UK Family Law Reform

Free information index

Gender and Child Maltreatment: The Evidence Base


The scientific approach to the study of ‘child abuse’ has continued both in parallel and largely separate from gendered analyses of the problem. It is as if the politics of a gender based approach is not the proper business of science: the facts should speak for themselves. The empirical evidence base now consists of several prevalence studies across the world on ‘child abuse and neglect’ (WHO 2000) which should be improving understanding and informing responses to the problem. This paper builds on existing feminist arguments that gender plays a significant role in child maltreatment. It proposes that the way in which gender is categorised in prevalence research is insufficient to enable policy and practice to mainstream gender as a key issue informing responses which otherwise continue to reinforce the gender divisions of the countries in which they are based (see for example, Scourfield 2003).

Whilst there are some gender based critiques of the evidence base that highlight the fact that statistics on child sexual abuse in particular show clear gender differences that cannot be ignored, there is less on other aspects of maltreatment. Findings that women physically assault their children in equal numbers to men are reviewed in the context that women spend more time caring for children (Straus, Hamby, Finkelhor, Moore and Runyan 1998; Pringle 1995; Featherstone 1997). These remain partial but not adequate explanations that do not address the meaning of violence. Within the evidence base, ‘violence’ is treated as a global category against which gender (another global category) is manipulated resulting in a somewhat flat analysis of both dimensions.

These interpretations fail to fully acknowledge the significance of gendered social relations and violence in their situated contexts, rather than ‘gender’ and ‘abuse’ as uni-dimensional variables of childhood violence. In addition, the dominant orthodox scientific paradigm and the responses it generates create social relations of difference between ‘victims’, ‘perpetrators’, ‘abusers’and ‘protectors’. In doing so a one sided interpretation of each of these categories is perpetuated that fails to offer appropriate help (see, for example, Milner 2004). There is, thus, a need to develop normatively accepted methods that adequately represent these social relations of violence in their situated contexts through the authority of scientific research.

Join us in campaigning for equality and justice.