Agatha Barbara was born in Ħaż-Żabbar on 11th March, 1923, the eldest daughter and the second of the nine children of Joseph and Antonia.
She studied at the State Primary and Grammar Schools. Miss Barbara started her career as a school teacher, during the Second World War II and in 1946 started to take an active interest in politics and joined the Malta Labour Party.
Miss Barbara contested the first general elections held on the granting of the new Constitution in 1947, and became the first woman ever to be elected to the Maltese Parliament. She contested all subsequent parliamentary elections and held seat in the House of Representatives till the day she was elected President of the Republic in 1982.
In the Second Labour Government of 1955, Miss Barbara was appointed Minister of Education and Culture thus becoming the first Maltese woman to hold a ministerial portfolio.
Immediately after taking office as Minister of Education, Miss Barbara embarked on the vast project of introducing compulsory and full-time education up to the age of 14 years. In order to implement this major decision, Miss Barbara ordered and supervised the construction and/or major expansion of no less than 44 schools all over the Maltese Islands. This project also involved the recruitment and training of hundreds of new teachers. A new Teacher's Training College for men was built, becoming later, co-educational used by both males and females student teachers. Compulsory and free education for all, from 5 - 14 years became effective in September 1955, only five months after Miss Barbara took office as Minister of Education in 1955.
The importance of this educational reform lies in the fact that through compulsory and free full-time education, learning was brought down for the first time to the masses, who until hardly had the facilities and the means to educate their children. As part of the whole reform, text-books and copy books were also given free of charge to pupils and students who also received free medical attention and free transport to and from school. College fees paid by student teachers were abolished and to ease the financial burden of parents, students received an annual grant as pocket money.
The first special schools, for the blind, the deaf and the mentally disturbed were opened in 1956. Up to 1955 handicapped persons were kept hidden at home never venturing outside. Therefore a census of handicapped persons was held, and centres for these people opened, so that today handicapped persons live an independent life, well integrated into society.
An integral part of the educational reforms introduced by Miss Barbara regarded the schools curricula. Until then, certain subjects including the sciences, were not taught to girls who attended grammar schools. Miss Barbara having herself suffered from this discrimination remedied immediately by introducing in girls' schools all the subjects taught in schools for boys.
From the very beginning of her political career in 1946, Miss Barbara was very active both in Party affairs as well as a representative of the people in Parliament.
Between 1958 and 1964, Miss Barbara was amongst the foremost in the fight for the Independence of Malta. She travelled widely in Europe and elsewhere including a spell at the United Nations in New York, lobbying for Malta's Independence. She was sentenced to prison by the British-influenced Courts of Law, following the April 28, 1958 protests against British occupation, in which Miss Barbara took a leading a very active part.
Between 1958 and 1971, Miss Barbara was responsible for the day-to-day management of the Party publications and the Freedom Press, the Party printing House. From the very beginning of her political career she was a member of the Labour Party Executive Committee, and founded the Women's Political Movement in Malta. For most of her 35-year Parliamentary career, she was the only woman in a Parliament traditionally the preserve of men.
When the Malta Labour Party won the majority of the popular vote and seats in the 1971 General Elections, Miss Barbara was again appointed Minister of Education and Culture. Once again she embarked on a further reform in the educational system, the most important being the debate and approval by Parliament of a new progressive Education Act, increasing the school-leaving age to 16. Apart of this reform she introduced in Malta a new type of technical education at trade level, and thus many trade schools, where various skills and crafts were taught, were set up in Malta and Gozo, for boys and girls. The Schools of Music and Drama, and the Felinberg Institute of Electronic Technology was set up in 1973. Many cases came into effect at the University including the abolishing of fees, and of Religion as a compulsory entry qualifying subject. Streamlining of the administration and of the facilities.
As Chancellor of the University of Malta, ex officio, President Barbara's interest in the education of the masses and in the propagation ;of scientific and technological education has continued unabated. In 1974, Minister Barbara was given a new portfolio that of Labour, Social Services, and Culture.
Miss Barbara embarked upon her new tasks with the same vigour and energy as during her tenure of office as Minister of Education, introducing equal pay for women as their male counterparts on similar duties, pregnancy leave with pay, forty-hour five-day week, unemployment benefit, a yearly bonus, children's allowances, 2/3 retirement pension and other social legislation which improved in a determined manner the social life of the Maltese people.
This was a very important reform which was ably planned so as to assist the private sector, at a time when Malta's Industrial potential was being developed.
Between 1974 and 1981, Miss Barbara worked hard and succeeded in establishing in Maltese harmonious relationships between employers and workers, while at the same time continuing with the improvement of workers pay and conditions of work. An industrial tribunal was set up and industrial relations were so good that industrial peace reign supreme and industrial actions were practically non-existent. Unemployment went down to the lowest possible level at 2 % of the labour force. On several occasions she addressed the International Labour Organisation Conference in Geneva, on matters appertaining to Labour and Employment in Malta.
Miss Barbara's dedication to her duties in this field did not impede her from reforming the cultural aspects of the Maltese society. During the time Miss Barbara was responsible for Culture, the following National Museums were set up:
Archaeology, National History, Fine Arts, Folklore, Political History in Malta and Archaeology an Gozo.
She embarked on a new policy for the diffusion of culture amongst the people by taking out of Valletta - the Traditional venue for cultural events - to the town and villages of the Maltese Islands, where the people could participate actively in newly dressed forms of cultural activities.
The democratisation of culture has brought about a true and effective revolution in life of the Maltese people. It is now flourishing through the many cultural organisation that have since cropped up in the towns and village of the Republic. Between 1971 and 1981, Miss Barbara was on various brief occasions, appointed Acting Prime Minister. After the elections in 1981, and on the opening of Parliament on the 16th February, 1982, Miss Barbara had played a very active and important role as Head of State, to bring about National Utility. On the international scene, Miss Barbara had pursued her life-long policy of international friendship, visiting many countries, thus further re-enforcing Malta's stand as a non-aligned and Neutral state.
Also since her election to the Office as President of the Republic, Miss Barbara had been very active on the National and International levels in the field of charity. She was the Chairperson of the Maltese National Committee to collect funds for charity "The Community Chest Fund", through which Children's Homes, needy families and the handicapped have received in the past three years, thousands of pounds worth of assistance.
A committee was also set up under her Chairmanship to assist the famine victims of Ethiopia and Sudan. Tons of medicines and medical supplies, as well as much needed tents for shelter, have already been sent to both countries.
Throughout her political career Miss Barbara has gained the admiration of friends and the respect of her political opponents. Her vast experience in many sectors of public life had made Miss Barbara a Statesman of stature highly respected in many countries. Her endeavours in the field of international friendship had won her the highest awards given by the People's Republic of Bulgaria - the Stara Planina 1st Class with Ribbon; the Order of the National Flag, 1st Class, by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, as well as the Hishan-E-Pakistan, by the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Miss Barbara was also awarded a Doctorate of Philosophy in Pedagogy, Honoris Causa by the Universtiy of Beijing, China, besides the many honours bestowed on her by foreign and public, cultural, scientific and educational institutions.
OFFICES HELD AND OTHER APPOINTMENTS
- Member, Air Raid Precautions and later Supervisor of the Victory Kitchens during the last World War;
- Manager in the Advertising Department of the Freedom Press;
- Member, Business and Professional Women; U.K.;
- Member St John Alliance, U.K.;
- Member , International Social Democratic Women;
- President, Labour Party, Women's Section, Żabbar;
- Chairperson, Executive Committee of the Woman's Movement of the Labour Party; Honorary President, St Michael Band Club, Żabbar,
- Honorary President, Maltese Settlers Club, Sydney, Australia.
- Her hobbies were philately and classical and modern music.
- Miss Barbara died on February 4, 2002.