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Malta: Strong progress but patriarchal culture still holding women back, UN experts say

07 July 2023

VALLETTA (7 JULY 2023) – Malta has made significant progress on achieving gender equality, especially women’s economic participation, but concerns remain about challenges rooted in discriminatory gender roles, UN experts said today.

“Despite strong constitutional guarantees for gender equality, impressive legislative and institutional frameworks, as well as specialised mechanisms for implementing gender equality policies, we heard repeatedly that progress has been hampered by patriarchal structures and beliefs,” said the UN Working Group on discrimination against women and girls in a statement at the end of a 12-day visit to the country.

“This is holding back women and girls from finding a genuinely equal place in public and private life,” they said.

The experts noted that patriarchal views suggesting that women are less fit to lead have a significant impact on women's ability to participate in the public and economic life of the country. Although electoral quotas were introduced in 2021, political decision-making still remains male-dominated. Diverse women, in particular migrant, asylum-seeking and refugee women, women with disabilities and older women, continue to face intersecting forms of discrimination and rights violations.

“Malta has made remarkable progress in women’s economic empowerment over the past decade,” the experts said. “However, women continue to face challenges in reconciling work and family life and sharing care responsibilities equally. Gender discrimination often starts in the family and has a negative impact on all areas of girls’ and women’s lives.”

Until recently, Malta had an absolute ban on abortion, prohibiting the termination of a pregnancy even if a woman's life was at risk. On 28 June, Parliament passed a bill amending the Penal Code to decriminalise abortion only in cases where the woman's life is in immediate danger, following the assessment of a medical team.

The experts expressed disappointment that the previous version of the bill – which had a broader scope – had been rejected.

They stressed that the right to terminate a pregnancy is at the core of women’s and girls’ fundamental rights to equality, to dignity, autonomy, bodily integrity, respect for private life and the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, including sexual and reproductive health, without discrimination, and the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, in accordance with international human rights standards.

Data from the World Health Organization has demonstrated that criminalising termination of pregnancy does not reduce the number of abortions. Countries where women have the right to termination of pregnancy and are provided with access to information and to all methods of contraception, have the lowest rates of termination of pregnancy.

“We commend Malta for its strong commitment to addressing gender-based violence. Sadly, violence against women and girls, which is the most brutal manifestation of gender-based discrimination, remains pervasive,” the experts said. “We have consistently heard that women face substantial barriers to justice, including delays, cumbersome procedures and inconsistent responses depending on who they encounter in the system.”

The experts urged the Government to collect system-wide national data to improve efforts to remove barriers to women’s and girls’ enjoyment of their rights, including freedom from gender-based violence. “By transcending traditional gender roles and expectations, Malta can unlock the potential of all individuals and create a society where equality thrives,” they said.

“We sincerely hope State authorities, together with younger generations and all sectors of society, will commit to the transformative actions necessary to continue to bring positive change for the human rights of women and girls,” the experts said.


The experts met with public officials, Parliamentarians, judges and lawyers, health and schools professionals, the personnel of the prison, of the immigration detention centre and the women detainees, representatives of civil society organisations, including faith-based, and academia, girls and women from different communities and victims/survivors of gender-based violence in Valletta, Gozo, Cospiscua and Birżebbuġa.

The Working Group will present its final report to the Human Rights Council in June 2024.

*The UN Working Group on discrimination against women and girls was created by the Human Rights Council in 2010 to intensify efforts to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women and girls throughout the world in collaboration with all concerned stakeholders. Dorothy Estrada Tanck (Chair), Elizabeth Broderick, Ivana Radačić, Meskerem Geset Techane and Melissa Upreti.

The Special Rapporteurs, Independent Experts and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

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