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She-wolves in sheeps' clothing

By Elizabeth Willmott Harrop - posted 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 alone.

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.

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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.”

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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 victim female.”

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 sacrificing mother.

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”.

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About the Author

Elizabeth Willmott Harrop is a freelance writer. She is based in Christchurch, New Zealand, and has a Masters Degree in Human Rights and Social Change.

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