Sexual assault by a stranger, partner or acquaintance can rob a person of their future. But when the abuser is a family member, it robs you of your past too.
Out of nearly 1,000 stories of sexual assault Lovin Malta received, dozens opened up about being abused by someone they trusted the most: a member of their family.
“I can’t even write out all the details. I was repeatedly abused by someone in my immediate family,” an 18-year-old Maltese woman said.
“But I didn’t tell anyone. I refuse to let it define me. And I couldn’t break up this happy family.”
This is the sixth part of a multi-article series shedding light on victims’ stories of sexual harassment and abuse in the country – from rape to micro-aggressions, stalking, threats and digital abuse. Here are their stories.
Most survivors of familial sexual abuse said they didn’t speak out about their trauma – either because they feared uprooting their childhood or were blocked from doing so.
“My father used to have sexual intercourse with me from when I was ten,” a Maltese woman, now 35-year-old, recalled.
“My horrid mother knew it all. She allowed it to go to on until I was older and left home.”
It wasn’t the only instance of abuse in her life. From her father, it shifted to her long-term partner.
“My ex nearly killed me. I reported him to the police several times and he’ll be charged soon.”
She didn’t do the same for her father.
“With my father, it’s a different story. I’m scared of what he’ll do if I report him.”
Another 34-year-old woman said her father would make explicit sexual remarks.
“My own father once told me ‘one day, you need to let me see your boobs. I just want to see them’. One time he made me show him.
She didn’t report it or tell anyone, in fear of making a big deal out of what she thought was nothing.
Others reported being abused by relatives outside their family homes.
“My aunt’s partner groped me when I was 12 because he wanted to get back at her as their relationship ran its course,” a woman, now in her early 20s said.
Supported by her parents, she filed a police report against him, but he fled the country before being charged by police.
“Today he’s on the run and has been for the past seven years.”
She has gone to therapy ever since and the case against him has dragged on for nearly a decade.
“I was intimidated by an extended family relative into acting inappropriately,” a woman in her early 30s recalled.
As soon as it happened, she told her family.
“He underestimated my character. I spoke up. He was later arrested for defiling a minor.”
While she feels privileged that the chapter closed with justice, the scar remains.
“It’s not something that just leaves your memory once a court case is closed.”
Another female respondent said her great uncle tried to lure her into sexual acts by posing for photos.
“During a family gathering, when I was 13, my mum’s uncle asked me to help him get food out of the kitchen. When we were inside alone, he told me that he would love to take photos of me to try out his new camera.”
She accepted and her great uncle suggested they go to his bedroom to “feel comfortable”.
“He asked me to put my sleeves down and expose my shoulders. As soon as he touched my arm I ran downstairs. Later, whilst sitting on a deckchair to avoid him, he came next to me and told me not to tell anyone.”
Because she was so young, she said, she didn’t even understand that she was assaulted.
“I wasn’t sure it was assault, but I just remember feeling so uncomfortable and wanting to leave. I never told anyone about this except years later, to my partner.”
An 18-year-old Maltese woman similarly described being cornered by her abuser when she was barely a teenager.
“I was 12 years old. My best friend’s dad was basically my uncle. He started touching me while I waiting for my best friend to come from upstairs.”
“The next day at school everyone called me a whore because he told my friend that I intimidated him and everyone believed him. My family doesn’t know even what happened.”
And while the issue affects a lot of women, assault happens regardless of gender.
“I was around eight years old when my uncle tried to rape me,” a man, now in his 20s said.
It’s a dark secret he keeps with him till this day, in fear of retaliation or not being believed.
Another 35-year-old Maltese woman’s abuser was her cousin.
“He used to undress and make me touch his private parts at every family meet up. I just stopped going,” she said.
Sometimes, aggressors aren’t blood-related, but they take advantage of a familial bond they’ve built with the victims’ relatives.
“I was waiting for the bus home and a family friend passed by and offered me a ride. I accepted since the guy lived in the same road as me and knew my parents. On the way home he took a detour and I asked where we were going,” a 19-year-old woman said.
He kept staring at her breasts and telling her that they “can work something out.”
“I told him I want to go home and he said we won’t take long. So I asked if I could call my mom to tell her I will be a bit longer. He let me out of the car and I started calling but nobody was picking up. I pretended to be on the phone talking out loud and started distancing myself slowly.”
She sprinted through a valley to escape his truck.
“It took a 30-minute sprint to get home but he didn’t follow or if he did he fell behind.”
It took her months to finally tell her parents.
“When I was 15 I was threatened by a cousin and his friend that if I don’t let them touch me or do some stuff to me they would attempt suicide,” a 21—year-old female respondent said.
“I didn’t tell anyone and yes I go to therapy. They threw my life upside down. I never told my therapist about what happened. Nowadays I take six antidepressants every day because of them.
“I didn’t want to break a family of five kids.”
Some recall being groped in their sleep.
“A brother’s friend came into my room and started touching me in my sleep. It happened again with someone close to my family,” a 24-year-old woman said.
“I was sexually assaulted in my own home when I was 15, by my parents’ friend who was there for a party. Luckily I got out of my room before it became too violent, and my mother saw him following me to the bathroom. I locked myself in to get away from him,” a 55-year-old British Maltese woman said.
Sexual abuse happens in all strata of society and social settings. Whether online, commuting, by lovers, strangers, colleagues and relatives.
To report a sexual crime often feels impossible for survivors. In fact, around 1,300 sexual offences were reported to police over the last decade but 85% of assaults go unreported.
What’s more, research shows that a quarter of offenders are likely to retaliate against victims if they were contacted by police about the crimes. The circumstances get murkier if the offender is a person the victim knows, like a partner, often forcing the survivor to internalise the acts and endure lasting psychological trauma.
In order to empower victims to speak up, we must first educate the public on how to recognise assault in the first place.
Family members who assault often take advantage of trust. But assault is still assault, even if they’ve expressed their love on other occasions. The absence of no doesn’t signify yes.
We must also give victims the upper hand against their aggressors. Currently, sexual crimes are time-barred by ten years. This means that Malta’s courts impose a time-frame for victims to face their abusers. How can we expect victims to feel supported by the law if we’re conditioning when they can ask for justice?
Malta can do better. It can be if we amend the law and lift these time bars.
If you have suffered sexual assault, whether it was recently or not, and would like free, professional emotional support or legal assistance, get in touch with Victim Support Malta on + 356 2122 8333 or send an email to [email protected].
These are just some of the hundreds of personal, anonymous testimonies of sexual harassment victims have experienced in Malta. This series aims to give a voice to victims and empower them to break their silence to kick-start action.
Share this story to stand up against sexual assault