2016 was the year the Maltese stood up for women’s rights and gender equality

2016 will be noted down in Maltese history as the year when Malta continued to make huge strides in women’s rights and gender equality

2016 will be noted down in Maltese history as the year when Malta continued to make huge strides in women’s rights and gender equality. 

Ground-breaking legislation was passed in parliament banning gay conversion therapy, hitting headlines worldwide marking Malta as the first European country to take this laudable step.

Huge strides forward and little ones continue to show that the people of Malta are influencing the politicians’ agenda: as the introduction of the morning-after pill has clearly shown, it’s not an easy road.

After last year’s ground-breaking introduction of trans and intersex law, Malta launched a new trans, gender-variant, inter-sex inmate policy, allowing prisoners to be assigned to wards according to their gender.

Big steps and little steps are being introduced simultaneously, taking the island to places it never dreamed of until four years ago, when divorce was finally introduced.

The people of Malta are influencing the politicians’ agenda, but it's not an easy road, as the introduction of the morning-after pill clearly showed
The people of Malta are influencing the politicians’ agenda, but it's not an easy road, as the introduction of the morning-after pill clearly showed

MaltaToday caught up with four important players who are shaping Malta’s future: lawyer Lara Dimitrijevic, who has fought for the introduction of the morning-after pill; Francesca Fenech Conti, who has given thousands of women a platform to make their voice heard; Alex Caruana, who is teaching us what being a trans person means and Minister Helena Dalli who this year was crowned heroine of the year at the European Diversity Awards.

Lara Dimitrijevic

Director Women’s Rights Foundation

Lara Dimitrijevic
Lara Dimitrijevic

Women’s sexual and reproductive health has always been one of the concerns of Women’s Rights Foundation (WRF). Compared to many other European countries, Maltese laws and policies are lagging, particularly in accessing contraception.

As an organisation, WRF is concerned with protecting women’s rights at law and whenever a breach of right is brought to our attention, we ensure that such breach is remedied and protected at law, including resorting to courts if required.

Thus, when we were approached by over 102 women, filing a judicial protest was an obvious course of action for us to take. It was evident that the lack of accessibility and of availability of the emergency contraception was unjustified and in breach of women’s fundamental rights. Malta had ratified a number of international treaties where it had legally bound itself to safeguard women’s right to choose over their reproductive health. 

Following the filing of the judicial protest, we were baffled to see that a joint parliamentary committee was going to hold hearings on the matter. We could not help but question the reason behind the hearings, until it became clear that there was much misconception and ignorance when it comes to women’s contraceptive use. 

Evidently, in 2016, patriarchal attitudes are still strongly ingrained and anything remotely related to such a ‘controversial’ use of contraception, that is easily accessible in the rest of Europe, required a nationwide debate on whether a woman ought to have a right to choose to make use of it. 

Nevertheless, despite a heated misinformation campaign in social and other media, we are glad to see that common sense prevailed and that emergency contraception is available and readily accessible to women in Malta.

But this is not the end. 

As an organisation, we intend to take this further and continue to raise awareness and educate women and girls about their sexual and reproductive rights. 

We will also continue to work to ensure that all forms of contraception are available and accessible to women and girls in Malta.  

Francesca Fenech Conti

Women for Women

Francesca Fenech Conti
Francesca Fenech Conti

Women for Women was the catalyst for bringing many women’s issues to the forefront, by providing a much needed safe haven for women’s voices to start being heard. 

Maltese women, joined by many foreign women from all different walks of life in 2016, started speaking out about topics important to all of us: issues like balancing our careers and family life, relationships, motherhood, childcare, financial issues, violence against women, health issues. 

The conversations flowed, friendships were made, we laughed, we cried and rallied together and held fund-raising activities… the bond is unbreakable. Naturally, we also discussed previously taboo subjects concerning us women, like sex, contraception and the morning-after pill. We all know what happened from then on: the judicial protest was filed, we discussed the issue for months, we marched; we protested; parliamentary committees met until finally it was decided that emergency contraception be made available over the counter. 

I think Women for Women played an essential and pivotal role in encouraging us women to start speaking out for what we believe in. 

It’s amazing what we can achieve when we support each other.

Our next challenge should be to continue to see the number of unplanned pregnancies, especially teenage pregnancies, drop to a par with our European counterparts, through the setting up of proper structures that empower and give young women agency over their own lives and their own bodies. 

The challenge would be to provide a physical space in the form of sexual and reproductive health centres, where young women can find professional non-judgmental, no questions asked information and educational material.

 Or if need be, just a shoulder to cry on.

Services offered would include providing contraceptive pills, injections/Long Acting Implants (not yet widely available in Malta), emergency contraception, intra-uterine devices/systems, diaphragms, pregnancy tests, STD screening, smear tests, counselling and psychological help. 

I hope many other women will share my dream and join me as we write the next chapter.

Alex Caruana

Social and environmental activist, Trans, 27

Alex Caruana
Alex Caruana

The year 2016 has seen the fruits of the Gender Identity Act which brought drastic basic changes in the lives of Trans* people in Malta. In one year, 63 people changed their name and sex on their ID cards. In August, there has been the launch of the policy for Transgender prisoners at the Corradino Correctional Facility. The prisoners will start to be assigned to the division that matches their gender on their legal documents. 

Later this year, we’ve seen another major step towards dignity, with the ban on Gay (LGBTIQ) conversion therapy. Malta is the first country in Europe to ban such practice; a practice that caused a lot of harm and suffering on LGBTIQ individuals. The Bill affirms that now, sexual orientation or gender expression will not constitute a disorder or disease. Surprisingly as well, the Gender Identity Act has been revised so that 16-year-olds can request a change in their official documents as well, without the need to go to Court.

These have been legal changes that have had and will have a positive effect on LGBTIQ people. At least, we will not receive any strange looks every time we have to show our ID card; that means, less anxiety… who likes anxiety anyway?

This incredible journey has been amazing. We started off as a country with no basic legal rights, and now here we are, proud as never before with our improvements. 

As a Trans person, I believe that our next step is to have free HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) and surgeries. Hormones are a medication that we take (Transmen have to take it for all their lives) and since they are not cheap, they constitute an economic burden on us. 

The surgeries, as many know, cost thousands of euros and some of them have to be done abroad. In many other countries, these services are offered for free and I hope that they will be offered in Malta as well. 

Helena Dalli

Minister for Gender Equality, Civil Liberties and Social Dialogue

Reflecting on 2016, as the Minister for Social Dialogue, I am greatly encouraged by the fact that, this year, civil society was increasingly vocal on the issues it wants us politicians to discuss and act upon. Calls for progress from civil society are a sign of a healthy democracy. 

A concern or an issue which is raised or supported by the public motivates us representatives – the call to introduce emergency contraception is one such example. 

I believe that women’s contraception rights should not be up for debate, and the support of civil society on this matter is appreciated. 

A top priority for my ministry for the coming year is the enactment of the Gender-Based Violence and Domestic Violence Bill that was presented in Parliament this November. Once it becomes law, this Bill is set to significantly improve the legal mechanisms dealing with issues of gendered violence, especially domestic violence. 

The protection of all victims of violence was our focal concern when drafting this law. This is reflected in the legal amendments which we are proposing in this Bill, which we will accompany with a set of policy guidelines and measures to truly ensure its implementation in practice. 

Truly successful social and economic development can only occur when gender equality is achieved.  Because of important policy measures such as free childcare we are seeing an increase in women in the labour force, and thus more women are becoming financially independent; we will continue our work on bringing more women to the labour market.  

We will also strive for equal pay for equal work, not least through the enactment of the Equality Act which I presented to Parliament earlier this month.