Francesca Fenech Conti is a force of nature. She is a passionate advocate of women’s rights and has brought many issues to the forefront of the local conversation in recent months. She is also a member of two NGOs namely the Women’s Rights Foundation and the Migrant Woman Association.
So who is the real person behind this ‘persona’ that we have ‘gotten to know’ through groups such as ‘Are You Being Served’, ‘The Salott’ and ‘Women for Women’? I had the pleasure of sitting down with Francesca to get a first-hand account of her story and what she hopes to achieve through it all.
We meet over a coffee at ‘Café Cuba’ in Sliema. Francesca greets me with a radiant smile and cheerful ‘Hello’. She comes across as extremely charismatic and acutely unapologetic at the same time. She is adamant to fight for what is right and I cannot help but admire her passion and determination. We order our coffees and start chatting.
You are the co-founder of some very popular groups on social media. How did it all start?
“It actually started with ‘Eurobitchin‘ around six years ago. That is where I really got to know Moira . We realised how much we got on through the group and became fast friends. Together we then went on to set up ‘Are You Being Served‘, and as time passed, since we recognized that some posts were more suited to a discussion-type forum, we created the group ‘The Salott‘, where members can discuss issues at length.
‘Women for Women’ was born only around one and a half years ago. The idea came to me when I was recovering from a hysterectomy, and felt that I wanted to share my experience with other women. It was only then when I realised that an online community dedicated to women in Malta did not exist. I wanted to create a support system for women where they would feel safe expressing themselves, without the risk of feeling judged or attacked.”
“I was living in a bubble and did not realise the extent to which women were suffering in silence.”
What surprised you the most about the way things developed for the group ‘Women for Women?’
She thinks for a moment: “What surprised me the most is how naïve and ignorant I had been to the real issues that women are facing so close to home. I was living in a bubble and did not realise the extent to which women were suffering in silence. In fact I was so moved by some of the stories shared in the group that I started reading up about feminist theory and the history of feminism which I found tremendously interesting.”
So you are saying that you weren’t always a feminist?
“Yes believe it or not I was never into feminism; I only discovered it through the interesting stories shared in the ‘WFW’ group. I was ignorant to the challenges some women face and how important it is for us to protect and fight for our rights.
The women who contact me. Some of them are desperate. There are cases where the women’s partners keep getting them pregnant, not allowing them to take contraception and they just have nowhere to turn to. This is where I feel access to the ‘Morning After Pill’ is such an important right for us women. Emergency contraception gives women the possibility to control their destiny and the fact that it has finally been sanctioned as an over-the-counter medication is a victory for all of us women.”
What do you hope to achieve with ‘Women For Women’?
“The aim is to help and support each other, to fight for women’s rights and to offer a forum where us women can discuss the issues that are important to us. We don’t always agree with each other but I feel it is a safe place where we can discuss our issues.
Obviously we do realise it is a Facebook group so when it comes to very sensitive issues, these are done anonymously. We are lucky to have some incredible women in the group, lawyers, psychologists, doctors, dentists, business women, teachers, mothers, all contributing on the various serious issues we discuss. However we also like to talk about the fun, frivolous stuff and have loads of laughs too.”
“..if I can at least help open an important discussion, even if most people disagree with my point of view, then that’s good enough, I have achieved something.”
How do you deal with the negative feedback?
“Before Women for Women, women’s issues weren’t really being discussed much on local social media. Unfortunately many times, feminists are depicted by both men and women as being anti-men and man-haters. This is really not the case, we have a lot of respect for men, we only want equal opportunities and to be treated with the same respect in all aspects of life and society. I am very outspoken but that doesn’t mean that I am always right. I recognise that I may come across as a head-strong and overtly passionate in some of my views however, if I can at least help open an important discussion, even if most people disagree with my point of view, then that’s good enough, I have achieved something.
Like with the ‘Morning After Pill’, we started this very controversial discussion on ‘Women for Women’, which led to the Women’s Rights Foundation headed by Dr. Lara Dimitrijevic filing a judicial protest signed by 102 women. It was then discussed by a Parliamentary committee and the Medicine Authority finally confirmed it will be available ‘over-the-counter’. It’s amazing what us women can achieve when we stick together and support each other.”
“We all rallied together to help her out financially and get her electricity up and running again. The power of women working together is amazing.”
What do you mean when you say that men need to come on our side? How can they do that?
“Well, as things stand there are more men in powerful positions than there are women. If more men were to take a closer look at what is happening and for example get involved with NGOs that are fighting for women’s rights then obviously there is more chance of us improving the situation which in turn will benefit everyone, both men and women. More men supporting their wives or partners in their life and career choices is also a very good start. My husband for example is my rock and supports and encourages me every step of the way, he’s the biggest feminist I know”
On Women for Women you deal with women in very vulnerable situations. Is there one case in particular that struck you in any way?
“Every single case is important to me and I feel privileged to be able to somehow give the women who contact me, a chance to improve their life in a small way. I remember recently there was one particular case that made many women in the ‘WFW’ group came together to help. There was a mother of five children whose husband made her and her children live without electricity and of course without hot water, because he refused to pay the electricity bills. We all rallied together to help her out financially and get her electricity up and running again. The power of women working together is amazing. However, even though financial help is great, I believe it is much better and more important to empower women to gain financial independence. By helping them to keep down a job through possibly assisting them with their children or finding them a job, especially jobs with flexible hours which would enable them to gain some financial independence.”
“Just because I was lucky enough to be born in Malta doesn’t earn me the right to have a better life than anyone else. It’s the luck of the draw, I could have easily found myself in their situation.”
“Unfortunately domestic abuse is rife in Malta. There is still quite a taboo and some women are ashamed to come forward. When one looks at it from a logical perspective it is ridiculous. The woman is ashamed for being abused whereas the person who should really be ashamed is the abuser. It may be the case that some women would have married a spouse that their friends and family would not have approved of, and they would be ashamed to admit that they were wrong in choosing that person. It is a sense of failure too and we all hate to admit failure.
It is really not easy to leave, especially when your self-esteem has been totally destroyed; you have no money and you feel like you have nowhere to go. It is very hard, particularly when young children are involved. Unfortunately there have been a number of women who have even died at the hands of their violent partners, at the hands of the men who were supposed to love them. The numbers are staggering, one in every five women in Malta have suffered some form of domestic abuse; be it financial, physical or emotional abuse. I was totally oblivious to all this before I became involved in ‘Women For Women’; I was living in a bubble.
I take this opportunity to stress to women. I know it is really difficult to make the first step, but please do not be embarrassed or scared because someone is abusing you. Tell someone, get help right away. You and your children deserve a better life. It is not easy but there are many government agencies and NGOs that can offer you help and support. The Women’s Rights Foundation actually offers free legal advice and guidance, it is important that you know your rights.”
If you are in an abusive situation call any of the following numbers:
- Victim Support Malta – 21228333
- SART (Sexual Assault Response Team) – 21228333
- Women’s Rights Foundation – 79708615
- Rainbow Support Service (LBGTIQ) – 79430006
- Soar Support Group (SJAF) – 21808981
How do you feel about the migration crisis in Europe and how do you think we could help?
“Well I think at the end of the day the most important contribution we can give, is to humanise the migrants who are here in Malta by simply treating them like everybody else. Donating clothes is great, volunteering with children and mentoring for example is also wonderful. However at the end of the day I believe that once again empowerment is the most important contribution. Most migrants don’t want to live off charity (just like we wouldn’t), migrants want and need to work to support their families, so giving them the chance to work and offering them employment in our companies and homes, is where we really start to make a real difference. I believe in giving a hand up and not a hand out. I believe that full integration as members in all aspects of society is key.
I am very passionate about migration and I see the world made up of humans not nationalities or races. I would love a world where we are all just humans, not Maltese, African, Italian, English or Syrian. At the end of the day I believe we all want the same things in life. A safe place free from war and poverty, where we can live with our families and bring up our children. Just because I was lucky enough to be born in Malta doesn’t earn me the right to have a better life than anyone else. It’s the luck of the draw, I could have easily found myself in their situation.”
“Well I think these days, with technology and access to everything at our fingertips, it makes it somewhat easier to keep up with everything. I must admit my phone is very important to me and it is always charged, I work mostly through my phone. I try to allocate time for everything and prioritise, which is very important when you have a number of projects going on. It’s also very important for me to make sure I find time to have fun and spend quality time with my family.
Plan H is basically all about making healthy eating as accessible as possible. With people getting busier and busier these days, the risk of making unhealthy choices grows, simply because one has no time to prepare a home-cooked meal. Plan H offers freshly made, quality meals to your door. Everything is calorie-counted to make sure you are keeping to the agreed number of calories tailor-made to fit your plan. Healthy food can also be fattening, eating too much of a good thing will make you fat too, portion control is crucial to weight loss.”
You have also recently decided to embark on a University degree. What degree are you reading for and why are you doing it?
She smiles, “Yes, I’m so excited about this, I never studied when I was younger, and have been wanting to study for a long time, I have so much to learn. With the support and encouragement from the amazing women on Women for Women I finally found the courage to take the leap! I’m going to be reading for a degree in Social Policy. Social Policy dictates what happens all around us, from education to social services, health, migration, law, it’s a vast and very interesting subject that is close to my heart. Hopefully my mature brain can deal with all the studying involved. I have a competition going on with my 18 year old son who has also started University this year, I’ve placed a bet with him that I’m going to get better grades than him! I hope I won’t have to eat my words…..best would be if we both get good grades.”
Interview by Davinia Mallia Pulé for BuzyMummy.