Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Independent: The changing face of the family

17 July 2011 by Scott Grech

A symposium on the jurisprudence of the family, parenting and the influence of culture held over the past two days focused on the philosophical, conceptual and theoretical principles of the family unit. Several speakers addressed the symposium, including Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi. Scott Grech finds out more

Till now, Malta remains one of two countries around the world that does not permit divorce. However, this will soon change. A bitterly fought referendum campaign last May saw over 53 per cent of the electorate vote in favour of divorce while last Wednesday, the divorce Bill’s second reading was approved by the majority of MPs in Parliament.

With divorce on our doorstep, staunch anti-divorce campaigners are still convinced that Malta will lose part of its soul when it introduces divorce legislation, which will eventually lead to a change in our family values.

However, according to two of the symposium’s main speakers, it is globalisation and the impact of technology, rather than divorce, which posits the greater challenge to the structure and stability of Maltese families.

“We now have a situation where parents who are unfamiliar with technology are becoming disconnected from their children. The impact of the media on the family has been enormous. Parents can no long prevent their children from having a Facebook account, for instance, through which they can connect to anyone from all over the world.

“Children living in the Arab region, regardless if they are Muslim or Christian, have now become citizens of the world, connected with children living in New York or London, and doing the same things together at the same time,” Nada Frangieh, a family research director, tells this newspaper.

Chipping in, Richard Wilkins, a family lawyer asks: “In a rapidly evolving world, are we still able to pass on the traditional values we inherited to our children? Even if we can, are children willing to take these values on board? These are questions for which there are, as yet, no concrete answers, and we have to wait and see how it will all pan out.

“For instance, there is a lot of pressure on parents today to teach their children about sex, and as quickly as they can, because if they refuse to do so their children can log on to the Internet and learn all about it in an instant, and in graphic form too.”

Dr Frangieh and Dr Wilkins form part of the Doha International Institute for Family Studies and Development (DIIFSD), which were the symposium’s main sponsors.

As an international family policy institute, the DIIFSD tackles the effects of emerging family structures, and the efforts governments and NGOs can do to strengthen the family unit.

In Dr Wilkins’ view, nothing comes close to matching the benefits of being raised in a nuclear family.

“Continuous studies have proved that children growing up with two, continuously married parents are less likely to be subjected to a wide range of cognitive, emotional and social problems during childhood and into adulthood,” he said.

At the same time, however, it appears that the prevalence of the traditional, two-parent household is declining, with increasing numbers of children born outside wedlock, marriage rates decreasing and divorce rates either increasing or remaining at historically high levels.

“As a family policy institute, we deal with the influence of parenting and emerging social factors on children, so what is happening in Malta right now, with the island on the verge of introducing divorce legislation, is of great interest to us,” Dr Frangieh explains.

Dr Wilkins stresses that although “divorce ought to be discouraged”, it remains difficult to say what type of impact it will have on the Maltese family in the next few years.

“A study I recently conducted in Kenya, which is a rapidly developing country, highlights that divorce does not seem to have had a dramatic impact on children.

“However, in the USA, Great Britain and Germany, on which a lot of longitudinal studies have been made, it is proven that outcomes for children coming from divorced families, including their health and their education prospects, are significantly worse than those living in stable and solid families.

“Moreover, studies also show that there is a stronger possibility for those coming from divorce families to face, at some stage in their life, some form of criminal charge or other.

“What seems to be constant is that if a child has a stable relationship with an extended family, as is often the case in Kenya, the child seems to do fine. But in other countries in which extended families are not that prevalent, divorce seems to have a significant impact.

“These are, however, just statistics, which need to be read with caution,” Dr Wilkins stresses.

He adds that studies have also shown that if a marriage is marred by severe physical abuse affecting one of the spouses, divorce can be highly beneficial to that particular child.

“When you start looking at anecdotal evidence, in instances where there has been severe physical abuse which could, eventually, result in death, divorce is a healthy option.

“You definitely cannot, however, draw conclusions to what will happen here in Malta based on what the impact of divorce was, in say, the USA”.

The 2004 study by the American Medical Association revealed that divorce causes significant negative outcomes for children in a wide range of fields.

Fatherlessness, for example, was highly correlated to high criminality.

“If you look at the number of people behind bars in Great Britain, to mention one country, many prisoners come from divorced families.

“Again, this does mean that divorce causes crime. It doesn’t. But I think that young men and women would have more stability in their life if their parents have enjoyed a stable and happy relationship. Furthermore, there are other studies which indicate that if divorce was not readily available, spouses might work out their differences and the consequences of their children might be different,” Dr Wilkins says.

Dr Frangieh comments that “interestingly enough, however, children who come from divorced families tend to settle in long-lasting relationships or marriage later in their life. They don’t want to go through what their parents did, because they’ve already been hurt a lot once”.

After all these arguments, is Malta doing the right thing by introducing divorce legislation?

“I’m glad I am not a politician,” Dr Wilkins chuckles, “because I frankly would not know whether I would want divorce in my society.

Same-sex marriages

Many have also commented on the local media that once the divorce Bill is enacted, the next issue Parliament should tackle is whether or not to introduce legislation for same-sex marriages.

“Whether more states should permit same-sex marriages is questionable. It depends on what your goal is. If you want to promote more equity through same-sex marriages, there may be ways to do this without calling it marriage, either through domestic partnership laws or other factors.

“A same-sex marriage is entirely different to a marriage between man and woman.

Any child of same-sex marriages is either going to come from a relationship which one of the partners has or has had with the opposite sex, or by adoption. The legal consequence of this is quite different.

“Trying to equate marriages and same-sex marriages poses interesting problems and you need to have a different set of rules. Any children involved in same-sex marriages are going to have a biological relationship with either none of the parents or with only one.

“There’s more to same-sex marriages than raising children. For instance, male homosexual couples rarely want sexual fidelity. They may want to marry each other, but rarely do they want to take the vow of fidelity, because that’s not part of male homosexual culture.

“We cannot mess up the notion of marriage by saying that a marriage between two persons is the same, because it isn’t. We have to be clear and careful in what we are legislating and why,” Dr Wilkins comments.

As more states around the world are looking to introduce same-sex marriages, Dr Frangieh, who hails from Lebanon, is absolutely convinced that this type of marriage will never be introduced in the conservative Arab world in her lifetime.

Dr Wilkins, however, is unsure.

“If you had raised the issue of same-sex marriages in the USA in the mid 90s, people would have looked at you aghast and said no, definitely not. But all of a sudden it happened, and with lightning speed too.

“Because of the Internet’s growth, we are seeing rapid changes taking place in all countries in the world, including those in the Middle East.

“Nevertheless, it would take a serious erosion of religious values for same-sex marriages to be legalised in the Middle East. Which is what, however, has happened in the West nonetheless.

“If you look at history, the West was largely Christian at the end of World War II, but by the year 2000, religion was not that much of a factor in western life.

“It is now true that in many places in the West, you cannot say that there is anything right or anything wrong. If you ask people what is right and wrong, they’ll say it depends.

“We’ve become unable to make distinctions, as we did in the past, of what is good, better, best and bad, worse and worst. We can’t do it anymore. And unless we reverse that, we’re going to be in deep trouble.

“How is the Middle East, and other regions for that matter, going to retain its uniqueness, and what makes them different from others? I don’t know and I don’t think anyone else does either, but it’s definitely going to be interesting.

“One thing history does teach us is that humans do not take advance action to prevent disaster, but only react after a disaster, and then they rebuild. Sometime in the next 50 years I feel we are going to see consequences so negative to all this change in the family unit that people will be prompted to take action.

“In the meantime, many scholars are concerned that the erosion of values is causing a lot of problems to today’s world,” he said.


The importance of home education in a child’s life cannot be overstated, Dr Frangieh says, and although there is a high percentage of children who have enjoyed a good solid educational upbringing in the past few decades, “we have to spare a thought and reach out towards those children being raised in armed conflict”.

“Armed conflict is everywhere in the world, and we are noticing that few care about this, not even the United Nations, which has so far failed to raise a single voice about all the children missing out on their education because they live in countries torn by conflict.

“Those encouraging wars and revolutions are not thinking of the impact of this on children and their education. What does the future hold for this coming generation? We saw what happened to those involved in the Vietnam War, where 10 years after the war, most people had no idea what to do with their life.

“Survival is most people’s primary concern, but no one is addressing the issues which will rise to prominence in 10 to 20 years’ time,” she says.

Dr Wilkins adds: “A shocking percentage of children globally are not receiving any form of education right now, around 80 per cent of whom live in countries torn greatly by armed conflict.”

He goes on to highlight that one aspect which is of great significance but which is becoming almost forgotten is the importance of education given at home.

“Public education, schools and universities are a phenomenon of the last two to four hundred years. Now this may sound a lot but with hindsight, it is not a long period of time in human history.

“We need to provide more educational materials to parents so they can educate their offspring, which will provide them with more opportunities to succeed in later life.

“At the moment, job opportunities are few and far between, even for those who are highly educated, let alone for those with a poor educational background. Solutions for this problem need to be found.”

Dr Frangieh adds that it precisely the lack of job opportunities that have spurred people living in South Asia and Africa especially, to try and seek jobs elsewhere.

The Middle East region, on the other hand, is now experiencing a brain migration, Dr Frangieh states, with a high percentage of people migrating to other countries since they do not have the opportunity to work or the stability and safety to be able to live and work in their homeland.

Settling in a different country can be a challenge but fruitful experience, Dr Wilkins adds.

“Globalisation has boosted diversity in all communities and cultures.

“Studies show that a child who is raised in a rich and diverse culture has a broader outlook on life, is more accepting of others and adapts quicker to various factors. What you have to do in diverse cultures is avoid a sense of isolation. It’s best to embrace change, rather than shun it away. Diverse communities give children different views and outlooks on life”.

Early school leavers

On the subject of early school leavers, of which Malta has the highest rate among the 27 EU states, Dr Wilkins comments that recent studies in Great Britain, France and Sweden have highlighted that children living with parents who completed their education tend to complete their own education too.

“In Malta’s case, there may be the situation, and the emphasis is on the may, that the reason behind the high rate of early school leavers is the result of a perpetuating problem.

“There may be a high number of children who drop out of school early because they know that their parents, who also dropped out of school early, still went on to carve out a very good and successful career for themselves. So these children might feel that by also dropping out early, they will stand a good chance of emulating their parents.

“This sets an intergenerational repeat. Parents have the strongest impact on their children, stronger than friends, Church, the Internet, governments and even stronger than media.

“One thing which might lead to a decrease in the rate of early school leavers is the promotion of more lifelong learning opportunities for adults. If children see their parents continuing their education, they tend to follow suit,” Dr Wilkins says.

Female employment

Malta’s female employment is the lowest in the EU, mainly because many women still prefer to forfeit their job once they give birth in order to raise their children for the first few years of their life.

Dr Wilkins said that there might be several factors behind Malta’s low female employment rate.

“Are women looking for work but cannot find work? Are the opportunities attractive enough for women to enter the labour market? ”

Dr Frangieh adds: “Children who are brought up for the first three years with their mother always by their side tend to perform better in school when they grow older. This is not arguable.

“Children do much better if they are brought up by a stay-at-home parent than by a nanny or someone else. As we have stressed, there is nothing that matches being raised in a stable and nuclear family.

“But despite all these changing faces to the family unit, one thing remains clear: that nothing beats being raised in a nuclear and stable family.”

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