The Malta Independent 18 March 2019, Monday

When 26.5% of women experience violence

Andrew Azzopardi Wednesday, 20 June 2018, 08:04 Last update: about 10 months ago

Dr Clarissa Sammut Scerri is a warranted Counselling psychologist, a registered Family therapist, and a Systemic supervisor. She is currently the Head of the Department of Family Studies (Faculty for Social Wellbeing) at the University of Malta.  With the recent developments in the legislative sector I thought it would be opportune to catch up with Dr Sammut Scerri. 



Incidents of domestic violence assaults are regularly reported in the Media. How common is this problem in Malta?


According to the Istanbul Convention which has now become law in our country, domestic violence is defined as, ”all acts of physical, sexual, psychological or economic violence that occur within the family or domestic unit or between former or current spouses or partners, whether or not the perpetrator shares or has shared the same residence with the victim”. Although physical abuse is perhaps the easiest to observe, other behaviours such as using coercion and threats, isolating the partner, withholding money and insulting and blaming are all forms of abuse that can be equally damaging to the mental health of a person and child. In Malta, a local prevalence study conducted by the Commission on Domestic violence (2011) has shown that 26.5% of ever-partner women have experienced one or more acts of physical, emotional or sexual violence by a current or former partner at some point in their lives. This is a considerable number taking into account the local population of women on the Island.


How do these statistics compare with other European countries?


According to a European-wide survey by the European Union agency for Fundamental Rights, (F.R.A, 2014) 1 in 5 (22%) women in the EU 28 have experienced physical and/sexual intimate partner violence by a current or former partner since the age of 15 years. In comparison, the F.R.A. survey found that less Maltese women (15%) have experienced physical and/or sexual violence since the age of 15yrs. Although the percentage of women is less, as mentioned in the previous question, the numbers are       still concerning. Moreover, we also know that on a European level, 73% of women who are victims of violent incidents by their previous or current partner indicated that children living with them were aware of the violence.


What does research say about how children are affected by witnessing domestic violence between their parents?


Children’s exposure to parental domestic abuse has long been associated with a wide range of psychological, emotional, behavioural, social and academic problems (Margolin & Gordis, 2000; Levendosky & Graham- Bermann, 2011), both in the short term but also in the longer term when these children become adults (Sammut Scerri, 2015).  As stated by the adult children themselves, living with irreconcilable contradictions of love and abuse with family relationships and trying to make sense of these experiences is a never-ending process.  All these themes are discussed in detail in our book “Intervening after violence – Therapy for couples and families“ (Sammut Scerri, Vetere, Abela & Cooper, 2017), where we focus on helping couples and families after the violence has stopped, when family members face the legacy of violence, trauma, healing and repair of relationships.


What is the long-term risk of having witnessed domestic violence in one’s family? 


The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s) study by Felitti, Anda and colleagues, (1998) has accumulated evidence that persons who have experienced childhood trauma (such as witnessing violence on one’s mother) were more likely to have multiple physical and mental health risk factors later in life such as ischemic heart diseases, liver disease, mental illness, obesity, alcoholism, drug addiction and early death. The higher the breadth of the childhood exposure, the higher the risk. At the same time, these risk factors can be attenuated by protective factors. Adult women of childhood domestic violence have mentioned how much they have been supported by trusted significant others such as a grandmother, or a teacher who has given them his or her attention; how they have appreciated the support of their social worker and or their psychologist and how sometimes, investing in sports and in school has also helped them cope and be resilient (Sammut Scerri, 2015).


Do we have an indication of how many Maltese children are living in families where there is domestic violence?


Unfortunately to date, no prevalence study has been conducted on Maltese children witnessing domestic violence in their homes. It is imperative that we have this data so that policy decisions such as provision of services, can be done based on this evidence. Not investing in early intervention to reduce the impact of adverse childhood experiences such as domestic violence has enormous public health cost issues. In the US, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has estimated that the economic toll associated with child maltreatment is around $585 billion across the lifetime (Fang, Brown, Florence & Mercy, 2012).


What are some of the barriers that come into the way of people seeking help?


The reasons why people do not seek help are varied. According to the research by Naudi, Clark & Saliba (2018), Maltese women victims of gender-based violence feel ashamed to seek help. They may be afraid of reprisals from their abuser and feel responsible for keeping the family together and for protecting their children’s relationship to their father. They are concerned about their economic dependence, on the partner, on their employment difficulties and unaffordable rent conditions. The children too may feel terrified of their abuser but also angry. At the same time, they may feel loyal to their abuser especially if he is their parent and they don’t want to be seen as the ones to break the family. If men, as abusers, want to seek help, they too may feel very ashamed to do so and may minimise their actions or blame their partner or their stress for having been violent. It may take a court judgement or their wives’ threat to leave the marriage for them to seek help. Men may feel emasculated if they seek help for being abused and prefer to deal with their problems on their own.


What are the services available for women, children and men living in families where there is domestic violence?


There are a number of state-run, church-run, and non-governmental organisations that offer services in this area. The Foundation for Social Welfare Services through Appogg offers a specialised social work unit (Domestic violence unit (DVU)) that deals with victims of abuse and their children. The Managing Abusive Behaviour Unit within the DVU offers support and a group programme to men interested in stopping their abusive behaviour. The service also deals with cases referred for child to parent violence. The Family Therapy Team and the Psychological Service team also offers psychological therapy to victims, abusers and their children.  There are also three women shelters in Malta and a generic homeless shelter in Gozo which accepts survivors of domestic violence. Other services include a 24-hour telephone helpline (Supportline, 179), SOAR – a survivor- led service which offers supports, and advocacy and Victim support Malta which support victims of crime including domestic violence.


In what way is the Department of Family Studies involved in this area of study?


The Department is involved in teaching, researching and providing consultation. It also offers two Master part-time programmes. The Master in Family Studies is for those interested in learning about contemporary family issues, and in working in the area of family research and policy and will be offered in October 2019. On the other hand, the Master in Family Therapy and Systemic Practice will start this coming October and is for those graduates who would like to be trained as family therapists, a 4-year part time course and trains people to become family therapists.  The course lecturers on both Master courses are all highly experienced lectures and family practitioners. The course also enjoys input from international scholars of high repute.  Our Family therapy graduates are trained to work with couples, families and individuals in a therapeutic context and they will also be eligible to apply for a professional warrant. The Department also accepts students who want to pursue their studies at PhD level.


For more information, contact: [email protected]


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