Towards an understanding of female family violence perpetrators: A study of women in prison

Marianne Bevan, Ella Lynch and Dr Bronwyn Morrison

Author biographies:
Marianne Bevan is a Research Adviser in the Department of Corrections Research and Analysis team. She started at Corrections in May 2014 and has completed a range of projects related to female offenders. Prior to working at Corrections, she conducted research and implemented projects on gender and security sector reform in Timor-Leste, Togo, Ghana and Liberia.

Ella Lynch is a Research Adviser in the Research and Analysis team. She joined Corrections in late 2015 as an intern. Ella has an honours degree in Criminology from Victoria University. Prior to joining the Department, Ella worked in a research role at Wellington Rape Crisis.

Bronwyn Morrison is a Principal Research Adviser in the Research and Analysis team. She has a PhD in Criminology from Keele University, UK. She worked in research roles for NZ Police, Department of Conservation, and the Ministry of Justice before joining Corrections in 2015.


A significant amount of research has been produced internationally, and in New Zealand, on family violence in the last three decades; however, comparatively little has been written about female perpetrators of family violence. It is generally acknowledged that women commit less violence and less serious violence against family members than men, although the frequency and severity of this violence is contested. Women are also more likely than men to be the victims of family violence; however, no doubt owing to the dominant focus on women as victims, there has been little research on women as perpetrators.

The current study aimed to make an initial contribution to this field. It examined administrative data held on all 45 women in prison for family violence offences in December 2015, including their demographic information and details on the nature of their offending. By virtue of being in prison, these women had typically committed serious family violence offences. Consequently, the findings underplay less serious family violence offending, and for this reason cannot be considered representative of all female family violence perpetration in New Zealand. For the purposes of this study, family violence was broadly conceptualised to include offences against family members, including current and ex-intimate partners, children, extended family and whänau and anything else flagged as a family violence offence by NZ Police at the time of initial charging.

No women were interviewed as part of this study and the information included has been based largely on the information presented in Provision of Advice to Court (PAC) reports and other administrative documents. While such documents are typically based on information provided by the women and/or their families they cannot be assumed to represent the women’s perspective. Notwithstanding these limitations, the current study provides a useful insight into women imprisoned for family violence. A review of New Zealand and international literature on female violence was completed alongside the data analysis to direct data extraction and contextualise the subsequent findings.

Women commit family violence but to what degree is contentious

Internationally, it is generally accepted that there has been an increase in the number of women prosecuted and convicted for domestic violence since the 1980s (Bair-Merritt et al., 2010; Byczek, 2012; Dasgupta, 2007; Howard-Bostic, 2011; Pimlott Kubiak et al., 2013). However, there is debate within the research literature about the quantity of violence women commit, and the extent to which actualviolence rather than simply the reporting of violence is increasing (Johnson, 2006; Lievore & Mayhew, 2007; Melton & Sillito, 2012).

A profile of women who commit family violence

Looking at the characteristics of women in prison for family violence the study revealed that:

Table 1:
Profile of female family violence perpetrators




Family violence offenders were a slightly older group (average age 32.7 years) than other female prisoners.


Māori women were over-represented. Although Māori women comprise 56% of the general prison population, they made up just under two thirds (65%) of women in prison for family violence.

Gang association

There were low numbers of identified gang-associated women, although information held electronically is likely to under-represent the true level of gang association among these women.

Dependent children

It was uncommon for women to have dependent children at the time of their offending.

Alcohol, drugs
& mental health

There was high prevalence of alcohol and drug issues, and mental health conditions. Over two-thirds (71%) of the women had a recorded alcohol or drug issue at the time of their offending* and half had a recorded, diagnosed mental health condition.**

Criminal history

Most women had criminal histories, but not typically for family violence. Around half (24) had previous convictions for violence, and just under half (21) had prior convictions for family violence offending. Few could be regarded primarily as “family violence offenders”, with their histories suggesting more versatile offence histories.

Family violence

There were high rates of past sexual and family violence victimisation among these women. Three quarters of the women had previously experienced some form of family violence or sexual violence victimisation.

Types and contexts of women’s family violence offending

Female family violence offenders commit serious violence

Not surprisingly, female family violence perpetrators in prison had often committed serious offences. Applying the standard Departmental seriousness measure, over three quarters of the women had committed offences deemed to be of moderate to high seriousness. At the more serious end, women were serving sentences for murder (2), attempts to murder (2), unlawful sexual connection with a spouse (1), injures with intent (4) and wounds with intent to cause grievous bodily harm (10).

In the moderate category, women had been convicted of contravening a Protection Order (6); assault (2); blackmail (1); burglary (1); ill-treatment/neglect child under 16 Years (1); and threatens to Kill/Do GBH (1). At the lower end of the spectrum, women were in prison for common assault (13) and wilful trespass (1)***

Chart 1:
Seriousness of family violence offences

It was not possible within the parameters of this study to assess whether women and men’s family violence is of similar severity. However, international and New Zealand research consistently shows that when women do use violence against their partner it is generally less severe compared to men’s use of violence against their female partners (Byczek, 2012; Dasgupta, 2007; Howard-Bostic, 2011; Storey & Strand, 2012; Lievore and Mayhew, 2007). Notwithstanding this general finding, it is also the case that women’s violence does on occasion involve severe injuries to victims (Stewart, Gabora & Allegri, 2014) and is occasionally lethal.

The victims of women’s family violence were predominately current or former partners

The victims of women’s offending were most commonly their current or former intimate partners. This occurred in 22 cases, which made up nearly half of the sample. Children were the next most common victim (eight cases); parents were the victim in five cases; then siblings, and others, including: flatmates, extended family, and current partners of the offender’s former partner. This aligns with international research, which has shown that the victims of women’s violence are most likely to be their current or former intimate partners (Belknap et al., 2012; Kruttschnitt, Gartner & Ferraro, 2001; Storey and Strand, 2012). In three cases the victim of the offence could not be identified from the file documents.

Family violence offenders committed different “types” of violence

International research has shown that family violence offenders commit different “types” of violence, and the motivation and context of their violence can be categorised into different typologies. Such typologies have been predominantly focused on classifying intimate partner violence (IPV). The current study applied Johnson’s intimate partner violence typology to the offences of those women serving sentences for IPV offences, a total of 16 cases (Johnson, 1995; 2006; 2008).

Table 2:
Johnson’s Typology

Type of Violence


Number of women
in the NZ sample

Situational couple violence or mutually violent combat

Situational couple violence and mutually violent combat involve both partners engaging in violence against each other.


Separation instigated violence

Separation violence occurs when violence is committed against an ex-partner after the relationship has ended.


Self-defence and
violent resistance

Violent resistance/self-defence occurs when a person uses violence against someone who has used controlling violence against them.This violence is often reactive and is not controlling in nature (Howard-Bostic, 2011).


Coercive controlling violence (“intimate terrorism”)

Coercive controlling violence occurs when one party is the primary perpetrator and uses physical and psychological violence to control and have power over the other partner. It is generally more frequent and severe in nature (Johnson, 2006).


Most violence appeared to be part of patterns of mutual relationship violence

The most common type of violence in our sample appeared to be mutual violence/situational couple violence, where both partners were violent to each other. This occurred in eight of the 22 IPV cases. Violence for these women appeared to be part of a sustained pattern of violent behaviour in relationships. These findings are consistent with international research which shows that situational couple violence is the most commonly identified form of female perpetrated violence (Howard-Bostic, 2011; Johnson, 1995; 2011; Skubak-Tillyer and Wright, 2013; Stewart et al., 2014; Byczek, 2012).

Women can be primary perpetrators in separation violence

Separation violence was the second most common form of violence perpetrated by the women and occurred in five cases. In these cases, the woman tended to be the primary perpetrator of the violence, although some had experienced violence from their partner prior to the relationship ending. In several cases the violence was related to unresolved child custody issues. While some appeared to be one-off cases of violence, there were also cases which showed sustained patterns of harassment and stalking. In all of these cases the women had convictions for past family violence offences, often against the same partners.

Self-defence or violent resistance was uncommon

Clear cases of self-defence or violent resistance were rare, with only two cases identified in the current sample. In these two cases the current offence represented the women’s first family violence conviction. The actual contexts of these incidents of violence were often unclear and it was difficult to ascertain whether the violence was in response to an immediate perceived threat to safety, or more a case of “revenge and retaliation” after sustained abuse. The prevailing anecdotal view is that women’s violence is mainly undertaken in self-defence. However, this idea has found mixed empirical support, which the current research reinforces (Stewart et al., 2014). International studies suggest that there are clear gender differences in this form of violence, as it is primarily used by women against men, and accounts for only a very small proportion of men’s family violence offending.

Coercive controlling violence was rare

Coercive controlling violence was the rarest type of violence within the sample. There was one case where the woman was clearly the primary perpetrator, although the extent to which her violence could be considered “coercive controlling” was unclear, as she did not appear to use violence as part of a sustained pattern to control her partner. This aligns with international research, based mostly in the U.S, where males are found to commit the majority of coercive controlling violence, although some studies show as much as 10% of women’s family violence offending can be considered coercive controlling (Fanslow, Gulliver, Dixon & Ayallo, 2014; Johnson, 2008; Graham-Kevan and Archer, 2003 cited in Howard-Bostic, 2011).

Other types of violence

The above typologies were created to categorise forms of IPV and no similar categorisations have been developed for other forms of family violence such as violence against children or other family members. There were, however, some noticeable patterns or dynamics within these other forms of violence which are explored briefly below.


There were two types of violence against children: abuse and/or neglect which had continued for a sustained period of time, and “one-off” violence. Most of the offences within the current sample related to chronic or sustained patterns of offending. A male partner was often recorded as a co-offender, and such offending often occurred in the context of violent intimate relationships. In all of the cases the women had no previous convictions for any type of offending. This may imply that they represent a slightly different group to the majority of other female family violence offenders.


All parental violence involved daughters’ violence against their mothers. In these cases the perpetrator’s mother was often the primary caregiver of her daughter’s children at the time of offending, and the violence occurred in the context of disputes over custody or access to children. Violence or disputes with mothers had often occurred in the past, and the current violence was often part of a sustained pattern of behaviour.


The final grouping of “other” included a range of victim types including siblings, in-laws, extended family, flatmates/boarders, and current partners of ex-partners. There were no apparent patterns or commonalities across these groupings and most appeared to be part of a broader pattern of generally violent behaviour.

Rehabilitation and desistance

Research on effectiveness in the treatment and rehabilitation of female violence offenders is largely absent, and evaluations of perpetrator programmes for women are scarce, particularly in the New Zealand context. There is also an absence of qualitative studies on the process of women’s desistance from family violence offending. This represents an area ripe for further qualitative investigation.

Summary and future directions

This study reveals that our knowledge of female family violence perpetrators in New Zealand is limited. This study adds further weight to the small body of international research on this topic, and points towards some useful areas of further exploration and work. The main findings and questions generated by this study are briefly summarised below.

There are differences between women and men’s violence

International research has shown that there are differences in the severity, extent and nature of women’s and men’s family violence offending. What is known about male violent offenders cannot be assumed to be directly translatable to understanding women’s violent offending and “what works” for them.

Women’s family violence is not homogenous

The frequency and types of violence women committed differed. This included who they were committing violence against, the extent to which the victim was also committing violence against them, and also in terms of whether their violence constituted a “one-off” as opposed to a more sustained pattern of violence. More work is needed to understand these distinctions and also to explore the extent which they may require different types of treatment. It is conceivable that women who have committed violence in the context of a relationship where they have experienced extensive violence may need a different treatment approach to those who have a primary or more equal role in violence perpetration, or those who have exclusively perpetrated violence against children.

Women’s violence needs to be recognised

While cases where women were the sole perpetrator were not common, they did exist in intimate and other relationships, though in the majority of cases women committed violence within mutually-violent relationships. It is important that women are not exclusively seen through a “victim” lens and that their violence is taken seriously. It is necessary for women to address their own violent behaviours and explore how to develop healthy relationships.

We need more understanding of non-IPV violence

While IPV offenders made up the largest grouping, there were a number of women who had offended against children, parents, siblings and other family members. There were some unique dynamics within these groupings; for example, the centrality of conflicts surrounding childcare in women’s violence against mothers. There is a need to better understand the dynamics of non-IPV family violence, and what treatment options work best for this group of offenders.

Work needed to understand relationships between victimisation and perpetration

Rates of past and current victimisation were high and need to be taken into account when considering how treatment can address women’s simultaneous victimisation and perpetration of violence. More information is needed to better understand relationship dynamics in IPV cases, and also how experiences of family and sexual violence lead to violent behaviours.

More discussion is needed on how to work with mutually violent couples

This work raises questions around how to deal with couples whose relationships involve chronic violence by both partners. In cases where couples are adamant that they will stay together, there may be merit in further exploring effective approaches to working with such couples.

Role of children

Children and child custody issues were a common source of tension. Situations where women’s mothers or partners had custody of their children were often identified as precipitants to violence. The role of children and care arrangements, and how issues pertaining to this can affect both women’s use of violence and ability to comply with community sentences and treatment programmes warrants further attention.

More research is needed

Within New Zealand further research effort could usefully be directed towards developing a better understanding of different types of family violence committed by male and female family offenders. More work is also needed to understand desistance processes associated with family violence and the interplay between family violence and other types of offending for both genders. The Department of Corrections is planning to interview male and female family violence offenders in late 2016 and early 2017 to start addressing this knowledge gap.

* For four women there was insufficient information to enable classification.

** This is likely an under-representation of true rates of mental illness, as many files contained insufficient information to determine whether a diagnosis had been made.

*** Women convicted of low seriousness offences were likely in prison due to multiple other offences, long histories of breaching protection orders or community sentences.


Bair-Merritt, M. H., Crowne, S. S., Thompson, D. A., Sibinga, E., Trent, M. & Campbell, J. (2010). Why do women use intimate partner violence? A systematic review of women’s motivations. Trauma, violence and abuse, 11(4), (pp.178-189).

Belknap, J., Larson, D., Abrams, M. L., Garcia, C. & Anderson-Block, K. (2012). Types of intimate partner homicides committed by women: self defense, proxy/retaliation, and sexual proprietariness. Homicide Studies, (pp.1-21).

Byczek, S. (2012). Women’s use of violence: an ecological systems model. (Unpublished doctoral thesis). Indiana: Indiana State University.

Dasgupta, S. D. (2007). Exploring South Asian women’s use of force in intimate relationships. New Jersey: Working to End Violence Against South Asian Women.

Fanslow, J. L., Gulliver, P., Dixon, R. & Ayallo, I. (2014). Women’s initiation of physical violence against an abusive partner outside of a violent episode. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 1-24.

Howard-Bostic, C. D. (2011). A Qualitative Analysis of Intimate Partner Violence (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Virginia: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Johnson, M. P. (1995). Patriarchal terrorism and common couple violence: Two forms of violence against women. Journal of Violence Against Women, 57, (pp.283-294).

Johnson, M. P. (2006). Conflict and control: Gender symmetry and asymmetry in domestic violence. Violence Against Women, 12(11), 1–16.

Johnson, M. P. (2008). A Typology of Domestic Violence: Intimate Terrorism, Violent Resistance, and Situational Couple Violence. Boston: Northeastern University Press. Johnson, M. P. (2011). Gender and types of intimate partner violence: A response to an anti-feminist literature review. Aggression and violent behaviour, 16, (pp.289-296).

Kruttschnitt, C., Gartner, R. & Ferraro, K. (2001). Women’s involvement in serious interpersonal violence. Aggression and violent behaviour, 7, (pp.529-565).

Lievore, D. & Mayhew, P. (2007). The scale and nature of family violence in New Zealand: a review and evaluation of knowledge. Wellington: Ministry of Social Development.

Melton, H. C. & Lefeve Sillito, C. (2012). The role of gender in officially reported intimate partner abuse. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 27(6), (pp. 1090-1111).

Pimlott Kubiak, S., Jong Kim, W., Fedock, G & Bybee, D. (2013). Differences among incarcerated women with assaultive offences: isolated versus pattered use of violence. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, (pp.1-29).

Skubak-Tillyer, M. & Wright, E. M. (2013). Intimate partner violence and the victim-offender overlap, (pp.1-27).

Stewart, L. A., Gabora, M., Allegri, N. (2014). Profile of female perpetrators of intimate partner violence in an offender population: implications for treatment. Partner Abuse, 5(2), (pp. 168-188).

Storey, J. E. & Strand, S. (2012). The characteristics and violence risk management of women arrested by the police for intimate partner violence. European Journal of Criminology, 9(6), (pp.636-651).