Updated: Aug 30, 2022
By Ġorġ Vella
March 08, 2022 at 2:00pm
So much went into play to allow for this annual international celebration to be cemented into our calendars. More than a hundred years of protests, campaigns, and movements, fighting gender disparity, raising awareness on the many oppressions faced by women, and bringing forward individuals who became immortalised by their actions, instilled the passion and fight of the women leaders we have today.
International Women’s Day - A Historical Timeline
The early 20th century was tainted with power struggles and the emergence of radical political ideologies. Populations all over the world were booming as a result of the rapid progress brought on by the Industrial Revolution. One of such movements included Socialism, derived from the political left, which was particularly concerned with labourers’ rights, among other issues. In fact, it was the Socialist Party of America that held the earliest recorded “Womens’ Day” in a march through New York City, which resulted in a turnout of 15,000 women demanding better working conditions, including equal pay, and suffrage - voting rights.
Similar movements were ongoing across the Atlantic, in Europe. In the second International Conference of Working Women in the year 1910 in Copenhagen, Clara Zetkin (German Social Democratic Party “Women’s Office” Leader) proposed that there should be a Women’s Day every year globally so that women can bring forward their demands. Almost, 100 female representatives from 17 countries, ranging from unionists to social parties and working clubs, and the first 3 Finnish women elected into Parliament unanimously approved Women’s Day. The first was held on 19th March 1911 in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland, and more than a million people marched demanding women’s rights to hold office, vote, and be trained (History of International Women’s Day, 2020).
On the eve of the First World War, Russian women held their first International Women’s Day on 23rd February, abiding by the Julian calendar then in use in Russia, the equivalent of 8th March on the Gregorian calendar. They campaigned for peace, and women for other women and similar rallies were held across various countries, including the United Kingdom. In 1917 Russian women went on strike for “bread and peace” - WW1 claimed the lives of 2 million Russian soldiers, most of whom were young men, who never returned home to their devastated mothers. The protest, which was opposed by their political leaders, went on for 4 days, until the Czar abdicated, thereby allowing for a provisional government. After this event, women in Russia were given the right to vote.
The United Nations adopted a resolution instructing member states to choose a day most relevant to their traditions and historical heritage to celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD), 2 years after the UN had first celebrated IWD in 1975. Further to this, the UN brought on many themes and campaigns up to today to shed light on discriminations felt by women the world around, and to achieve gender parity. However, by the year 2000, feminism was no longer a popular topic, and more was required to reignite the fight against gender disparity. In 2011, 100 years after the first IWD, Hilary Clinton (then Secretary of State) launched the “100 Women Initiative: Empowering Women and Girls through International Exchanges”, among other initiatives held by both national and international public and private organisations. The use of social media has widely accelerated and united those working to achieve these goals, with hashtags such as:
Women’s Rights and Feminism in Malta (up to 1990s)
Significant progress has been made, particularly through the emergence of transnational and international organisations which seek to empower women and those who identify themselves as such, across the world. Even Malta has gone through significant progress, with policies currently being implemented, and laws being put into place to allow for the achievement of gender parity, however - like elsewhere - this was not always the case.
Universal suffrage, which has been implemented in the UK since 1928 was not practised in Malta, and therefore when Mabel Strickland, the first person to push for women’s rights in Malta tabled her proposal, signed by 428, she was refused by the British Government. Strickland advocated that women who own property should be allowed to vote, similar to the conditions of the male Maltese citizens who were allowed to vote.
The National Assembly voted in favour of Universal Suffrage in 1947, and during the elections held that same year 54,565 women and 51,516 men exercised their voting rights, albeit there were strong arguments that many women were influenced by their husbands, for reasons such as a lack of education and exposure to the world outside the duties of the home.
The Second World War, albeit destructive and terrible, allowed for women to break away from traditional roles, and engage in work with government entities of the time, such as clerical duties and medical professions among others. However, policies such as the marriage bar, which concluded that women had to resign from their professional duties upon marriage to “tend to their natural duties” were detrimental to continue ameliorating women. It was not until the 60s that women's rights were put in the headlines again, and this was through the introduction of the National Council of Women (NCW), established in 1964 with Josephine Amato Gauci as its first president. The council aimed to improve the quality of life of women, men, and children alike, and its core values have remained unchanged: “improve the status of women and the wellbeing of society; to present a broad and comprehensive view of women’s opinion on matters of national interest and cultural traditions on based on human rights”. Today, the NCW is affiliated with the International Council of Women (ICW).
The year, 1991 saw the emergence of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, followed by a radical change in the Civil Code in 1993, which proclaimed men and women as husband and wife/ father and mother to have equal partnership within their union/partnership. The law introduced the concept of equality between spouses when it came to property rights, the signing of legal documents, separate pensions, and parental rights (Magri, 2017).
Women’s Day in Malta
International Women's Day (IWD) is celebrated on the 8th of March in Malta, and many activists use this day to bring forward demands or shed light on the oppressions women in Malta face.
On IWD 1982 ‘Min-naħa tan-Nisa’, a feminist group, organised a march for the immediate release of Rose Spiteri. The case of Rose Spiteri was a landmark in the fight against gender disparity in Malta. Rose, who was originally married in Gozo in 1968, before emigrating to Australia with her husband, was in an abusive and neglected relationship. She left her husband in Australia and returned to Gozo with her children. In 1977, she met someone else and eventually got married to him as a Muslim - which according to Libyan law annuls any previous unions.
When they returned to Gozo, Rose was arrested and charged with bigamy, and the judge who sentenced her to 8 months in prison remarked that she had “broken the most sacred of vows”.
Immediately after, her lawyer John Attard Montaldo presented a public petition to Agatha Barbara, then President of the Republic of Malta. Women of all social and economic backgrounds signed the petition and joined the protest calling for Rose’s release on 8th March, and after 3 months in prison, Rose Spiteri was released by decree of President Agatha Barbara on 31st March 1982, “Freedom Day” (Magri, 2017).
Towards Gender Parity
During the past decade, Malta has gone through considerable progress when it comes to social development. The introduction of divorce in 2012, voted for by the people of Malta in a referendum was a milestone achievement, and a step away from gender disparity. However, legislation is not merely enough, as there are many who may wish to pursue a divorce, but are entirely dependent on their spouse/partner, even if they find themselves locked in an abusive relationship. Other issues brought forward relate to gender-pay gaps, lack of equal representation in national institutions, and gender-based violence.
Many scholars, activists, and professionals working in the field outline these issues as the bitter fruits of a patriarchal society, and they push forward these issues to policymakers so that an adequate response is formulated. Unfortunately, this year has been a tantalising reminder that much is still required, with two femicides occurring in the first two months of 2022. Moreover, an NSO statement released IWD 2021 has shed light on figures of educational achievements and employment comparing figures between gender across recent years. The following was deducted:
49% of females aged 15 and older (up to retirement age) living in a household, were in employment, for males the figure was at 69%.
While the number of male and female professionals are relatively the same, the number of males in managerial positions far outweighs that of females.
The number of female graduates has exceeded that of males, with most graduating in medical, educational, and social-wellbeing fields.
For a more in-depth analysis, visit the NSO Press Release for IWD 2021 here.
So, what is Malta doing to Achieve Gender Parity?
Upon gaining EU accession, Malta had no clear road map on gender mainstreaming and had only mentioned the term once in an OPM circular in 2000. After the introduction of divorce, followed by a change in administration in 2013, more was expected in this regard, however, legislation regarding the LGBTQI+ community was introduced first.
It was the Ministry for European Affairs and Equality (MEAE), then led by Hon Helena Dalli (now Commissioner for Equality in the EU Commission) that spearheaded this movement, and introduced directorates and entities within the ministry to tackle issues related to gender, including the Human Rights and Integration Directorate set up in 2015, and functioning as of 2017. As of 2019, this directorate also has a Gender Mainstreaming Unit, dedicated solely to gender mainstreaming across all policy areas.
Further to this, there is the National Commission on the Promotion of Equality (NCPE est. 2004, amended last in 2015), which is independent, yet advises the MEAE as regards updates required in existing legislation, or to bring forward new legislation. The MEAE also set up a Council for Women’s Rights, incorporating 22 NGOs working within this scope, in order to advise the government, through the MEAE, on what is required. Several committees have been set up within the council, including addressing the gender pay gap, the introduction of gender quotas for all government-appointed boards, prostitution, addressing gender-based and domestic violence, equality legislation, and the work-life balance directive.
Upon departing local politics, Hon Helena Dalli, assumed the role of Commissioner for Equality within von der Leyen’s EU Commission, which brought forward the EU Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025, to be respected and attained by all member states through the introduction and implementation of national policies and roadmaps accordingly.
The key principles for this strategy are:
Ending gender-based violence
Challenging gender stereotypes
Closing the gender gap within the labour market
Attain equal participation across different sectors
Tackle the gender pay and pension gap
Tackle the gender care gap
Attain a gender balance in decision making and politics
To access the full text of the strategy, you can click here.
As stated above, member states are now tasked with implementing the EU Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025 through the introduction or amending of laws, setting up institutions and regulators/enforcements, and conducting the necessary research and consultations to measure progress.
Malta is not a third world country, but much is still required.
Considerable progress has been made since 2010, and this can be seen in the fact sheet for Malta as regards the Gender Equality Index (EU). Health and employment seem to be the best improvement, with “Power” being the field in which females have the least representation. More information can be derived by downloading the Malta 2021 Fact Sheet provided.
The two most recent advancements towards gender parity have been the introduction of the gender quotas bill - which in its essence allows for equal representation and brings down walls women face when entering politics - and the imminent introduction of femicide as a concept in the criminal code. As this amendment in Malta’s criminal code was being debated in parliament, another woman Rita Ellul, mother of three, was brutally murdered in Gozo, just two weeks ago, and not even 2 months after the rape and murder of Paulina Dembska. Both the government and the opposition seem to be in total agreement as regards this amendment, just as they had unanimously approved the gender quotas bill. However, it must be said that improving legislation is futile if enforcement is not carried out properly. Regulatory policies and institutions fail without proper enforcement, to the detriment of those meant to be protected by those same policies and institutions.
Malta is below the EU average as regards the Gender Equality Index, and the policy actions being undertaken are aimed at developing our weakest points in this regard. Therefore, it is important to participate in social dialogues and exert necessary pressure on your elected officials to move towards gender parity. We are slowly, but surely moving away from a patriarchal society, and today we boast a Maltese woman as the third female President of the European Parliament, Dr Roberta Metsola, who stands as a beacon for women and girls across not only Malta but Europe.
Many more difficult debates approach us, such as reproductive rights, work-life and family-friendly measures, the gender pay gap, and the prevalence of gender-based violence.
Rose, Diane, Sylvia, Jane, Vanessa and little Aylie, Rachel, Pauline, Josette, Patricia, Doris, Lyudmila, Catherine, Christine, Irena, Karen, Yvette, Margaret, Meryem pregnant with twins, Lisa Marie, Silvana, Caroline, Eleanor, Marie Carmela and Antonia, Shannon, Lourdes, Chantelle, Paulina, and Rita. All of these women and girls died at the hands of their partners.
Let the list end here.