[WATCH] Naomi Cachia: ‘I’ve been told I was elected only because I’m a woman’

Being a woman in politics is a ‘burden we need to tackle’, says new Labour youth president Naomi Cachia as she embarks on a recruitment campaign to put more women in politics

“The sexism is shocking… you won’t hear anyone ask a man about their family life when they get elected,” says new FZL president Naomi Cachia
“The sexism is shocking… you won’t hear anyone ask a man about their family life when they get elected,” says new FZL president Naomi Cachia

Gender stereotypes in politics are still rampant, the newly-elected president of Forum Zghazagh Laburisti (FZL) Naomi Cachia, has warned.

“I’ve already faced [gender stereotypes] because, even though I wasn’t elected through gender quotas, I’ve been told ‘well you’ve been elected only because you’re a woman’,” Cachia told MaltaToday.

Cachia, 23, was referring to the fear that women will be tokenised if elected through gender quotas, a temporary measure proposed by the Labour party to decrease the political disparity between men and women. She says gender quotas are a necessary evil that need to be accompanied with programmes like PL’s LEAD.

“You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t… I prefer seeing more women in office with quotas, to have women more visible now than having to face this deficit further down the years.”

Spearheaded by Labour MEP Miriam Dalli and former MP Deborah Schembri, the programme LEAD is an initiative that seeks to attract a larger number of women to politics. The initiative is part of the Labour party’s attempt to have a gender-balanced list of candidates by the next general election. 40 applications have already been received, Dalli has reported during a Facebook live Q&A session.

Cachia continue to express frustration at the media’s overwhelming attention on her gender: “We don’t need to dwell on this thing that I’m a woman. We need to move forward.”

Women in politics wade through sexist questions before they can start to be recognised for their own work, she said, citing the media’s focus on MEPs Roberta Metsola and Miriam Dalli’s family life as an example. Men, she argued, simply do not get asked about family life.

“The sexism is shocking… you won’t hear anyone ask this question to a man. You have to make your way through these stereotypes before you even start making your contribution as a woman.”

The FZL leader admits that the pressure is on for her to deliver more than her male counterparts, particularly when it comes to attracting more women to the Labour party.

A nervous Cachia also hoped that she would be judged “on the same scale that those before me were judged on. I won’t be doing anything different because I’m a woman”.

Political networks are still an old boys’ club, she said, admitting that she has had a harder time getting to places where her counterparts couldn’t. The disparity between men and women is particularly noticeable when “you look around the table and realise that there are only three or four women discussing women’s issues”, she said.

“What makes the difference here is how aware a woman is about the need to fight for more women in politics. If you see just three or four women around the table and it doesn’t occur to you that you have to fight on this issue, it simply means that nothing will happen. That’s why women must be their own advocates on representation, otherwise there will be no awareness. We must help each other and open doors for other women.”

Cachia admits that Labour’s proposal for gender quotas, which also mulls the possibility of a separate list to have women take up additional seats in the House of Representatives, sounds like a ‘necessary evil’ proposal. “However having seen what happened in the last general election [where less women MPs made it to the House], it, I see it as being more necessary than evil. I know it is not ideal, but we cannot spend any more years with this democratic deficit in the House. We’ve had previous elections with not even one woman representing an electoral district. Quotas won’t be accepted that easily. If government goes down that road, it will need the support of political parties, and parties themselves must go out on the road to recruit more women.”

Reproductive rights

Asked about women’s reproductive rights, the FZL president believes that the discussion keeps being brushed under the rug. 

“It’s hard to envision what reproductive rights will look like in 10 years’ time because it took us so long to get here,” she stated.

A mature and responsible discussion on the topic continues to be hijacked by “our biggest obstacle” – conservative forces that wish to spread fear on the issues surrounding women’s reproductive rights. 

These forces took over last year’s heated debate on emergency contraception, which ensued following a judicial protest filed by the Women’s Rights Foundation and backed by 102 women. An online petition followed, requesting access to the morning-after pill. The petition garnered over 1,600 supporters. The protest culminated in a 300-strong march that demanded over the counter access to the morning-after pill. 

Pro-life organisations spoke out against the introduction of the morning-after pill, arguing it would be a catalyst for the introduction of abortion. Claims that the pill in itself was abortifacient were disproved by Medicines Authority chief Anthony Serracino Inglott, who described these claims as “philosophical fallacies”, during a parliamentary debate in December 2016. 

“I’m very disappointed in the discussion on the MAP was stifled by conservative forces attempting to spread fear,” said the FZL president. Civil society’s energy needs to be focused on eradicating myths surrounding women’s issues.

“I am seeing a certain commitment to discuss issues on IVF and hopefully we can spread enough information to avoid the situation we had with emergency contraception,” she continued.  

However, Cachia lamented that women’s voices were not taken into consideration during the 2015 debate on IVF.  58 babies were born through IVF in 2016, according to last year’s Embryo Protection Authority’s report.

“We have to be respectful of both those who are religious worshippers and those who are not… we are still behind in the times when you consider that it took us so long to introduce emergency contraception in Malta. It takes a lot of will power, especially from civil society to eradicate many myths.”