2022: The year women rose to the fore

Women took centre stage this year: there are more women now than there have ever been in parliament; Roberta Metsola became the first woman since 1999 to be elected President of the European Parliament. But these political achievements for women came in a year that was bookended by two femicides, punctuated by another femicide around three months in

A woman’s life-threatening miscarriage threw Malta in an intense debate on reproductive rights and access to abortion. Women working at Transport Malta and the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra took their aggressors to court for sexual harassment in the workplace. MaltaToday looks back at the moments when women – their talents, their health, and their bodies – entered the spotlight this year.  

Breaking the political ceiling 

Women smashed through the glass ceiling in politics this year, with many women going on to attain high positions of power in Malta and abroad. 

Most notable was Roberta Metsola’s election to President of the European Parliament. The Maltese Nationalist MEP became the first woman since 1999 to occupy the role after obtaining the support of an absolute majority of MEPs on the first round. Indeed, she received 74% of valid votes cast in the hemicycle in Strasbourg.  

She was also the first Maltese person to occupy one of the highest institutional posts in the EU. She received praise from across the political spectrum in Malta, with the Prime Minister, Opposition leader, and President all congratulating her on the accomplishment.  

Locally, 2022 was the first year that the gender mechanism was used in a general election. The corrective mechanism was passed in 2021 to ensure gender parity in parliament. If the under-represented sex comprises less than 40% of all seats after the election outcome is known, the mechanism will kick in to elect a maximum of 12 additional MPs – six on either side of the House.  

Initially, only three women MPs were elected on the Labour Party ticket. These were Miriam Dalli, Julia Farrugia Portelli, and Alison Zerafa Civelli. The Nationalist Party only managed to elect one woman MP, which was Graziella Galea. After the casual elections, the Labour Party managed to bring another four women into the parliamentary group: Rosianne Cutajar, Romilda Zarb Baldacchino, Rebecca Buttigieg and Katya De Giovanni. The Nationalist Party managed to elect two more women through casual elections, namely Rebekah Borg and Graziella Attard Previ.  

After the gender mechanism kicked in, the PL and PN parliamentary groups had 13 and nine women respectively. With 22 women from a parliament of 79 MPs, only 28% of MPs are women. This is the highest ever ratio of women in the House of Representatives.  

Women’s poor performance in the election, with only four women elected before the casual elections and gender mechanism, led many to question whether the gender quota punished women candidates. University of Malta pro-rector Prof Carmen Sammut, who was part of the team that drafted the gender quotas law, pointed out that many established women on both sides did not run, which could have been a contributing factor. Miriam Dalli had also pointed out that the women on the PL ticket obtained almost 20,000 first-count votes. In 2017 they had received 14,000.  

But the end result is still a parliament with a high women-to-men ratio, which could allow women politicians to gain from exposure and build confidence in Malta’s political landscape.  

Femicide issue rises to the fore 

But gender equality does not trickle down from the parliament to the streets. The new year was ushered in with the news that a woman was found dead in Ġnien Indipendenza in Sliema. Her body was found at 6:30am on the slope leading from the promenade to the park. Police later identified her as Paulina Dembska, a 29-year-old Polish woman who was studying in Malta. The story of her death rocked Malta as details started to unravel throughout that week. 

Dembska was living in a Sliema hostel, and was a frequent visitor to the gardens where she fed the cat colony. She went to feed the cats at around 5am on 2 January when Abner Aquilina, the man accused of murdering her, beat her, raped her, and killed her. There was a massive laceration on Dembska’s neck, and a clump of her hair was found on the nearby railing.  

Her death prompted a wide-ranging discussion on gender equality, even later prompting government to introduce femicide as an aggravated offence in the Criminal Code. Malta’s equality commission said the murder had been an extreme form of power and control in a patriarchal society. Doctors for Choice questioned whether a man would have been raped and killed in broad daylight had he been feeding the cats in the same garden that day, highlighting the lack of safety of women in Maltese streets. 

The Malta Police Force did not help when they addressed a crime conference and refused to link Demsbka’s murder with her gender. They said the murder was random, and nothing linked the crimes to her gender – despite her being raped vaginally, anally and orally. Many were outraged and confused by the comments.  

Dembska’s murder, and the gender equality debate that ensued, paved the way for the Femicide Bill. The Bill did not make femicide its own crime, instead introducing the concept as an aggravating offence. This allows the Maltese court to deliver higher penalties when a homicide is deemed to be of a femicidal nature, motivated by gender. 

The Bill was not passed before Rita Ellul was murdered by her partner less than two months from Dembska’s murder.  

Ellul, a 49-year-old woman from Iklin, was found dead inside her home on Triq Dun Franġisk Mizzi in Għajnsielem, Gozo. Her partner, 30-year-old Lawrence Abna from Ghana, pleaded not guilty to homicide.  

She had reported her partner to the police over domestic violence in the past, with the cases ongoing at the time of her death. Her cause of death is believed to have been asphyxiation, with Ellul’s partner suspected of having suffacted her using a bed duvet. 

Her daughters, Georgina and Jessica, did not mince their words when they spoke at a vigil in honour of their mother. They told the crowd that they wanted to see their mother’s killed “spend the rest of his life behind bars”.  

Pending court cases and a history of domestic violence from her partner – her story is not too different to that of Bernice Cassar. 

Cassar was murdered in broad daylight by her estranged husband as she was on her way to work. She had just dropped her two kids at school and made her way to her workplace in the Corradino Industrial Estate when Roderick Cassar blocked her path with his car, started flagging traffic, and eventually went on to load a shotgun and fire two shots at his ex-wife: one to the chest, another to the face.  

It turned out that Cassar had filed a report with the police against her aggressor, but the court was only going to hear the case in November 2023. In total, she filed five police reports against her husband for domestic violence, one of them as recently as the day before her murder. Charges had been issued for three of the reports, and the court imposed a protection order in favour of Cassar. 

Malta was again left shaken by the third femicide of 2022. For a moment, Bernice became the symbol of Malta’s domestic violence crisis. Activists pointed an accusing finger at the system for failing her, and other woman who face administrative hurdles when seeking safety from domestic violence. They argued that Bernice Cassar exhausted all legal avenues after plucking up the courage to stand up and move away from her abusive situation, only to be failed by court delays and inadequate police response to her complaints.  

She had been assaulted by her husband outside the Floriana health centre on 13 November. On the day, she immediately fled the health centre to the nearby police headquarters, where she waited seven hours, unsuccessfully, to file her report. She returned the next day and waited another two hours to file her report. But when called in for questioning, her husband never turned up. Bernice then filed another report on the eve of her murder because her husband once again breached the protection order. 24 hours later she was killed in cold blood.  

Abortion debate in full swing 

Pro-choice activists continued with their pressure to keep the abortion issue at the top of the agenda, culminating in the eventual introduction of an exception to Malta’s blanket ban on abortion.  

This year, the pressure started in court. 188 women filed a judicial protest against the health ministry to not only remove Malta’s blanket ban on abortion, but also to decriminalise and legalise the procedure. The judicial protest, filed by the Women’s Rights Foundation, argued that the ban was having a direct impact on the plaintiffs’ quality of life by depriving them of the right to make decisions about their health, family, future, and general well-being, as well as precluding them of their right to bodily autonomy. 

Shortly after, 135 doctors signed a separate judicial protest requesting the removal of Article 243 of the Laws of Malta so that medical professionals will no longer be criminalised when a patient needs to terminate their pregnancy. The article concerns physicians, surgeons, obstetricians or apothecaries who knowingly perform abortion or prescribe the means by which an abortion can be carried out. Such medical professionals could be subject to a maximum four year prison sentence and perpetual interdiction from their profession. 

Almost poetically, shortly before this protest was submitted, Mater Dei Hospital refused to terminate the unviable pregnancy of American tourist Andrea Prudente. Prudente was on holiday in Malta with her partner when she went to the Gozo emergency unit and was later admitted to Mater Dei Hospital after suffering what seemed like a miscarriage, with heavy bleeding followed by breaking waters. An ultrasound showed ruptured membranes and a detaching placenta, but the fetus still had a heartbeat. She requested a termination of pregnancy, but she was told that doctors can only intervene if she is imminently dying. 

Prudente’s case prompted Health Minister Chris Fearne to order a review of the Laws of Malta to determine whether aspects of it could be hindering doctors from giving proper care to patients. This paved the way to the first major change to the abortion ban, which would allow for an exception if the woman’s health and life are at risk.  

It also paved the way to a fierce debate on abortion, pitting the Labour Party and pro-choice activists against a coalition of anti-abortion groups, the Maltese Catholic Church, evangelicals River of Love, and the Nationalist Party.  

The debate hinges largely on whether the “health” aspect should be removed from government’s amendment to the abortion law. It all started when three prominent academics came out arguing that the abortion tweak will allow for termination in cases where the mother’s mental health is also at risk. “This means abortion will be allowed if a woman is going through serious mental conditions, none of which should ever justify the sacrifice of a baby’s life,” the academics argued in a letter to the press.  

This argument was co-opted by Life Network Foundation, and later the Church, and eventually the Nationalist Party. The talking points do not differ much between each faction. They argue that Prudente’s life was never in dager, that a woman who is fit to give birth should not be allowed to terminate her pregnancy, and that the tweak is a precursor to the full legalisation of abortion in Malta.  

Eventually, they came together for an anti-abortion march through Valletta against the amendments. Thousands gathered outside Castille to voice their anger on the reform, with even Labour heavyweight and President Emeritus Marie Louise Coleiro Preca addressing the crowd against the amendment.  

The anti-abortion lobby put on a show of force that day. However, there have been many signs that the public opinion on Malta’s abortion laws is shifting to be more sympathetic to the pro-choice cause. A MaltaToday-Polar survey found that 53.3%, an absolute majority, believe that women who have an abortion should not be sent to prison. Meanwhile, 27.5% agree with imprisoning women who have gotten an abortion. This was a 10-point drop over the results of a similar survey conducted the year before.  

But the opinion remains nuanced. While the majority do not agree with sending women to hospital, anti-abortion sentiment still runs high with almost 62% of people saying they are totally against abortion regardless of the circumstance. This survey, conducted two months before the aforementioned report, showed that only 27.8% of people are in favour abortion in particular cases, while a further 8.3% agree with abortion whatever the circumstance.  

What’s for sure is that abortion is no longer the political taboo it used to be. Even during the election campaign trail, Prime Minister Robert Abela came out saying that the public debate on abortion should not be stifled. This was the first time abortion got a mention in the electoral campaign, this time without the leader of a majority party outrightly dismissing or condemning the one-time taboo subject.  

But what does the abortion debate hold for next year? Peppi Azzopardi, who is one of the faces fronting the anti-abortion movement, already floated the idea of an abrogative referendum if the government’s amendment passes in parliament. Indeed, he said that the next step should be to hold a referendum to have the clause deleted. The Court will also have to decide on the couple of judicial protests filed this year on Malta’s abortion ban. Regardless of the direction, the debate has come a long way since former minister Tonio Borg’s 2005 idea to have the criminal provisions against abortion entrenched in the constitution.  

The rise of the feminist voice 

If recent years are anything to go by, the feminist voice of activists will not quiet down. Women’s rights activists took to the streets repeatedly over 2022, and without fail, whether they were protesting femicide, domestic violence, inaccess to healthcare or gender inequality.  

Even this year’s pro-choice rally, when hundreds marched through Valletta in favour of legalising abortion, was the largest of its kind compared to the first pro-choice rally held in 2019.  

A handful of activists and medical professionals had been speaking out on the abortion debate. Now hundreds of women are sharing the stories on abortion and domestic violence in what promise to be important frontiers as Malta heads into 2023.