More than half of young people who participated in a University of Malta survey said they witnessed some form of domestic abuse as children.

The research published by the Commission for Gender-based Violence and Domestic Violence found that 52% of respondents aged 18 to 24 said they had seen specific forms of abuse in the household when they were younger.

Some 43 per cent of those who witnessed abuse said they saw one of their parents or guardians break or ruin something belonging to the other parent, punch the wall or throw something during an argument.

Just over a fifth of respondents said they saw one of their parents or guardians get pushed, slapped, hit, punched or beaten up by another parent or their partner and another 20 per cent witnessed one of their parents or guardians threaten to hurt the other parent and it appeared they were in real danger.

We surely need to be asking ourselves what is happening to our boys and girls that is causing these results.- Clarissa Sammut Scerri

More than half of those who witnessed domestic abuse said their father was the main perpetrator. Nine per cent said it was their mother and another 26 per cent refused to identify the perpetrator.

“We surely need to be asking ourselves what is happening to our boys and girls that is causing these results,” said lead researcher Clarissa Sammut Scerri.

The survey, which polled 433 young people through an international standardised questionnaire distributed on social media channels last year, was carried out by Sammut Scerri and three other researchers at the Department of Child and Family studies at the University of Malta.

“We chose 18- to 24-year-olds because they have just turned adults but are also close enough to childhood to remember what they saw,” she said.

“Also, international research suggests that at that age they are most likely to open up about adverse experiences.”

Breaking up physical fights

The survey also explored how children reacted when they saw emotional and physical violence at home – and, crucially, whether they sought help.

“Slightly more than half of the respondents (56.4%) yelled at their parents to stop during an argument, 36% got physically involved to stop their parents when they witnessed physical violence and half of the respondents (50.7%) tried to get away by hiding or leaving the house,” the study’s authors said.

“Unfortunately, most of the respondents (79.1%) did not call someone for help to stop the violence. Only 16% of the respondents called someone for help.”

The study found that almost a fifth of respondents who witnessed domestic abuse “felt distressed to the point that they missed some days of school or were unable to complete their homework”. They were mostly respondents who witnessed physical or emotional and psychological violence between their parents or guardians.

Women most badly affected

Sammut Scerri said the study is the first of its kind for Malta and the figures tally with the results of similar studies carried out internationally. But what is most concerning, she said, is that women in Malta are by far the most badly affected.

The study found significantly more young women reported being witnesses of domestic abuse than young men.

“The study revealed that being a woman carried a higher risk factor across all forms of abuse,” Sammut Scerri said.

“One reason to explain this result could be that men and women interpret domestic violence and abuse differently.”

Mental health

The study also revealed that a third of the respondents who witnessed abuse believed that their parents suffered from mental health issues but almost as many other respondents said they were not sure if this was the case.

Fourteen per cent of respondents said their parents suffered from an alcohol addiction and five per cent indicated that their parents had a drug addiction.

Six out of every 10 respondents reported experiences of child maltreatment – defined as some sort of physical or emotional abuse and neglect. Child maltreatment was significantly related to witnessing family violence, the researchers said.

The most frequent form of maltreatment was psychological and emotional abuse by their parent or caregiver, followed by physical abuse and then neglect.

More than a fifth of respondents reported being neglected  and neglect was also significantly related to witnessing family violence and child maltreatment, the researchers concluded.

“89.6% of the respondents suffered at least one form of victimisation, 70.2% suffered from two or more forms of abuse and 12.5% suffered from five forms of abuse,” the study said.

The study – named ‘Safety in childhood – A prevalence study of childhood experiences of abuse’ – wanted to specifically analyse the prevalence of abuse effects on children.

“We often hear about adults being victims of domestic abuse  but we need to focus our attention on children as victims as well. These figures should make us reflect about the way we are taught to experience anger and what we are exposing children to when we fight,” Sammut Scerri said.

“Before this study, we had no direct prevalence rates of how many children are exposed to intimate partner violence and to other forms of abuse.”


The results were announced at a conference organised by Parliamentary Secretary for Equality and Reforms Rebecca Buttigieg earlier this week.

She said the study and its recommendations will be used to assist MPs and policymakers to draft further laws and regulations to protect children.

Parliamentary Secretary for Equality and Reforms Rebecca Buttigieg.

The researchers recommended that government entities and NGOs collaborate more when it comes to social welfare services, education, court and mental health and that the Commission against Domestic Violence focuses on children witnessing domestic abuse.

They also called for a more holistic education where teachers focus on social emotional skills, problem solving, gender stereotypes and relationship skills.

They also suggested early interventions when educators notice that children are missing school, are unable to do their homework, are anxious or depressed or are being aggressive with peers and teachers.

Educators and frontliners must be supported by more training as well.

The government must also continue to strengthen the Directorate for Child Protection Services, its domestic violence services, home-based family services, family therapy and psychological services.

Researchers Ingrid Grech Lanfranco, Lara Pace and Maria Borg also carried out the study together with Sammut Scerri.

It comes as data published by the National Statistics Office (NSO) on Tuesday revealed that 2021 saw a substantial rise in domestic violence reports and the police have also reported an increase in calls for help.

Domestic violence cases have taken on a sharper focus since the murder of mother-of-two Bernice Cassar in November. Her husband has been charged with the murder and he denies the charges.

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