality of the suffering women and girls have to sustain due to harmful practices and attitudes that Maltese society has towards them. 

Education is key

Dalli believes more needs to be done to get to the root of why violence against women and ultimately femicide occurs, and that the only way to do so is through education.

“Malta requires a cultural and educational renewal so that people stop objectifying women and start treating them with the dignity they deserve,” Dalli explains.

She points out that more needs to be done to teach women that violence is not a private matter and to recognise the red flags.

“Certain aspects need to be fostered through education, now more than ever. Girls need to be taught to leave at the first sign of violence, and not to stay even if it’s something that when you see it, your stomach churns in doubt,” she adds.

No act of violence should be tolerated and this message needs to come across, Dalli insists.

The country needs to talk about aggression in its many different forms, she says. “This is not talked about enough and this is part of the problem.”