This was said to be the reason why women who commit crimes against their own children were seen as victims in the aftermath of the offence.
Criminologist Dr Christiaan Bezuidenhout believes the hypothesis still exists in the media and society today.
Bezuidenhout said many males do not take responsibility for the crimes they commit, while women do.
“Society thus feels sorry for women, leading people to condone the crimes that they committed,” said Bezuidenhout.
“Women are naturally seen as nurturers, so people see the crimes they commit as a last resort.”
Bezuidenhout’s theory was brought to life in the case involving Ellen Pakkies, a mother from Cape Town who strangled to death her 20-year-old son Edward in September 2007, after struggling for more than six years with his drug addiction.
Pakkies was sentenced to 280 hours of community service and a three-year suspended sentence by the Cape High Court, following massive support displayed by her community.
During the trial, the court heard how Pakkies had acted in “self-preservation”, which stemmed from desperation and utter helplessness, according to media reports.
Bezuidenhout said there was no concrete concept for women who kill their progeny, as the act was a multifaceted phenomenon with various causes and characteristics.
“There are women suffering from post-partum depression, and are likely to kill their babies within 24 hours of giving birth. I find this one interesting as courts are very sensitive to such moms,” he said.
Shaheda Omar, clinical director of the Teddy Bear Clinic for child victims of abuse, said mothers may kill their children who fail to respond to demands such as to stop crying.
“Mothers who kill their children are likely to have abused their children more than once,” she said.
NGO Women and Men against Child Abuse (WMACA) advocacy director, Miranda Jordan Friedmann, said up to 80% of new mothers experience mild depression within a year of giving birth.
“If the ‘baby blues’ persist, depression can escalate to dangerous levels, influencing some women to experience psychosis and, in rare and tragic cases, to kill their offspring,” she said.
Bezuidenhout, however, said borderline personality disorder played a major role in mothers killing their own children, as seen in the case of Nita Shipalana, 21, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison by the Pretoria Regional Court in 2011 after she poisoned her three-month-old baby with pesticide.
Shipalana told the court that she was stressed by her boyfriend, who said he wasn’t ready to be a father; and by her mother, who insisted that she drop out of university to care for the child, according to media reports.
NGO Sonke Gender Justice programme manager, Wessel van den Berg, said men often avoid the responsibility of consistently caring for children, with mothers having to take all the responsibility.
“Sonke advocates that men take up more of the unpaid care work. This would not only mean mothers, or female caretakers, have less stress and more time for themselves, but also that positive bonds and relationships can be developed between men and their children,” he said.
Statistics SA and police statistics indicated that child murder had increased, but do not indicate how many women kill their children annually.
Friedmann said: “There are gaps in the research and reporting in relation to South Africa and much further study is required.”