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Europemag• May 09 2004




Waiting for Europe - the long march to emancipation ….
Matthew Vella leaves no stone unturned in underlining the aspirations of that very small but anxious libertarian core of Maltese voters

One of the fundamental aspects of the administration’s conservatism is that its disdain for certain ‘European’ values and other civil rights such as divorce and gay marriage exceeds its enthusiasm for EU membership and the unbridled free market. The result is a two-speed political discourse which creates friction the faster Malta integrates into the European mainland: the more this island opens itself up to the cultural exports pouring in from the Western world, the greater that feeling grew of being constrained by the overtones of a national, religious discourse.
This is an island whose religious and moral constraints impinge directly on the liberal ‘uprising’ of the Maltese, a people which experienced unprecedented freedom since the opening up of the free market in 1987 and now have to face the effects of 16 years of Nationalist conservatism. Uprising is used liberally – there is nothing to imply that the Maltese have actively searched for more civil rights.
The divorce ‘lobby’, for want of a better word, is in fact not a lobby, for the simple fact that there is no organised group, other than groups such as the fringe Malta Divorce Movement, and in a more restrained but position, Alternattiva Demokratika.
Yet in private, debate in Malta is alive on the topic of divorce. All around separations have become a reality of Maltese society. In 2003 alone, over 550 separation cases were pending in front of the Maltese and Gozitan Court of Magistrates. That same year, there were over 125 cases of separation and 150 cases of annulment. Many lament a coherent, unifying force that can spearhead such change in legislation. That flame of hope was lit when Alfred Sant, as Prime Minister-to-be in 1996, said he would be setting up a commission to delve within the legal and social parameters of introducing divorce. That commission was never set up.
Family and Social Solidarity Minister Dolores Cristina’s personal opinion on divorce is publicly known. She is against the introduction of divorce because she does not see it as a solution in the interest of the common good.
“On the contrary, in countries where divorce was introduced a long time ago, sociologists say that it created more and new problems. Having said that, I know there are circumstances in which the life together of a married couple would have turned so sour that it is harmful for the children to continue living together with both parents, such as in cases where relationships turn violent. And it is not rare that in such circumstances the adults involved may see divorce as the only solution to regaining back the family life they yearn for themselves and for their children. We need to understand the real life situations of people who find themselves in these circumstances and explore all possible policy and legal solutions. But we all need to be clear that divorce changes the definition of marriage once and for all from “till death do us part” to “till we decide otherwise’. My litmus test on this issue is the difficult question: what about the children? Is divorce beneficial or harmful to children? There are ample studies that show that the dissolution of intact two-parent families, is of great harm to large numbers of children, though it may benefit the adults involved.”
The ‘family’ is a new dimension to Cristina’s ministry, who says Government is making a very strong political statement, valuing family life and our children.
“It is about choosing to live in stronger communities; it is about working towards a stronger economy,” and with that a commitment to develop the best possible administrative, policy, and legal solutions that safeguard the rights and interests of the most vulnerable members in relationships that are not currently covered by Maltese policy and legislation.”
On a more vocal ticket, lawyer Emmy Bezzina and John Zammit, of the Men’s Rights Association and the Malta Divorce Movement, are running for the upcoming European Parliament elections. Bezzina has been at the forefront of what observers would call a noisy, one-man show.
But Bezzina and Zammit are not only for the introduction of divorce. They seek abortion rights and greater rights for homosexuals and cohabiting couples. Zammit mainly blames the Catholic Church for the state of affairs on the Maltese islands: “Mostly it is the interference of the Church. Then there is the problem of losing votes for the big politicians who are afraid to introduce such laws because in elections only a small difference in votes can win or lose an election.”
This fear of losing votes, which Zammit calls intolerant and a ‘product of frustration’, is well-known factor. In 2002, when the Employment and Industrial Relations Act was being drawn up, the Malta Gay Rights Movement drew attention to the fact that sexual orientation was not going to be included as a basis of discrimination on the workplace, within the EIRA.
According to EU Directive 78/2000/EC national legislation has to make provision to the effect that gay men and lesbians who are discriminated against or harassed at the workplace are granted a legal remedy. Only months later, and following a letter by EU Enlargement Commissioner Gunther Verheugen, did then Social Policy Minister Lawrence Gonzi issue a sneaky legal notice, LN 297, which introduced sexual orientation as a grounds for discrimination on the workplace.
Christian Attard, from the MGRM, says there is still work to be done for the Maltese gay community, which according to the movement totals 18,000, approximately five per cent of the Maltese population:
“Strictly legally, I would say the major problems are the lack of comprehensive anti-discrimination laws in all areas of life, including access to goods and services, housing, education, and the lack of legal recognition of our families. This devalues the commitments we make towards the people we love and translates itself, more concretely, into a lot of practical problems such as how property is owned and administrated, no fiscal benefits that heterosexual married couples enjoy, no next of kin status and no succession rights.”
It in this light that he believes the EU will provide increased pressure, particularly by the European Parliament, for the diversity of families to be recognised in certain areas of EU policy, such as the free movement of persons, although he fears the conservative approach of most of the 10 accession states, with their conservative approaches in most areas, the progress that so far has been made, and which might still be made, might be slowed down.”
Progress within the European Parliament is a clear hope for the advance of European civil rights in Malta. Last year the European Parliament declared itself in favour of the opening up of civil marriage and adoption for same-sex couples with 221 votes in favour, 195 against and 23 abstentions, approving the report on the ‘Situation on Fundamental Rights in the European Union in 2002’. MEPS called on the member states to abolish all forms of discrimination still suffered by homosexuals, in particular as regards the rights to marry and adopt children and that Member States recognise non-marital relationships, both heterosexual and homosexual, and confer the same rights on partners in these relationships as on those who are married.
Christian Attard is adamant to have society understand that gay love is as worthy of legal protection as that of any heterosexual couple and that individuals in same-sex relationships can be as committed towards each other as a couple composed of a man and a woman. “Most of the objections often stem from the fear that children raised in this environment will ‘become’ homosexual. Most of my gay and lesbian friends, myself included, were raised by our heterosexual parents. That didn’t turn us straight, and this goes to prove that one’s sexual orientation is not influenced by the family setting. As for the argument that a child needs a mother and a father, does this mean that single parents, widows and widowers, and Church-run institutions are producing warped individuals? I don't think so.”
Last year, a Russian woman seeking an abortion outside Malta was taken into police custody to prevent her from leaving the country. Nadezda Gavrilova was ordered to not leave the country after her companion, Anthony Borg, complained that she was going to undergo an abortion in the Russian Federation.
Every year since 1992, at least one woman a week travelled to the UK to have an abortion. These are the only known statistics available to Maltese on the rate of abortions Maltese women have had in the last decade or so. But reports of abortion in other countries, particularly Sicily and Italy, so far remain undocumented.
Prior to the EU referendum however, the European Parliament issued a resolution in favour of abortion. The EP resolution did not bind member states, but enough concern was provoked on the island to warrant the demand for a protocol to safeguard the island from such ‘liberal’ frivolities. Quelling the abortion scare, the Nationalist government managed to negotiate an anti-abortion protocol to safeguard the island from any attempt by the
And yet the EU has no laws on abortion nor does it have the right to make them. This is a matter that is left entirely up to individual Member States to regulate. When Dr Rebecca Gomperts, founder of the Women on Waves Foundation, a Dutch non-profit organisation which charters a ship and berths it in international waters to ferry women from the coast over to the ship to have an abortion, attempted to come to Malta, then Social Policy Minister Lawrence Gonzi warned that his government would take legal action against any of its citizens found collaborating with Women on Waves.
To this day, there is no political party in Malta which supports the introduction of abortion, and few have attempted to rock the boat on divorce.





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