By Elizabeth Willmott-Harrop
Thursday, 2 September 2010
Female child abusers are the 21st century equivalent of lesbians in the
Victorian age: not legislated against because they do not exist. The nature
of woman being incapable of "deviancy", as the bigoted Victorians said.
Hence in New Zealand, the Accident Compensation Corporation was unable to
accept claims from boys sexually abused by women, until the law changed in
2005. Prior to that the perpetrator of "sexual indecency" had to be male.
However, statistics indicate that female child abusers not only exist, but
in numbers approaching those of males. In New Zealand, 48 per cent of child
abusers for 2006, where the perpetrator gender was known, were women. In the
USA in 2002 63 per cent of all child abuse, from neglect to sexual abuse,
was perpetrated by the mother. In 40 per cent of cases the mother acted
The UK's Lucy Faithfull Foundation estimates women are responsible for 10
per cent of all child sexual abuse and that 5-20 per cent of pedophiles are
women. Meanwhile in New Zealand, 40 per cent of the 1,200 men helped by the
Christchurch-based Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse Trust (MSSAT) in 2010,
were sexually abused by women when they were boys.
Ken Clearwater, founder of MSSAT comments: "We live in a culture in which
men aren't allowed to be victims and women aren't allowed to be anything
other than nurturing. So abuse suffered as a boy at the hands of an adult
female can be the hardest abuse of all to come to terms with, let alone to
speak out about."
Numerous studies show very young children are at increased risk of abuse.
According to the New Zealand Families Commission, in 2006, children under
five-years-old made up 49 per cent of all children aged 0-16 years found to
have been neglected, 48 per cent of those emotionally abused, and 23 per
cent of those physically abused. Infants aged under one-year account for
two-thirds of childhood deaths each year and three-quarters of all child
deaths in New Zealand 2002-2006 were of children under five.
As the primary caregivers of young children, the New Zealand Ministry of
Justice observes that "Mothers do most of the constant and demanding care of
pre-schoolers, so it should be no surprise that much of the reported
physical and emotional abuse of pre-schoolers is done by mothers".
Culture of silence
However, as a taboo subject, both female perpetrators and their victims are
unlikely to speak out, with women unwilling to ask for help in a society
which brands them as evil aberrations.
A 2005 study by the New Zealand Department of Corrections says that violent
and sexual offending by women "has been avoided or neglected because it
challenges fundamental beliefs about women as nurturers, protectors and as
victims of violence".
Former New Zealand MP, Marc Alexander, a campaigner for victim's rights and
a published author on the criminal justice system, has been criticised when
speaking out about female abusers: "Often when I've talked about this issue
in the past I get accused of women-bashing or deflecting from the vast
majority of child abuse cases which are perpetrated by men."
However, Clearwater notes that there has been a significant shift since
MSSAT started in 1995. Clearwater comments: "Abuse at the hands of a woman
is not the dirty little secret it used to be. I can now sit in a room of
women working for Rape Crisis and talk about male victims. I've also noticed
that the language has changed. Perpetrators as well as victims are now
referred to as he\she in new editions of books about sexual abuse, whereas
before there was always the assumption the perpetrator was male and the
Part of the reason politicians and society at large may be unwilling to
address the issue of female abusers, is their own culpability in the
problem. Women who abuse their children are ordinary women for whom factors
such as their own history as a victim of abuse, lack of social support
networks, poverty and poor educational opportunities have collided to create
a parent unable to live up to society's ideals of the all-nurturing, self
The late pediatrician Dr Robin Fancourt commented that "The stresses of
unemployment, a lack of income, the void of isolation and a lack of social
support can push any adult to abuse or neglect." Fancourt saw child neglect
as perpetrated by society as well as by individuals, when she said of the
increasing number of New Zealand children who are bought up in poverty
"these children are neglected through the many other disadvantages that are
imposed on this sector of society as a whole".
The 2010 report Learning from Tragedy concurs, commenting that "Prevention
of child maltreatment for the youngest children at risk will involve
addressing layers of disadvantage".
Female perpetrated abuse is often conducted in the context of an
affectionate and loving relationship which children dare not risk losing.
Studies into childhood sexual abuse have shown that young children have
difficulty recognising the inappropriateness of a request when it is made by
a "good" person, and research has shown that children can often feel loved,
wanted and cared for by the parents who are abusing them.
This makes it almost impossible for the child to assimilate what is
happening to them. As Alexander observes: "Improper sexual behavior by women
is grossly under-reported, partly because children are scared of saying
anything against the main nurturer in the home but also because it can so
easily be hidden in caring activities such as bathing, dressing or consoling
The conflict between loving and abusive, appropriate and inappropriate is
reflected in a 2005 study about maternal experiences of childhood of Pacific
Island mothers in New Zealand which concluded that "abusive and supportive
behaviours co-exist; physical abuse being recalled more strongly than
emotional abuse, and mothers seeming both more abusive and more supportive
Women who have intimate relationships with teenage boys often claim they
were in a loving partnership. The media glamorises its reporting with
headlines such as "Blonde, attractive, successful and having sex with
teens", further fueling a culture in which female perpetrated abuse is not
The fact remains that consensual exchanges, be they emotional or sexual,
between a child or young person and an adult are always abusive because the
perpetrator has a power imbalance with their victim.
Particularly challenging are subtle but pervasive forms of emotional abuse
within an otherwise loving relationship, such as using children as
confidants, or as Fancourt says, where behaviour conveys to the child that
they are "only acceptable in the context of meeting another's needs".
The child remains trapped in a netherworld, potentially only recognising
abuse decades later. Fancourt, in her report on neglect and psychological
abuse in childhood, makes the point well when she speaks of "the rare
ability of children to conceptualise, comprehend, or verbalise what is
happening due both to their developmental barriers and as a result of these
forms of maltreatment being the expected background of family life".
Victim as abuser
There is a heated debate about gender parity in family violence. Many
studies argue that male and female intimate partner violence is similar in
frequency and severity. This is countered by researchers who believe for
example that women's violence is exaggerated by bias and selective
Yet one American study of women's refuge clients showed that 90 per cent of
the women displayed aggressive behaviour toward their children. New Zealand
government agency Child Youth and Family (CYF) also reports that about half
of women who are physically abused by their partners also abuse their
children, illustrating a key point which is that you can be a victim of
violence and also a perpetrator of abuse.
Ruptured attachment between mother and baby, one cause of which is
Postpartum Depression (PPD), is implicated in child abuse. A 2010 study on
Pacific Islands families showed that being the victim of physical violence
more than doubles the risk of PPD.
These points emphasise the importance of seeing male and female perpetrators
and male and female victims, as a holistic problem. Furthermore, female
abusers often abuse with a male partner, again making the two genders
Women commit a small proportion of family homicides, yet the statistics
increase dramatically for child homicides. Learning from Tragedy, which
looked at family homicides in New Zealand for the period 2002-2006, found
that women were responsible for 7 per cent of homicides of "other family
members", 11 per cent of couple related homicides, but 40 per cent of child
Child homicides, and therefore female perpetrators, may be greatly
under-reported due to the way deaths are classified. One study noting for
example that given what is known from other countries about deaths resulting
from child neglect, the total number of child maltreatment deaths in New
Zealand may be much greater, saying "The malnourished baby suffering from
failure to thrive who develops pneumonia and dies from lack of medical
attention does not appear in homicide statistics".
The report says infanticide "is the most susceptible to misclassification as
a death by some other cause". It is estimated that 5-10 per cent of children
recorded as having died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) may have
been misdiagnosed incidents of neglect or abuse. This is especially
significant in light of the high prevalence of neglect by females, and New
Zealand's historically high SIDS rate.
Research shows that children of young mothers are particularly vulnerable.
CYF notes that "Compared to mothers aged over 25 years, mothers were 11
times more likely to kill their children if aged under 17 years."
Single mothers are also vulnerable to perpetrating child abuse. In the USA
in 2002, single mothers were the highest category of offender in child abuse
Young and single mothers share risk factors with child abuse perpetration,
such as economic hardship and being a victim of abuse. For example, a 1998
New Zealand Ministry of Health report notes that women who report being
sexually abused as a child "are more likely than non-abused women to become
pregnant before age 19".
For young mothers, 60 per cent of whom according to Australian research do
not have a male partner when their baby is born, these factors are
compounded by a body which is capable of bearing children without the
parallel mental and emotional maturity.
Anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy comments: "Settled living and plentiful
food have removed constraints on fertility that for tens of millions of
years protected anthropoid primates from giving birth at such young ages ...
Being fat enough to ovulate is no longer tied to having a supportive social
network who will help rear her child."
The fact is that poverty, lack of educational opportunities, a history of
childhood abuse, family violence and young and single motherhood are some of
the many risk factors which indicate a woman may abuse a child.
If we are serious about preventing child abuse, we need to be more open
about female perpetrators, so that victims and the women who abuse them can
be supported and acknowledged. And we need to take collective responsibility
for the social conditions which provide fertile ground for this hidden