Angela Abela’s review of families in the tiny island of Malta provides a fascinating case study of a country reconciling traditional beliefs and gender roles with the demands and expectations of a more liberal, modern western culture, for better and for worse.
Malta shares the distinction of being one of the only two countries in the world that prohibit divorce, the other being the Philippines. Yet the prevalence of divorce (conducted overseas) is low by western standards and marital conflict is also low. Distressed couples comprise an estimated 20% of married couples in Malta (including separated couples) compared to 32% of married couples in the US.
However a generation gap is fast emerging where teenagers and young couples engage in behaviours that no longer reflect their own values and expectations. Underage drinking, unsupervised internet use and pornography are all commonplace amongst Maltese teenagers. Contraceptive use is the lowest in international literature, according to one researcher. As a result, the rate of births outside marriage has doubled in recent years from 13% in 2001 to 25% now, almost one third of which to teenage mothers.
Young couples also report a clash of expectations about gender roles. Young fathers report difficulty in adjusting to their new role. Young mothers not only report difficulty in adjusting to the role expected of them but also disappointment in their marriage.
Although access to pre-marriage education and parenting classes is widespread, courses are not necessarily meeting the needs of young couples. However their prevalence provides ample opportunity to evaluate how relationship education can be more effective and relevant than it appears now. Abela concludes that Malta also needs to set these programmes within the broader context of a more substantial family policy.