European & International News

Malta votes YES to right to divorce

[Brussels, 01 June 2011] Malta, one of only two countries in the whole world where divorce is still banned, on Sunday made a historical step towards a major social change. In a referendum on 28 May, more than half of Maltese voted in favour of legalising divorce, bringing about a new era for social rights in Malta, defined by renewed freedom of choice for women and men.

Previously, married couples could only go through a slow process to either obtain a legal separation through the courts, or ask for a Church annulment. This procedure could take up to nine years and remarriage remained impossible.

EU integration was nevertheless threatening to leave Malta’s position on divorce obsolete. As free movement is guaranteed as a fundamental right to EU citizens, the ban on divorce on a national level has over time been loosing some of its relevance. The divorces pronounced in another country of the EU had to be recognised as valid in Malta. The country had also committed to adopt the Rome III regulation implementing enhanced cooperation in the area of the law applicable to divorce and legal separation.

As of mid-2012 a EU-wide divorce scheme will need to be applied in an effort of EU harmonisation in the area of family law. Yet, it is important to note that the provisions on closer cooperation on the EU level have not been put into effect since their introduction and that their potential outcome is largely debated. In this regard, the referendum and the willingness of the government to propose legislation should be encouraged.

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 are non-binding, the strong turnout of 72 per cent of eligible voters served as a wake up call for both Church and government. The Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi, who campaigned against the legalisation, stated that the will of the majority will be respected and the parliament will enact legislation for the introduction of divorce.

The right of many women to initiate a no-fault divorce and the liberalisation of divorce in general, have been central issues for feminist movements in Europea and worldwide. Divorce has helped free women from entrapment in unhappy marriages but is also often the only solution allowing women to exit abusive relationships. This referendum is certainly a step toward more equality and respect for women’s rights. In this respect, the EWL calls on the Maltese government to develop an adequate legal framework for divorce. This procedure should not be limited by additional restrictions such as the four-year separation period stated as a precondition in the referedum. The future legal framework needs also to take into account prevalent gender inequality in society, protecting those experiencing violence or otherwise vulnerable women and ensuring that that their economic situation is not harmed.

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