Across most cultures and societies women are viewed as having the defined role as nurturing caregivers for children. The idea of women as violence perpetrators is so counter to the expected norms in society that social scientists have done little research in the area. The last decade has seen a focused attempt by both state and federal governments to gather statistics on violence toward children. Thus the figures are showing that in fact women are perpetrators of violence in substantial numbers. Concrete research into understanding who these women are and how to help them is just beginning to emerge.
Violence against Children
Child violence is most often described in terms of child abuse. Child abuse is further delineated into physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional/psychological abuse, and neglect. Violence against children is most often associated with physical abuse or with sexual abuse. Extreme neglect may also be viewed as a benign form of violence, especially if it results in a child death. Gender information on the identified perpetrator is not always collected, making it difficult to gather an accurate picture. Furthermore, children who are victims of female-perpetrated violence tend not to disclose to the degree they would if the perpetrator was male. This is especially true for male victims of female-perpetrated sexual abuse.
Physical abuse of children is most often defined as a nonaccidental injury to a child. Such an injury usually results in bruising or physical impairment. Physical abuse can include kicking, biting, burning, or physically striking a child. U.S. data on child abuse for 2005 show that approximately 17% (150,000) of substantiated reports of child abuse were identified as physical abuse. Of these, 40% (60,000) had the child’s mother identified as the sole perpetrator. The incidence of women’s involvement in physical violence rises to close to 70% when one adds all occurrences involving other female perpetrators who acted alone or with others.
Sexual abuse perpetrated by women has been a little understood phenomenon as well as scantily researched. Studies in the 1990s reported estimates of women perpetrators to be from as low as 5% of all known child sex abuse cases to as high as 60%. Several well-regarded researchers in the late 1990s confirmed that the actual numbers were close to 25% of all sex abuse cases of children, irrespective of child gender. The U.S. data from 2005 show that of all child abuse types, 9.3% (84,000) were identified as sex abuse. If current research holds on the numbers of female perpetrators, then in 2005 there were approximately 21,000 occurrences of sexual abuse of children committed by women.
Other Forms Of Violence
Besides physical and sexual abuse, children are exposed to situations of profound neglect leading to mortality as well as other rare forms of perverse parenting. Of the 1,371 deaths of children reported through child welfare agencies in the United States in 2005, 72% of the deaths were caused by some form of neglect. Approximately 58% of the perpetrators were women, and of these 45% were under the age of 30. A rare form of mental illness called Munchausen syndrome by proxy also may cause serious harm, if not death, to children. This disorder is characterized by a deliberate attempt to make a child ill or a repeated attempt to fabricate a child’s having a serious illness. In most cases the mother has been identified as the primary perpetrator.
Causes of Female-Perpetrated Violence against Children
Research is scarce on the causation of female perpetrated violence against children. Perhaps the statistics reflect the cultural norm of women as caregivers, and by default women and children end up spending most of their time together. Furthermore, child violence statistics tend to reflect that responsibility for the violence belongs to primary caregivers. Studies that have examined this cohort of violent women have come up with the following findings:
- Many women who perpetrate violence on children have come from a violent childhood themselves. They may believe that violence toward children is appropriate.
- These women tend to be under 30 years of age.
- In most cases of sole female violence, the women were single parents. This may attest to the added stress of child-rearing responsibilities not being shared.
- Substance abuse and mental health issues are common among these women.
In cases of sexual abuse, women’s profiles are similar to their profiles in other forms of violence, with these added exceptions:
- Women sexual perpetrators rarely coerce their victims. This is probably due to the fact they are often in a very trusting position with the child victim.
- Compared to men, women start sexual abuse much older, usually in adulthood.
- Women tend to use fewer threats to silence their victims. They also rarely deny their actions when confronted.
In cases of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, the perpetrators have an unusual need for attention that they express through having an “ill” child or a child with special needs. The attention they receive from the medical professionals is more important to them than the needs of their child. These perpetrators become even more dangerous if they realize that someone suspects them of acting deliberately. They tend to have a vast health care knowledge and change medical providers often so as to avoid detection.
Though it is difficult to generalize the profiles of women who perpetrate violence on children, it is beginning to be understood that overall these women use violence to satisfy a need for power and control through their actions against children.
Social Issues with Women as Violent Perpetrators
As stated at the beginning of this essay, most societies find it very difficult to label women as violent perpetrators of children—especially in the area of sexual abuse, where the abuse is often defined as penile penetration. A woman is rarely labeled as a perpetrator in rape. This speaks more to the society’s definition of rape than the woman’s role as the person responsible for the sexual assault. In a recent study of females convicted of sexual abuse, over 50% of them stated they derived sadistic pleasure from inflicting pain on their victims. Nonetheless, in this society women are consistently seen as victims of violence not perpetrators.
Victims of female violence have a more difficult time disclosing their abuse. A survey of 127 known victims of sexual assault by females found that 86% of them were not believed at their first disclosure. Very young children who have been physically abused are unable to be verbal about their perpetrator. It is left up to investigators to re-create the child’s recent past, and in most cases there is a bias to examine exposure to males. Another issue for victims is that professionals do not expect abuse from women, thus the victims tend to have longer exposure to the abuse, feel more victimized and powerless, and feel betrayed by those in their lives who are supposed to protect them.
The criminal and judicial systems tend to have a bias in favor of females accused of perpetrating violence. Studies show that women who are convicted of violence toward children are given more lenient sentencing than male perpetrators. The rules of evidence in sexual assault are difficult to follow since female sexually perpetrated abuse may not leave concrete DNA samples.
Violence by women against children is starting to be uncovered, and the incidence might be much larger than previously thought. Intervention techniques for these violent women will be different from those currently utilized for men. Furthermore, victims of female abuse have unique experiences that require sensitive practitioners.
- Boroughs, D. S. (2004). Female sexual abusers of children.
- Children and Youth Services Review, 26, 481–487. Finkelhor, D., & Russell, D. (1984). Women as perpetrators.
- In D. Finkelhor (Ed.), Child sexual abuse: New theory and research (pp. 171–187). New York: Free Press
- Lasher, L. J. (2004). Munchausen by proxy: MBP basics. Retrieved December 16, 2006, from http://www.mbpexpert.com/definition.html
- Trickett, P., & Schellenbach, C. (1998). Violence against children in the family and community. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
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