New feature: Gender and sentencing

// 18 November 2009

Are the scales of justice in alignment? Rachel Thwaites looks at how women and men are so often treated differently by the system if they commit violent crimes

scales of justiceWhen discussing a recent high profile child abuse case on The Ten O’Clock News on the BBC, anchor George Alagiah asked if it was more shocking and more “disgusting” because women were involved in the abuse of these children. The reporter covering the case agreed, stating that there are more women involved in abusing children than the public might think: 25% of cases, he informed us. This small discussion struck me immediately. Gendered preconceptions were shifting the focus of the report away from the crime itself to the gender of those involved and saying a lot about society’s deep-rooted beliefs about appropriate gendered behaviour for women and men. In cases of violence of any kind (I’m using ‘violence’ in its broadest sense to mean all forms of physical, mental and emotional abuse) the issue of gender can play a large role in the court process and media reporting of the case. The law should be genderless, but once faced with the decidedly human situation of the courtroom, ideas about gender roles begin to impact on juries, the media, public reaction and the very sentences dolled out.

We have a belief within our society that women care. I mean ‘care’ in two senses: caring for other people and caring about other people. Parenting or caring for elderly or other dependent relatives within the home, or the paid work of nurse, social worker or teacher is all seen as ‘women’s work’. The archetypal woman should be predisposed to care, her ‘natural’ femininity making her willing to work hard to nurture and protect those around her and, importantly, prevent her from being able to harm anyone, particularly children. If a woman does act to harm another person she has transgressed the natural order and will be judged accordingly as something less than a ‘normal’, ‘proper’ woman.

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