What world are we leaving our children?

An insight into our children’s demographic realities: The issue of violence during childhood is a growing concern in Malta. Statistics indicate that, in 2022, 89.6% of young people aged 18 to 24 years reported experiencing at least one form of abuse during their childhood.

“Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.” – John F. Kennedy

The Ministry for Social Policy and Children’s Rights is currently working on sending a good ‘living message’ into the future, by issuing the Children’s Policy Framework for the years 2024 to 2030. This document is currently available for public consultation, and it casts a clear light on the demographic realities that children live in today.

We don’t have many children, but change is expected

In 2021, Malta confronted distinctive demographic patterns, with children aged 0-17 constituting 15.9% (82,130) of the total population, positioning the country with the second-lowest proportion of children among EU nations.

Projections anticipate an incremental rise to 16% (94,306 children) by 2030, followed by a slight dip to 93,864 by 2050. The primary driver behind this growth is migration, with foreign children comprising 15% (12,295) of the total child population in 2019, primarily from non-EU countries and predominantly below 9 years old.

Over the past five decades, Malta has witnessed a substantial decline in its Total Fertility Rate. This is the average number of children that would be born to a woman over her lifetime. In 1977, the rate stood at 2.14 births per woman, slightly above the replacement fertility rate (the level of fertility at which a population is capable of replacing itself) of 2.1. However, by 2021, the rate had plummeted to 1.13, marking the lowest fertility rate in Europe and one of the lowest globally.

Concurrently, Malta has experienced a prolonged decline in the crude birth rate (the annual number of live births per 1,000 population), dropping from 9.7 in 2015 to 8.5 in 2021.

Our children live in smaller families

In comparison to other nations, Maltese children typically reside in smaller families. In 2021, the prevailing household structure with dependent children consisted of two adults and one dependent child.

The number of single-parent households remained generally consistent over previous years. In 2017/2018, most children aged 11-15 lived with both parents (76.3%), while 15.4% resided with a single parent, 6.2% with a stepfamily, and 2.1% in various family arrangements, including fostering or under non-parental family members.

Noteworthy is the small fraction of parents (12% of fathers and 5% of mothers) living or working away from home for over a month. However, not all Maltese children can live with their birth families. The 2020 Minor Protection (Alternative Care) Act (Cap. 602) underscores the state’s commitment to ensuring children thrive in alternative family environments.

Despite a decline in child poverty and social exclusion from 27.8% in 2015 to 23.2% in 2021, children with single parents face a higher risk of poverty (50.7%), as do those in low-skilled households (42.7%).

There’s a worrying trend on violence

The issue of violence during childhood is a growing concern in Malta, with statistics indicating that 89.6% of young people aged 18 to 24 years in 2022 reported experiencing at least one form of abuse during their childhood.

Furthermore, 70.2% reported enduring more than one type of abuse, and 12.5% faced five or more forms of abuse. The prevalent forms of violence during childhood included being victims of peer and sibling violence (75.3%), maltreatment (61.4%), witnessing family violence (54.3%), and domestic violence (52%).

Sexual abuse during childhood was reported at 43%. Notably, girls were found to experience more frequent and varied forms of abuse compared to boys, and they were more likely to respond with heightened fear when exposed to abuse.

Among children witnessing domestic violence, 46% observed violence by their parents’ intimate partner and 30.5% witnessed violence by a parent or guardian on a sibling. Fathers were identified as the primary abusers in approximately half of the cases of child maltreatment (45.7%) and witnessed physical domestic violence (50.7%), while a third refused to disclose the main perpetrator. Children whose parents or caregivers were perceived as suffering from mental health issues and/or drug addiction were more likely to witness intimate partner violence.

Despite a significant number of children experiencing domestic violence taking actions such as yelling (56.4%) or physically intervening (36%) to stop their parents during an argument, most children (79.1%) did not seek help outside the home.

Witnessing domestic violence correlated with increased school absenteeism and incomplete homework. Ultimately, children exposed to intimate partner violence, family violence, child maltreatment, and neglect at home were more likely to engage in peer and sibling violence. Interconnections also existed between these different forms of violence and incidents of sexual victimisation during childhood.

62% of children are at risk of emotional problems

Recent findings from research indicate that 62% of children are susceptible to emotional problems, encompassing various issues that fall short of a diagnosed mental disorder.

The study also highlights that 60% are unlikely to experience a mental disorder. The survey further reveals that 23% of children aged 5-10 years and 39% of those aged 11-16 years are at risk of emotional problems. Additionally, approximately a quarter of children aged 5-16 are prone to hyperactivity or anxiety problems.

Notably, there has been fluctuation in acute involuntary care admissions within licensed mental health institutions, ranging from 12 to 36 children per year during the period 2015-2020, with the figure standing at 19 children in 2020. In general, the number of male child entrants was twice that of female entrants.

Many children under 3 attend childcare centres

The accessibility of education in Malta strives to eliminate barriers. Noteworthy statistics include almost a quarter of children under 3 years attending childcare centres, two-thirds participating in pre-primary education (kindergarten), almost all primary and secondary school-age children attending school, and over 80% of 15-17 year olds pursuing post-secondary education.

Despite access, educational challenges persist, with low attainment in reading, mathematics, and social skills. While Early School Leaving (ESL) and Not in Education, Employment, or Training (NEET) rates decreased, mitigating these challenges remains a struggle.

The urban environment and its effects

Over 30% of children in Malta live in households which are affected by noise.

A small minority of children experience severe housing deprivation, registering at 1.5% in 2020, in stark contrast to the EU’s 6.7%. The disparity in the physical home environment is notable among households with low socio-economic status, constituting 19.6% (16,300) in 2021.

Children originating from these socio-economic backgrounds are more susceptible to encountering imbalances, including poor-quality home settings (2.2% in 2020), characterised by issues like overcrowding, poorly maintained structures, and incidents of crime, violence, or vandalism in the vicinity. This contrasts with their counterparts from higher socio-economic backgrounds, where the corresponding figure was 1.3% in 2020.

During 2020, the proportion of Maltese households with children reporting instances of crime, violence, or vandalism in their locality stood at 10.7%, mirroring the EU’s average of 11%. Households with children residing below the poverty line documented a higher incidence of such issues, registering at 12.8% in Malta in contrast to the EU’s 15.2% in the same year.

Our children spend a lot of time staring at screens

Children in Malta allocate a significant portion of their time to TV, social media, and electronic games (71%-74%), surpassing the time dedicated to outdoor play, sports, or physical exercise (61%-62%). Less than half of the children engage in daily exercise, and a quarter fail to meet the recommended weekly physical activity levels, participating in sports less than once a week or never.

In addition to these activities, children frequently contribute to family care responsibilities (61%) and household chores (58%). Attendance at religious places or services is also a common engagement (40%).

It’s your chance to have a say

All this data is presented in the initial draft of the Children’s Policy Framework 2024-2030 that outlines the Government’s plan to ensure that the State serves and protects children in Malta and Gozo by improving their quality of life and dedicating the necessary resources for them to succeed.

The Children’s Policy Framework delineates four key priorities to ensure the well-being, development, and active participation of children.

Priority 1 centres on the comprehensive improvement of children’s well-being, addressing facets like health, education, social connections, and safety.

Priority 2 shifts the focus to families with children.

Priority 3 underscores the importance of creating safe and healthy physical and digital settings for children.

Priority 4 emphasises strengthening child participation, recognising children as possessors of valuable knowledge about their needs and concerns.

Those with relevant matters concerning children are encouraged to share their insights and opinions on the Children’s Policy Framework 2024-2030 by 21st December 2023. Feedback can be submitted through the following channels:

– Electronic submissions: Send to [email protected]

– Postal submissions: Address to The Director General, Strategy and Implementation Division, Policy Development and International Affairs Directorate, Ministry for Social Policy and Children’s Rights, Palazzo Ferreria, 310, Republic Street, Valletta.

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