Domestic violence is a social, not individual, concern | Silvan Agius

Silvian Agius, head of the Human Rights and Integration Directorate, argues that the main focus of a new national strategy on gender-based and domestic violence is shifting popular perceptions from the private to the public domain

Yesterday, Equality Minister Helena Dalli unveiled a new national strategy document aimed at ‘tackling the causes and assisting the victims of domestic violence in a more effective way than before’. Implicit in that description is an acknowledgement that our national record in this sphere has been less than positive in the past. And there have been several domestic violence cases reported in the press very recently. Is this new strategy a response to a (real or perceived) spike in crimes targeting women in Malta?

No, this was going to happen regardless. From the policy/legal point of view, Malta ratified the Istanbul Convention in 2014, which implies a number of obligations on State parties. We, as government, started the process towards the formulation of a law that would implement the Istanbul convention within Malta’s legal framework. The convention itself has two ‘strands’, if you will: starting with the legal aspect, that is catered for by the law currently progressing through parliament. It’s at second-reading stage now, and should be concluded in around a week and a half. Then, there’s the policy aspect: the services we provide to victims; what the State should be doing to address perpetrators; the integration of services, as in, how much the different agencies involved – the police, Appogg, etc. – should refer to each other, and so on. All of that was happening in the background regardless of individual cases. But it’s true that we’ve seen some really heinous crimes recently... the sort of savagery that women suffer is really terrible. But then again; did these cases happen before – even these really savage cases – and perhaps went unreported?

Certainly there have been terrible cases in the past – the horrific murder of Silvia King in 1993 springs to mind: especially now, that we were so graphically reminded of the details of that crime by the threats recently levelled at MEP Roberta Metsola...

That was what I had in mind, in fact. It was an absolutely horrific case, and it had deeply affected me at the time. All the same, this new policy is not a knee-jerk reaction to any one or more cases that happened in the past. It has been in development for a number of years now: as long as the directorate has been in existence, in fact. From the beginning, we engaged Katya Unah – currently our assistant director, who previously worked on the Commission for Domestic Violence – to assist in the development of two projects which we submitted for European funding. We received in total around E800,000 (including a local funding component) to implement them over a period of two years. The projects themselves do part of the work that is reflected in the new strategy: which is intended to ensure continuation afterwards. We have brought together a steering group of professionals from different institutions –  primary healthcare, education, the justice dept, probational parole, Appogg, different sections of the police, including the Vice Squad and the Victim Support Unit... all of those institutions are coming together to develop their own standard operation procedure.

How is it expected to work in practice?

Let’s say a person is a victim of domestic or gender-based violence. Regardless of where that person goes, the services that person receives will always be the same. There will be referrals from one department to the other, and so on. You might ask: but is this not already happening? Not in the sort of systematic way we would like to see it happen. One of the major components of that project is the training of professionals. You’d be surprised, but sometimes you have to go down to the very basics: what is domestic violence or gender-based violence? How do you recognise it? And then, what do you do about it? The first part of the course focused on ensuring that there is a common understanding between all the professionals involved: whether it’s a police officer or a social worker, they should have the same understanding of what they’re dealing with. So when victims do speak out, they don’t get two conflicting advice, or endure the same experiences that we so often hear about. People have indeed filed police reports on occasion; but we don’t always know what happened to those reports afterwards. That cannot continue. Another thing that follows is the need for adequate risk-assessment tools for the institutions themselves. We’re working with the University of Worcester on this front: they’ve already come three times to train local professionals. Stage one is complete: we’ve trained about 750 personnel so far. Stage two emanates out of the research on domestic violence that has been carried out by the University of Malta. And finally, there is also a ‘train the trainer course’, so that these institutions can train their own professionals in future.

Punishing the victim: We cannot continue to punish the victim for having been a victim. Because pretty much, this is the situation right now... Victims have no choice but to either endure the violence, or report it to the police: with the great possibility of having to leave the house and end up in a shelter for who knows how long

Going back to the question, ‘What is domestic violence?’... it has been asked a number of times before. I remember an episode of Xarabank on the subject, some years back: and what emerged from a street vox pop was that many people (often as not women) were of the opinion that ‘what takes place behind closed doors, should remain behind closed doors’. Do you find this mindset still prevalent?

I had seen the programme you mention, and I was shocked by it at the time. But to be fair, that was quite a long time ago. The issue, however, remains that domestic violence is a social concern, not a private one. This is, in fact, why we chose the title of the new strategy. We want to ensure that violence is no longer understood as ‘the problem of the victim’. It is a problem for all of society, and we all have to do our part. How are we going about addressing this? To give an example: when it comes to the law, there is no longer the need for a victim of, say, rape to report that crime in person. It can be reported by a third party... or the police might be aware of it, and can now proceed without the victim filing a report.

We are all aware that domestic violence is one of the most under-reported crimes, anywhere in the world. Is there any indication of how widespread this problem is in Malta?

Well, if you follow what is happening in Hollywood right now [the Harvey Wienstein case], for example: people are now coming out all at once, because before there was a culture of impunity, and also, to some degree, acceptance. It was almost ‘part of the game’: if you went in for this sort of thing, you had to somehow expect it. There was almost a tacit ‘understanding’ to that effect. Up to a point, we can talk of a similar mentality in our context too. We wanted to change that mentality. Also, there are cases where the victim may file a police report immediately after the crime... but then, by the time the case comes up in court, the victim may say: ‘Forget it, I don’t want to proceed’. Those two factors hurt the situation a lot. Why? Someone may be a perpetrator once, twice, three times... then realises that nothing happens; they get the impression that, while the law exists, it’s never going to reach them or affect them in any way. We want to ensure that cases do reach the courts, and that the courts do actually decide on those cases. So far, the cases decided upon are still few in number...

There have, in fact, been a number of instances over the years where domestic violence cases were dismissed by the courts... because the victim ‘forgives’ the perpetrator. As far as the law is concerned, it seems that everything is fine, so long as the perpetrator has been forgiven...

But it’s not fine. We’re either saying that violence is ‘not fine’ in all circumstances... or we’re saying that it’s ‘fine’, but only until the victim stops accepting it. The latter simply cannot work. Rape is rape. Violence is violence. This idea that what happens in a private home is private – that it is somehow a matter that only concerns the individual in that household – is simply untrue. It affects all of society... in many ways. It affects the victim the most, but also everyone else. Domestic violence traumatises children who are exposed to it; they will carry the trauma for the rest of their lives. The victim may end up with broken limbs or other serious injuries; but even if not, the incident will affect their ability to function normally. There may be depression involved, or other issues. So, in fact, the social effects are much broader than the individual incident itself. To give an analogy: it’s a bit like passive smoking. Smoking may seem ‘benign’ compared to this: but we can all see that it is a collective social health issue, not just an individual one. That’s why we had to come up with a national policy to address that issue... just imagine how much more we need one in the case of domestic violence. We need a shift in our understanding of violence. It is no longer a ‘private domain’ issue. It’s now in the public domain.

Isn’t there, however, a certain cultural element attached to these attitudes? We tend to think of ourselves as ‘Mediterranean’, and thus having certain cultural attributes: among them, an extended family network that we sometimes rely on more than the official channels of justice, especially in domestic violence cases. Would you agree this is part of the problem?

I’ll be a bit personal about this. I studied anthropology, and I remember this relativist theory along the lines that ‘you have to understand cultures through their own perspective’. It all sounds very fine, as long as it’s research-related. When you try to apply this sort of relativism to society, however... for instance, speaking about ourselves as ‘Mediterranean’, and all these other labels... they need to be unpacked. How ‘Mediterranean’ are we? Are we Spanish-style Mediterranean? Arab-style? Italian-style? Cypriot-style? What does it all mean, anyway? Is ‘Mediterranean’, as a term, stuck in a time-warp? Is it fossilised, or is it still evolving? I think, in various other fields, we Maltese have come to collectively think of ourselves as a country that is progressing a lot. This ‘progress’ also has to be understood in this field: the social field, the human rights field, etc. And while we, as a society, may have ‘accepted’ some forms of violence to a certain degree – for instance, spanking children – it doesn’t follow that we should continue to accept that, just because we are ‘Mediterranean’. Being ‘Mediterranean’ means nothing in this sense. And much in the same way as we have shifted a lot on matters of sexuality and gender, for example... I believe we should also shift in the field of domestic and gender-based violence. We cannot continue to accept this as the ‘dark side’ of our norm. It’s just not normal, and not acceptable. Fullstop.

Social effect: This idea that what happens in a private home is private – that it is somehow a matter that only concerns the individual in that household – is simply untrue. It affects all of society... in many ways

Turning to the strategy itself: there have been some questions raised over specific policies. For instance, it empowers the police to evict perpetrators from their homes in certain cases... giving rise to speculation (among other things) that false ‘domestic violence’ allegations might be cooked up for dishonest reasons. This admittedly sounds far-fetched... but what is the real intention behind that proviso?

First of all, we need to explain what we’re actually doing, because it often gets taken out of context. For example, I read a comment under an article in your newspaper that said: ‘Oh, there you have it now. You may be the owner of your house... someone alleges you did something... and suddenly, you’re kicked out of your own property, and whoever takes it over instead’. I need hardly add that, no, that’s not how it works. We’re talking here about a case of violence which has just occurred. The victim will have left the family home to report it to the police. The police will immediately contact the duty magistrate to decide – on the basis of the information provided, and within a period of six hours – whether the perpetrator needs to leave the house, or not... depending on the seriousness of the case. But that is just a temporary protection order, for the benefit of the victim. The perpetrator is not evicted forever. Also, there is a reason why this provision was needed. In the past year alone – but you can go back as far you like, and find similar cases – we have had vicious and violent attacks upon women. We know about the cases: but how many court decisions do you know about that were to your satisfaction in this field? We cannot continue to punish the victim for having been a victim. Because pretty much, this is the situation right now. We’ve not really been good to the victims of domestic violence, I think. They have no choice but to either endure the violence, or report it to the police... with the great possibility of having to leave the house – often with children in tow – and end up a shelter for who knows how long. That is not a fair choice.  That is why it is society’s concern... this is not the way society should be dealing with this issue. We’ve not really been good to the victims of domestic violence, I think. We should ensure that victims are adequately protected, with the least turbulence in their lives; that they can continue to lead their lives with support services, to ensure that normality is restored as soon as possible.