Research Watch

Child maltreatment: Cross-national comparison of societal-level predictors

Year of Publication
Reviewed By
Sydney Duder

Klevens, J., Ports, K.A., Austin, C., Ludlow, I.J., & Hurd, J. (2017). A cross-national exploration of societal-level factors associated with child physical abuse and neglect. Global Public Health,


Children around the world experience violence; a recent review estimates that at least 50% of the children in Asia, Africa and North America experienced severe physical violence from caregivers in the past year. If we were able to identify causal factors, and actually do something about them, it should be possible to reduce this level of violence. This paper is an analysis of the nature and effects of possible social factors in 42 countries. 

Countries (Americas 7, Asia 12, Africa 14, Europe 9):  Data for each country include region, level of development, data source, year, age range of index child, sample size and rates of physical abuse and neglect.

Social factors (11): To identify possible societal-level factors of interest, trained research assistants reviewed existing publicly available data sources. For each factor, the same data source was used for all countries. Data were collected for 122 variables, but 75 had to be omitted because information was missing for 14 or more countries. From the remaining variables, three of the authors selected the two that best represented each of 11 chosen constructs.

Results: Physical abuse was found to be positively correlated with only one factor—gender inequity. Neglect was positively correlated with gender inequity, child labour and burden of child care, and negatively correlated with overall literacy, female literacy and human development index (a measure of life expectancy, standard of living and education).

Based on earlier research at individual and family levels, some effective interventions have already been developed. However, the present authors emphasize the importance of focusing on societal-level factors, which have the greatest potential for significant population–level impact.

Methodological Notes

The 42 countries chosen all had country-level data on child physical abuse or neglect, based on nationally representative random samples of self or parent reports. Data for 36 of the 42 countries came from multiple indicator cluster surveys (UNICEF, 2013); data for the remaining 6 countries from demographic and health surveys (USAID, 2013). All had estimates for past month physical abuse or neglect; the measures used here are limited to the questions actually asked. The rates reported are based on the same set of questions on severe physical punishment for an index child (2-14 years) selected randomly from the household.

Relationships discussed here—between country-level child abuse and neglect rates and country-level estimates for the included social factors—were based on correlation coefficients: bivariate for continuous or ordinal variables; point bi-serial for dichotomous variables. Because of the large number of statistical comparisons, stringent criteria were used — p < .001.