Whip proposes debate on early and forced marriages

Government Whip Godfrey Farrugia proposes debate on early marriage, forced marriage, the morning-after pill and the lowering of the age of consent

Government Whip Godfrey Farrugia
Government Whip Godfrey Farrugia

Early marriage, forced marriage, lowering the age of consent and the morning-after pill will be among the issues discussed in Parliament over the coming weeks and months.

The family affairs committee, chaired by government whip Godfrey Farrugia, is set to place the subjects on its agenda following parliament’s summer recess.

Speaking to MaltaToday, Farrugia said: “if I had to choose the next item to be forwarded to the agenda of the Family Affairs Committee I would be in favour of discussing early marriage and forced marriage. I will be discussing this item with the Committee, as from next October.”

The Whip also said that throughout summer the health, family and social affairs committees will be discussing the morning-after pill, which for the past few weeks has divided the country. 

Farrugia chairs an inter-ministerial committee on lowering the age of sexual consent. A report on lowering the age of consent from 18 to 16 will be presented in October: Malta is the only European country where the age of consent is so high.

Minors can marry at 16 with parents’ consent

“After all, 16-year-olds can work, marry and open a bank account, and parents no longer receive children’s allowance for 16-year-olds,” Farrugia had said, adding “isn’t there some sort of contradiction here?”  

The age of majority, or the age when minors cease to be considered children and assume legal control over their persons and actions is set at 14, though subject to parental authority.

A marriage between persons under the age of 16 is void, but if either or both parties to the marriage are under the age of 18 (but over 16) the parents’ consent is required.

A forced marriage takes place when one or both people do not – or in cases of people with learning disabilities, cannot – consent to the marriage and pressure or abuse is used. In some countries, taking someone overseas to force them to marry is also illegal.

The United Nations views forced marriage as a form of human rights abuse, since it violates the principle of the freedom and autonomy of individuals. However, only a handful of countries internationally have criminalised forced marriage, including the UK, Canada, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Cyprus and Denmark, and Malta.

Since the law has only been introduced in 2014, no data is available about forced marriages in Malta.

A 2016 European Parliament study on forced marriages in EU member states shows that the lack of support structures aimed to assist victims of forced marriage hinders the prosecution of forced marriage in Malta.

In the majority of cases of forced marriage, the perpetrators are members of the victim’s immediate family or extended family, “therefore, victims of forced marriage who decide to report their case are particularly vulnerable and in need of psychological assistance and financial support during the criminal proceedings,” the report says.

Research carried out by national experts also revealed that in many cases victims of forced marriage do not recognise themselves as such. For instance, in many traditional Roma communities, arranged marriages remain a common practice.

Maltese law stipulates that anybody who abducts another person violently with intent to marry is liable to imprisonment for a term of from nine to 18 months.

The same penalties apply to any person who abducts by fraud or seduction any person under the age of 18 years who is under the authority of a parent or tutor.

If within 24 hours the offender voluntarily releases the person abducted without having abused her or him and shall return the victim to the family, carers or any other place of safety, the punishment shall be imprisonment for a term from one to three months.

“In such case, if the offender, after abducting a person, shall marry such person, he shall not be liable to prosecution, except on the complaint of the party whose consent, according to the civil laws, would be required for the marriage,” the law adds.

Moreover the criminal code states that any person who by force, bribery, deceit, deprivation of liberty and improper pressure forces anyone to enter into a marriage is liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term from three to five years.

The law also refers to “any other unlawful conduct or by threats of such conduct,” which experts believe leaves a large margin for interpretation causing legal uncertainty.

Euthanasia on the agenda

The Parliamentary family affairs committee will this week hold a meeting during which ASL sufferer Joe Magro will be given an opportunity to make his case for the introduction of euthanasia.

Magro will appear in front of the committee, after making a request to have the issue debated in Parliament.

Farrugia said the purpose of the meeting is to “hear out a private citizen’s personal view on his medically assisted death.”

“It is my intention that after this meeting, this issue will be discussed in a conjoint meeting of the committees of Health, Social and Family Affairs when Parliament re-opens after the summer recess next October,” Farrugia added.

The debate on euthanasia, which remains one of the last taboo subjects in a largely conservative society, intensified following an interview carried by MaltaToday with Joe Magro in February.

Magro was diagnosed with ALS, a deadly neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord, a year ago.

“I do not want to be a burden on anyone. I do not want to be dependent on my family to eat, drink, wash or simply go to the bathroom. I will live as long as I can but once it gets to a point where I cannot live life in dignity I will commit suicide,” he said in the interview.

Asked for his reaction ahead of Wednesday’s meeting in Parliament, Magro welcomed the news and reiterated his call on all legislators to introduce euthanasia without delay.

He added that even if the law is restrictive, it would give him and people in his situation peace of mind.