Domestic abuse happens to all genders and in all sexual orientations. In Malta, domestic violence affects every one in four women – and oftentimes, the system we’ve set up is unable to do much to help them.
SOAR is made up of female domestic abuse survivors who support other survivors, and it has come up with a number of recommendations based on what they’ve learnt through over 400 different survivors personal experiences.
Here are seven things that can be done in Malta to provide better support for domestic abuse survivors, according to survivors
1. Housing and economic empowerment once a survivor decides to leave her abuser
The impact of domestic violence on survivors’ safety, mental health and wellbeing are massive, even more so for those who have no family support, no income and nothing to their name.
Economic abuse means that the partner has cut off, taken or limited the women’s access to financial means and even employment, for many years. Shelters will offer a temporary place to stay during a crisis, but with no job or money, homelessness is eventually inevitable.
Renting at current market prices is simply impossible for someone in this situation and flat-sharing with strangers is unsafe for children. It is unacceptable that survivors are forced to go back or to stay in violent relationships at great risk to their and their children’s lives due to homelessness.
Survivors at SOAR recommend that the government develops an integrated strategy for women and children experiencing violence which puts women’s economic empowerment and well-being at its centre. Social policy strategies need to be based on a gendered perspective of violence which addresses women’s socio-economic disadvantage. This is the state’s required fulfilment of obligations as per the Istanbul Convention.
The government should invest further in the empowerment of persons who have left a violent relationship and are starting over, especially those with children.
For example, a lump sum grant should be available for such vulnerable families to support them in the initial stages of a very difficult stage in their recovery. Moreover, the Housing Department should design a service that prioritises and is specific to the critical needs of survivors and their children.
2. Court sentencing needs to reflect the crime
Sentences meted out do not always reflect the severity of the crime committed.
Domestic violence is still seen as a private issue rather than as a crime against a human being and one that is often found linked to women’s murders in Malta and elsewhere.
Survivors remain unprotected even after reporting to the police and going to court. Perpetrators flout treatment orders because there are no consequences for them when they do so. Perpetrators who have been abusive in the home are then often given unsupervised access to traumatised and scared children.
Court sentencing needs to be significantly harsher so as to reflect the nature of the crime. Fines need to be higher. Protection orders and other preventive measures (like electronic tagging) need to be implemented to save lives. Child protection should step in, court action should be swifter and perpetrators of domestic violence should meet set criteria (for example attended a perpetrator’s programme, attended a parenting programme, attended family therapy with the children, passed a psychiatric evaluation etc.) for the rebuilding of a healthier relationship with their children before being given unsupervised access or custody of children. This will prevent further long-lasting trauma to the youngest victims.
3. One specifically-trained person in every police station and health centre
Survivors very often complain about the way they are treated at police station level and at health clinics and are often left not knowing what their rights are, or how to get help.
It is clear that a high amount of domestic violence survivors experience secondary trauma when lodging a report. This is due to a lack of empathy and trust in the survivor. Unless effective support is immediately available at this stage, the survivor will most probably retract her decision to lodge a report or give testimony in court and return to the abusive situation.
In every police station and in every health centre, there should be at least one highly-trained person on domestic violence (and mental health). This person will be called upon as soon as the survivor indicates that they are there about any incident, even minor, involving a partner, ex-partner or family member.
4. An agency that can handle the processing of child support finances
Survivors are likely to have already suffered financial abuse and often leave their violent relationships in a state of personal financial ruin.
When there are children, the situation is made worse when the non-custodial parent, who is responsible for making monthly child support contributions, fails to do so. This comes at additional costs and suffering to the custodial parents and children.
The withholding of child support payment is popularly used by the non-custodial and abusive partner to keep ongoing contact with the survivor and as a tool for blackmail and further control and violence. As survivors try to avoid all contact with the perpetrator for their own mental health and safety, children often become embroiled in the requests and the passing around of money between parents.
The non-custodial parent should be required to make child support contributions (as per court decree) directly to a purposely set-up state agency or department. The state agency or department will issue contributions of the amount to the custodial parent, irrelative of whether or not contributions by other parent have been made or defaulted. The state agency or department is then responsible for recovering defaulted contributions from the non-custodial parent.
- Ensures an uninterrupted flow of child support, crucial to children’s wellbeing.
- Prevents the hardship experienced by custodial parents and their children, when contributions are not made.
- Eliminates the possibility of withholding child support as a tool for control by the non-custodial parent.
- Alleviates the psychological and legal burden, from the less financially powerful custodial parent, of suing for defaulted contributions.
- Removes the direct financial link between estranged parents, protecting children from taking on the role of a ‘messenger’.
5. A board dedicated to the well-being of children
Perpetrators often try to find new ways to exert control over their partners even after the partner has left.
One of the common ways this is done is by refusing to give consent for educational opportunities and physical or psychological health interventions for their child. There are cases where children are not attending their school or not receiving needed play therapy because one parent refuses to sign the required consent forms.
This refusal has a negative impact on the wellbeing of the child and costly legal redress pushes the other parent into further poverty.
A Board on the Wellbeing of Children should be set up to review the case in a short time, make a decision and enforce a temporary order for the intervention to go ahead in the best interests and the protection of the child.
6. A national offender register
Domestic violence offenders often face very minimal consequences for their actions and many go on to commit further violence on new unsuspecting partners.
The UK has found that keeping a register of offenders could prevent others from being harmed and could even save lives. In the UK it is called the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme, commonly referred to as Clare’s Law, where a current partner could request to know if their new partner’s name was on the offender’s list.
A Register of Offenders should be introduced, with a mechanism that allows checks to be made by individuals who could be directly affected.
7. Widespread training to help people understand and identify potential risk factors
We all know someone who has suffered domestic violence.
We meet them in our course of work, they may be our colleagues and they may be our friends or family. Everyone needs to understand how to identify the red flags, how to support and how not to support.
Organise training for yourself or your staff.
Understanding the lethal risk factors and the survivors’ perspective of violence will be a great asset to those who will come face-to-face with survivors through their work, be they lawyers, magistrates, dentists, counsellors, HR managers, nurses, teachers, or any other profession.
This article was written in collaboration with SOAR Malta.
SOAR is a service by St Jeanne Antide Foundation offering peer-support to survivors of domestic violence and their children. For more information on training, please contact SOAR at St Jeanne Antide Foundation on 21808981 or 27672367.