European & International News

Malta legalises divorce

[Brussels, 26 July 2011] Malta, one of the few countries in the world where divorce is still banned, is on its way to significant change. Two months after a historical referendum, the will of the Maltese to introduce the right to divorce has been translated into legislation. With 52 votes in favour, 11 against and 5 abstentions, the Maltese Parliament passed a law on Monday to allow legal separation. Although the Prime Minister previously agreed to respect the will of the majority, Lawrence Gonzi and his Nationalist Party voted against the legislation. Despite the resistance, the legislation has been approved by President George Abela and is expected to take effect in October.

In Catholic Malta, divorce has long been seen as harmful to family structure and has been banned under the pressure of both Church and government. In a referendum in May, Maltese voters were asked whether parliament should introduce a new law that would allow couples to obtain a divorce after four years of separation. Even though the results of the referendum were non-binding, the strong turnout of 72 per cent of eligible voters served as a wake up call for authorities.

Previously, Maltese could only dissolve a marriage through a long and complicated Church annulment, through the courts or by divorcing abroad.

The right to divorce is a welcome step for women. In preparations of the divorce legislative proposal, women should be invited to reinforce their bargaining power and seek a divorce law that responds to what they want. Experience from countries that have evolving divorce laws show that women can lose out in divorce proceedings particularly when negotiating their rights: monetary assets tend to override non-monetary contributions with the result, for example, that the time women spend looking after children (or and other dependent family members) for the benefit of the whole household, does not count. Women end up with low (or no) income of their own which also impacts on their economic independence later in life (retirement with low or no individual rights). These issues are crucial for Maltese women particularly given the low employment rate of women in Malta.

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