'Grave disservice' to parents & children if MSF study makes divorces harder to get: AWARE

The NGO said that Singapore must be careful about the policy implications drawn from the study.

Jane Zhang | December 11, 2020, 01:26 PM

[UPDATED on Sunday, Dec. 13 at 11:52am: Added a statement from an MSF spokesperson.]

On Dec. 8, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) published the findings of the first study in Singapore to look into the long-term impact of divorce on children.

The study found that children of divorcees face a long-term "divorce penalty" at the age of 35, when compared to their peers whose parents remained married, in terms of their average likelihood to attain a university degree, average earnings and CPF balances, as well as their likelihood to marry and remain married.

On Friday (Oct. 11), local non-profit organisation Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) responded to the study, questioning its methods and cautioning against making it more difficult for couples to divorce on the basis of the study.

AWARE's concerns about the study

In a Facebook post on Friday (Dec. 11), AWARE said that while they applaud MSF for conducting the study, it was "concerned" that the study’s methodology "masks important subtleties in factors such as the strength of family ties, income, and others".

"As the study stands, it makes a claim of strong correlation between divorce and the seemingly negative outcomes for children, without considering other factors that may undermine this claim," the statement said.

MSF had originally acknowledged that the results of the study "might not strictly inform us of the causal impact of divorce," but said that "they provide an indicative sense of children’s long-term outcomes associated with parental divorce."

Doesn't control for strength or quality of family ties

MSF's study controlled for demographic variables using a "matching approach", and matched children from divorced and intact families based on a range of demographic characteristics.

These included characteristics like their gender, year of birth, and parents’ age and highest qualifications attained at the point of marriage, MSF said.

This meant that the children being compared were of similar profiles, apart from their parents' marital status.

However, it did not control for the strength or quality of family ties, said AWARE.

In order to isolate the effects of divorce on children, AWARE proposed that the children of divorced parents should be compared to children of parents who faced similar issues, but chose not to get divorced — or, in its words, "children of unhappy but intact families".

Doesn't control for income status and household stability

AWARE also pointed out that that the study did not control for the income status of parents, and whether the children had a stable housing environment in their childhood, saying that research has shown that parental income is positively associated with almost all dimensions of a child’s well-being.

The NGO also added pointed to housing policies that disadvantaged single parents until recently.

Until March 2020, single unwed parents could only buy Housing Development Board (HDB) flats if they were 35 years and above.

"The instability associated with moving from house to house, as many single parent families are forced to do, may influence a child’s educational attainment," wrote AWARE.

AWARE also pointed out the difficulty of creating a stable family life for migrant mothers and spouses, who need to leave the country regularly in order to renew their visas.

MSF had said in their study that there could also be "unobservable attributes", such as the family environment, which could have affected the children's outcomes as well as the likelihood that their parents would divorce.

Be careful about policy implications

AWARE closed its statement by saying that Singapore must be careful about the policy implications that are drawn from the study.

"We would do grave disservice to both parents and children if on the basis of this study we made getting divorces harder," the AWARE wrote, highlighting that marriages break down for many different reasons, which sometimes include abuse.

"Making it difficult for parents to separate in order to secure more positive outcomes for children is unlikely to benefit either parents or children.

If we are concerned for children’s well-being, we need to comprehensively determine which factors contribute to children’s welfare more than others."

MSF had said that a better understanding of the "divorce penalty" faced by children could help to shape interventions for children when couples file for divorce, stressing the importance of intervention to mitigate the effects.

The ministry listed out intervention techniques such as "upstream intervention" — encouraging soon-to-wed couples to attend marriage preparation programmes — and helping children adjust through Divorce Support Specialist Agencies (DSSAs).

You can read AWARE's full statement here:

Responding to Mothership's queries, an MSF spokesperson said:

"Divorce is an emotional and sensitive topic. As there are international studies that show the presence of a “divorce penalty”, the MSF study is pertinent given the rising divorce rates in Singapore.

The MSF study showed the long-term outcomes on average for children whose parents were divorced in terms of their educational attainment, economic and marriage outcomes. The study matched children from divorced families with children from intact families on a range of observable demographic characteristics to ensure that we are comparing families of similar profiles.

The study did not examine what caused the observed differences in child outcomes. This means that the child outcomes could be related to circumstances before, during or after the divorce.

The study reported child outcomes on average. This means that while, on average, children whose parents were divorced fared worse, there were some who did as well or better than their peers from intact families. Hence, MSF intends to study the matter further to better understand the risk and protective factors that impact child outcomes. We will consult social workers, family counsellors, lawyers, the Courts and families who have undergone divorce.

MSF hopes to save as many marriages as possible, but we recognise that some couples may still decide that divorce is their best option. We are working with the social sector to strengthen marital counselling as well as divorce support. We hope to rally the community to provide a scaffold of love and care, especially for the children."

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Top photo via AWARE website and Zoriana Stakhniv on Unsplash.