In Malta, forgiveness for rape is abundant but justice for women is scarce

Alessandra Baldacchino | Whatever the background, facets and nuances to a rape case: it is a crime with a victim and a perpetrator

Paulina Dembska’s femicide on the second day of the new year was a moment of reckoning for Maltese society. It’s chilling effect helped to facilitate a new wave of much-needed thought and discussion about violence against women which, has often been considered taboo in the recent past.

It is heartening to see an uptick in women, such as Fiona Cauchi and Ritianne Tabone, courageously discuss their own horrifying experiences of physical aggression in the public eye, as well as men come forward to show solidarity with victims of sexual assault.

Less encouraging are the worrying narratives that surround the rape and murder of Paulina, which underline the persistence of dangerous misconceptions around sexual violence and women’s rights in Malta.

The latest example is an article in last Sunday’s Times of Malta, ‘My attacker was strangling me before trying to rape me’. This article peddles a narrative that is like a barbed-wire fence keeping us away from the very thing Maltese society should be focused on achieving: criminal justice and a deterrent effect.

The stand-out statement in Mark Lawrence Zammit’s interview of Fiona Cauchi is that “in a rape, there are two victims - the victim and the perpetrator.” While important to recognise that this quote is based on one woman’s experience and opinion and should be unambiguously labelled as such, we need to be conscious of the impact that such a quote can have on the broader debate, especially within the context of our country’s recent history.

By focusing narrowly on the mental health of individual sexually violent predators and not the misogyny that underpins their actions, we not only risk failing to deliver justice for their victims, but also absolve society of the responsibility to deal with the broader issue at hand

Under the Victims of Crime Act of the Laws of Malta, the definition of the word “victim” is as follows: “a natural person who has suffered harm, including physical, mental or emotional harm or economic loss which was directly caused by a criminal offence.”

While acknowledging that both the perpetrator and the victim of the crime can suffer, it is important not to confuse victimhood with suffering. The victim suffers unfairly through no fault of their own, while the very point of the justice system is to ensure that the perpetrator does suffer a loss of liberty and public shame to create a deterrent. If the perpetrator also happens to suffer from a mental illness, that is incidental and does not cancel out the suffering of the person who was sexually assaulted.

Irrespective of the background, facets and nuances of a rape and murder case, referring to sexually violent predators as ‘victims’ is not only legally incorrect but subtracts responsibility and intent from their criminal actions. If everyone is a victim, then who is the perpetrator? If we were to rewrite the law to recognise criminals as victims of their own criminal actions, we would put the entire justice system into question.

According to the World Health Organisation, an estimated 120,000 people were living with a mental disorder in Malta in 2020. That is almost a quarter of the population. Nowhere did we refer to this huge portion of our population as ‘victims’ - not until a man allegedly raped and murdered Paulina Dembska.  

Rape is a criminal offence, not a mental disorder. The act of committing sexual assault, and suffering from a mental illness, are two distinct things. The data that we have on rape shows that most sex offenders are not mentally ill at all. While some perpetrators have a psychological disorder that lowers their inhibitions, there is no disorder that, in its own right, compels people to rape. Linking the two throws us off the path to true justice for victims of sexual assault and continues to stigmatise people with severe mental illnesses.

Let’s be clear, the major motive for most rapes is not sexual attraction, but power and control. Rapes tend not to be spur-of-the-moment events either: most rapes are pre-meditated, and only a fraction of rapists are strangers to their victims. While sex offenders are likely to have a history of sexual abuse themselves, an abundance of literature confirms that misogyny plays a significant role in driving their actions. This explains why while girls are more likely to experience sexual abuse than boys in their childhood, 99% of perpetrators of rape and sexual assault are men.

By focusing narrowly on the mental health or individual suffering of sexually violent predators including rapists, and not the misogyny that underpins their actions, we not only risk failing to deliver justice for their victims, but also absolve society of the responsibility to deal with the broader issue at hand.

The message confuses Christian forgiveness, and an otherwise applaudable willingness to understand and empathise, with criminal justice.

Fundamentally, the article’s message confuses Christian forgiveness, and a perhaps applaudable willingness to understand where all people are coming from, with criminal justice. The two processes are distinct. But in a country like Malta, where forgiveness is abundant and justice for women is scarce - with time-barring for sexual crimes still in place and 85% of rape cases estimated unreported - the focus needs to be on criminal justice rather than reinforcing the idea, which finds fertile ground in a misogynistic culture, that we should forgive and forget.

Even with regards to the smaller proportion of rape, sexual assault, or domestic violence cases that are actually reported, Cauchi is right that “women [are] never safe [because] the perpetrators are often handed suspended sentences or a few years in prison, and then they are back wandering the streets.”

In 2017, a 31-year-old man from Birkirkara who injured his wife and son during a violent domestic argument was handed a suspended sentence after filing a guilty plea.

In 2018, a 38-year-old man from St. Paul’s Bay was handed a suspended sentence and ordered to go to anger management classes after physically harming, insulting and threatening his wife.

In 2020, Rion Azzopardi was fined €500 and handed a suspended sentence for threatening his pregnant ex-partner with violence.

Glenn Carabott, the police sergeant who in 2021 allegedly raped the victim of a burglary he was meant to assist, has been granted bail because he would like to care for his elderly mother.

Many other cases resulted in ridiculously low sentences for crimes as serious as femicide too.

One of the most shocking is that of Diane Gerada in 1993 who was stabbed to death more than 20 times by her husband while lying in bed at their home in Marsaxlokk. Her husband poured lavatory cleaner over her gushing wounds while she died on the balcony in front of her toddler. And while the court found Grazio Gerada guilty, it ruled that he was reacting to provocation and thus was sentenced to only four years imprisonment.

In Meryem Bugeja’s case, she was found dead at her residence in Mġarr in 2012 with blows to her head while pregnant with twins. The Police, after initially thinking that the woman fell and hit her head, decided to question her husband, only to release him soon after due to lack of evidence.

These are just a few examples which prove that many women have been, and continue to be, robbed of justice in face of a rampant culture of misogyny in Malta.  While seeking to understand the mind of sexually violent predators is important in a preventative sense, we must be extremely cautious not to miss the wood for the trees. Underestimating or blatantly ignoring the prevalent culture of misogyny we live and breathe can lead to victim-blaming, the watering-down of sexual assault cases, and an outright miscarriage of justice.

It is also often the reason why many reports of abuse by women as well as men, are not taken seriously. Just a few months ago, the The Malta Women's Lobby raised the alarm about indifference shown by police in reports of sexual assault, while The Maltese Association of Social Workers (MASW) expressed concern that an alleged rape victim has had to wait over a year to be heard by the police.

To conclude, the narrative is crucial in ensuring a constructive and fair debate. But without progressive policy to educate the next generations about consent, and the proper enforcement of the law for all manifestations of gendered crimes, there is little hope that anything will change.

Women are desperately looking to our authorities and politicians to, aside from lighting candles, give women back their autonomy to exercise their most basic and mundane rights, such as to walk home alone safely.