Growing number of Czech children have to cope with the trauma of divorce

Over the past 15 years the number of divorces in the Czech Republic has increased by a third. The Statistics Office predicts that this year the Czech Republic's divorce rate should climb to a staggering 50 percent. The vast majority of marriages that break up, do so between their third and sixth year - usually at a time when small children are involved. Socially, the stigma of divorce is long gone but for the children caught up in it, the pain and confusion is as strong as ever.

Every fourth child in the Czech Republic comes from a divorced family. The vast majority of them live with their mothers, because in 90 percent of cases it is the mother who is awarded custody. Dr. Alena Cerna works at a family counselling clinic. She says that there are two main reasons why this is so - social stereotypes and economic pressure:

"Partly this is due to social stereotypes which say that the mother should take care of the children and the father should be the bread-winner. But the truth is that a father who would like to take care of two small children would have very little possibility of finding an appropriate job and making a living. Economical factors play a big role. But it is not just that. It is the whole arrangement of the society where it is expected that the mother will keep the kids."

As a result, half a million children in the Czech Republic only get to see their father a few hours a week - if that. There is no conceivable reason why fathers should not ask to get custody of their children, or agree on joint custody with the children's mother. However few of them are in a situation where they are able to provide full-time care. Although the concept of paternity leave is slowly catching on - employers do not have much patience with the demands placed on working single fathers. And while children over 10 are increasingly consulted about whom they wish to be with, these practicalities often limit the space for manoeuvre and the final court settlement. Dr. Cerna says that in such cases the best kids can hope for is an amicable divorce - where the divorced parents can spend time together or at least agree on an optimal holiday schedule.

"From the children's point of view it is ideal that they do not lose contact with either parent. I would be glad if I could say that joint custody is the best solution but it also has its problems. If the children are spending alternately one week here and the next somewhere else then you could say that they have no real home. For a child a home is not just their parents it is the whole place - their toys, their friends, the house - which give them a feeling of stability and safety."

A survey conducted among children aged 11 to 15 suggests that although they are unhappy about their parents divorcing, they see no reason why they should stay in a dysfunctional marriage. Although many of the answers appeared to be exceptionally mature, Dr. Cerna says that deep down the pain and uncertainty remains - to surface when they themselves enter into a serious relationship. So is the Czech Republic caught in a vicious circle - where parents pre-determine their children's future happiness or unhappiness in married life? Dr. Cerna again:

"I always ask people / who are getting divorce counselling/ whether they are from a family where the parents divorced and very often it is so. Of course, some divorcees grew up in families which were complete and happy so there is no rule to say that such a child's future is pre-determined. But I would say that children from divorced families have a more difficult start in life."