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Child Abuse in Sweden

by Joan E. Durrant, Ph.D.

For a number of years, various media have carried reports stating that child abuse has increased in Sweden since the passage of the 1979 corporal punishment ban. This statement, which was recently given new life in the Canadian Charter Challenge to Section 43 of the Criminal Code, is completely erroneous. All available evidence indicates that Sweden has been extremely successful in reducing rates of child physical abuse over the past few decades and that reduction has been maintained since the passage of the corporal punishment ban. The purpose of this brief report is to disseminate accurate information on this issue.

1. Reporting Rates vs. Rates of Actual Abuse

The claim that child abuse has increased in Sweden is primarily based on misinterpretation of assault report statistics. It is the case that reporting of child physical assault has increased in Sweden since the 1970s - as it has in every nation that has raised awareness of the issue of child abuse. Reporting rates are by no means equivalent to rates of actual abuse. They are sharp reflections of, and strongly tied to shifts in public awareness.

For example, in the early 1960s, it was estimated that about 300 children were being maltreated in the U.S. By 1990, the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect had officially recorded 2.4 million reported cases. By 1993, they had recorded almost 3 million cases. It is highly unlikely that actual child maltreatment increased by a factor of 10,000 in that period. It is also highly unlikely that only 300 children were maltreated in the U.S. in the early 1960s.

It is a well-known fact that when mandatory reporting laws, public education campaigns, and other measures are implemented to increase awareness, reporting will increase. This is the goal of such measures. The Swedish reporting figures have been cited as if they are actual rates of abuse, which they are not.

The Swedish National Crime Prevention Council examined 434 cases of assaults on young children within the family that were reported to the police in 1990 (all cases) and 1997 (every other case). It was found that the proportion of cases involving serious injuries sustained by children in this age range had decreased substantially. The majority of reported assaults result in minor injuries or no injuries at all. On the basis of an extensive analysis of the data, the National Crime Prevention Council concluded that there has been an increase in the propensity to report cases of assault on young children, and that it is this increase that is responsible for most, if not all, of the rise in the number of such offenses reported to the police. (Nilsson, 2000, p. 68).

2. Prevalence of Child Physical Assault Across Time

Studies conducted at various points in time demonstrate that the prevalence, frequency and harshness of assaults against children have declined dramatically in Sweden over the last two generations. Substantial proportions of women who became mothers in the 1950s struck their children at least weekly (e.g., 55% of mothers of 4-year-old daughters; 20% of mothers of 8-year-old sons). (Stattin et al., 1995). Among 3- to 5-year-old children of that generation, implements were used by 13% of mothers (Stattin et al.,1995).

In contrast, 86% of youth who were born in the 1980s report never having been physically punished (Janson, 2001). Of those who were, the vast majority experienced it no more than once or twice in their childhoods (SCB, 1996). Virtually no children are hit with implements in Sweden today.

It is important to note that legislative reform began many decades ago in Sweden. The corporal punishment ban was the end, not the beginning, of legal changes in that country. Most notably, the provision excusing parents who caused minor injuries to their children through physical punishment was repealed from the Swedish Penal Code in 1957. The explicit ban on physical punishment was implemented 22 years later.

3. Child Abuse Fatalities

The incidence of homicides of children under the age of 5 can provide an estimate of child abuse mortality, as it is these children who are most vulnerable to fatal injury and the contribution of other forms of external violence is minimized among this age group. Between 1975 and 2000, the average annual number of homicides of children aged 0 to 4 in Sweden was 4. The average incidence between 1995 and 2000 (2.8) was lower than that between 1975 and 1980 (4.0) - despite population growth.

The World Health Organization (2002) provides homicide incidence figures for children aged 0 to 4 in Sweden (1996), Canada (1997) and the United States (1998).1 These figures are:

Sweden: 3; Canada: 24; United States: 723

(Canada's population is approximately 3 times larger than Sweden's. The U.S. population is approximately 20 times larger than Sweden's.)

Child homicides attributable specifically to physical abuse (excluding homicide-suicides, neonaticide and postnatal depression) are virtually non-existent in Sweden. Between 1976 and 2003 a total of 4 children died in Sweden as a result of physical abuse.

Summary

There is no evidence to support the claim that child abuse has increased in Sweden since corporal punishment was banned there in 1979. In fact, Sweden has maintained a very low rate of child abuse for more than 25 years.

Three Important Points

1. It is important to note that Sweden's law was intended to affirm children's rights; it was not expected to end all abuse of children for all time. North American assault laws have not eliminated assaults against adults, yet we recognize their importance in setting a standard of non-violence for the society, sending a clear message, and affording protection to those who have been harmed. This was the fundamental intent of Sweden's corporal punishment ban.

2. Legislative reform in Sweden began in 1928, when corporal punishment was forbidden in secondary schools. It was 1957 when the legal defense of reasonable correction was repealed from Sweden's Penal Code. The ban must be viewed within its historical context to be understood.

3. Since Sweden passed its ban on corporal punishment in 1979, 22 other nations have followed:

1979: Sweden; 1983: Finland; 1987: Norway; 1989: Austria; 1994: Cyprus; 1997: Denmark; 1998: Latvia; 1999: Croatia, Israel; 2000: Germany, Bulgaria; 2003: Iceland; 2004: Romania, Ukraine, Hungary; 2006: Greece; 2007: Chile, Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain, Uruguay, Venezuela

(In addition, the Supreme Courts of Italy and Nepal have ruled that corporal punishment is unlawful.) The purpose of these bans is to explicitly recognize children's rights to protection under the law - the same rights that adults take for granted.
 

1 Rates per population are not available for Sweden and Canada due to their low incidence. Incidence rates are presented here for the most recent years for which data were available in the WHO World Report on Violence and Health (2002).

References:

Nilsson, L. (2000). Barnmisshandel: En Kartläggning av Polisanmäld Misshandel av Små Barn. Brottsförebyggande rådet; Stockholm.
Janson, S. (2001). Barn och Misshandel. A Report to the Swedish Governmental Committee on Child Abuse and Related Issues. Statens Offentliga Utredningar; Stockholm.
SCB (1996). Spanking and Other Forms of Physical Punishment: Study of Adults and Middle School Students. Opinions, Experience, and Knowledge. Demografiska Rapporter, 1.2.
Stattin, H., Janson, H., Klackenberg-Larsson, I., & Magnusson, D. (1995). Corporal punishment in everyday life: An intergenerational perspective. (J. McCord, ed.) 315-347. Cambridge University Press; Cambridge.
World Health Organization (2002). World Report on Violence and Health. Geneva.

© Joan Durrant. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Joan E. Durrant, Ph.D., is a Child-Clinical Psychologist and Professor in the Department of Family Social Sciences at the University of Manitoba. She is an internationally recognized expert on the Swedish ban. Over the past decade, she has conducted extensive research on this law and has lived in Sweden for extended periods to gain a full understanding of its history, implementation and effects.

 
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