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Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Saudi Step-Families: The Risk of Child Abuse

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Progressive activists take pride in having liberalized divorce laws in much of the world over the last 70 years. Somehow, the children affected by these divorces may feel less inclined to celebrate this accomplishment. For social scientists from country after country keep adding to the mountain of research documenting the high price children have paid—and continue to pay—for their parents’ easy divorce. One of the latest additions to that mountain comes from researchers in Saudi Arabia, who find that in their country—as in Western nations—children living in the single-parent and stepfamilies that divorce creates suffer from abuse much more often than do children living in intact families.

Affiliated with King Saud bin Abdulaziz University for Health Sciences, the authors of a new study of Child Maltreatment (CM) regard such maltreatment as “a universal problem with significant consequences for children, families, and communities.” Focusing particularly on Child Abuse and Neglect (CAN), the Saudi researchers seek to identify those circumstances that put children most at risk. To that end, they carefully scrutinize data collected between 2009 and 2013 from the patient files accumulated at the Child Protection Centre in Riyadh.  

Nothing emerges more clearly from these data than the distinctive risk children face if they live outside of an intact two-parent family. The researchers succinctly comment, “Our study shows that children living in single/step-parent households are more likely to be physically abused compared to those living with both parents.” The Saudi scholars calculate, in fact, that, compared to children in intact families, “Children living in single/step-parent households were 4 times as likely to experience physical abuse [Odds Ratio of 4.0].”

The elevated risk of child abuse in single-parent and step-parent families did not surprise the researchers, who acknowledge that their “findings are consistent with the findings of other [earlier] national studies in the KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia], which revealed that single-parent households and the presence of step-parent may put children at increased risk of CAN [Child Abuse and Neglect].” But the findings of this 2016 inquiry only intensify “concern . . . that the risk of exposure to all forms of CAN is greater for Saudi children living in single/step-parent households compared with children living with both parents.”

To be sure, the authors of the new study do not believe that risks of child abuse run distinctively high in single-parent and step-parent households only in the  Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. “Several studies in the Middle East,” they recognize, “have confirmed similar familial factors that predispose families to CAN.” The authors of the new study point in particular to a 2012 study conducted in Kuwait finding that “students of divorced parents had higher scores on measures of psychological and physical abuse” than did students with parents in an intact marriage.

Nor does the clear connection between child abuse and family structure only manifest itself in the Middle East. Comparing their findings with those from many other parts of the world, the researchers remark, “The characteristics of the CAN victims [in this study] appeared to be somewhat similar across countries from different continents . . . with different economic statuses.” The Saudi researchers thus interpret their findings against a context defined by a 2008 American study  concluding that the risk of both physical and sexual abuse runs distinctively high “in blended households, or households wherein a non-related parental figure resides,” by a 2009 Dutch study of step-parents finding that “the absence of genetic ties increases the risk of CAN,” and by a 2002 World Health Organization report indicating that “living in households that include members not genetically related to the child, such as single/step-parent households [is] a risk factor for CAN.”

A horror whether in Riyadh, Rome, or Richmond, the global problem of child abuse is especially likely to claim victims wherever parental marriages fall apart.  

(Maha A. Almuneef, Linah A. Alghamdi, and Hassan N. Saleheen, “Family Profile of Victims of Child Abuse and Neglect in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Saudi Medical Journal 37 [2016]: 882-8.)