Paulina Dembska’s murder took place just under two weeks ago.
The murder shocked the nation, with many pointing to the country’s long-standing issues with femicide and violence against women as directly leading to these kinds of incidents.
The incident served as a call-to-arms for many, particularly victims of assault who lived to tell the tale.
Among them, was Fiona Cauchi, who took to social media to dig out the harrowing experience she had undergone thirty years ago.
Lovin Malta reached out to Fiona in an interview.
1. When asked what she would do if men didn’t exist for a day, Fiona paused in thought, before answering with a wry smile.
“I would walk the streets with headphones over my ears, jog in whatever clothing comes to mind without thinking twice. I would drive a bike without fear of being stopped and walk without the need to constantly look back. Hell, I might even go skinny dipping!”
“I have been in ‘protection mode’ for so long, I can’t even imagine doing these things. To walk without having to keep my housekey primed as a weapon. To go from place to place without fear… I can’t even fathom it.”
“I do not live a day fear-free.”
2. The incident remains clear in Fiona’s mind even to date
What started off as a normal day’s walk to school turned into an experience that would change Fiona’s life forever.
Her journey saw her walk through the streets of Pembroke, towards Sandhurst Junior Lycium. Carefree and jovial, breakfast in hand, through narrow closes and past areas darkened by the presence of tall trees.
“I would never dream of passing through an area like that now,” she said.
All semblance of normality dissolved when she was jumped by a man hiding behind a nearby tree.
At age 14, the odds were more than against her, but Fiona fought back, scratched, punched, and even bit her way out of an attack which could have ended her life there and then.
“Back then, I wasn’t a suspicious person,” she said. “Today, if I happened to pass by a suspicious man whilst walking, I’d be sure to cross the street and keep him in my sight at all times. I’d check my surroundings, I’d know where everything is. Especially if it’s after dark.”
3. The healing process… where does it start?
“It starts from you, yourself, wanting to heal. It comes from telling yourself: hey, I’m not going to let this fuck up the rest of my life. I want to live a normal life. Just like I did before this guy came along.”
Fiona’s greatest role model is her mother. A survivor of advanced breast cancer who even underwent a mastectomy several years prior.
“She was so brave. I never saw her cry. Never. She never even did chemo despite her advanced stage. That, for me, is courage.”
“After the operation, mum was headstrong, through everything. That was a lesson to me – that in life you have to be strong. That you should not hold on to self-pity. Self-pity is a destroyer.”
4. The Paulina Dembska murder moved you to talk about this experience. Did you get a lot of messages?
“Most definitely. From many, many people. Especially from people who knew me well but hadn’t the faintest clue that I passed through something like this because I am normally an outgoing person.”
“The most common message I got was: ‘you’re so courageous for speaking out like that!’ even though I didn’t think it was courageous at all!”
But why wasn’t it ‘courageous’, I thought?
“It was always natural for me to talk about it. Since day one. This is not courage. This is something I went through. An experience that I wanted to share with others because it might help them if they went through something similar. And if they didn’t, my words could serve to help them prevent that ‘something similar’ from taking place.”
“I just related my story, wishing that nobody will ever have to go through something like that.”
“Girls will be more aware when they go out at night. That they could seek accompaniment and be mindful.”
5. Do you think more women should come forward and speak out? And do you think it could help men change their views towards women?
“When you first contacted me, you told me that ‘the pen’ could be the greatest tool to spark a change. At the time, I only half-agreed. But when my inbox became flooded with messages of support, many even from men, I changed my stance.”
“One even apologized, on behalf of all men,” she added, jokingly.
There is a case to be made then when one speaks out, it touches everybody. Women and men alike. It may be the foundation to spark a change in the way people act after recurring problems are identified again, and again, and again.
“The more women come forward, the more men are allowed a glimpse of what it’s like to live as a woman today.”
6. Do you have any advice for women, in general?
“Just be careful. Unfortunately, life, as we know it, has us expecting the worst. And we should. Sharing your live location, too much alcohol, walking through shady areas. These are all things that could compromise your safety. You need to learn to recognize these things…”
Ultimately, not recognizing these things could be your undoing. And that, inherently, is enough to highlight how grievous the pervading dangers tied with our way of thinking is.
“I have to be around someone. And even that is not enough sometimes. But at least it helps. I feel better when I have someone around me.”
Fiona is known as a musician and actress, but her day job is one that was also influenced by the experience she passed through 30 years ago.
Today, Fiona enjoys a wonderful career with the Safeguarding Commission, an entity that aims to bring about a new culture where children and vulnerable adults are protected from all types of abuse through increased awareness and positive action.
“I help wherever I can,” said Fiona gleefully. “People throughout life have always seen me as a ‘mummy figure’. Somehow, they pick up on my vibes: that I’m a caregiver. It probably has something to do with the incident. Who knows? But I must admit, I do enjoy helping others.”
What do you think needs to be done to have a safer Malta?