The earliest explanations of female criminality, centres on biological understanding. Emphases then were placed on the role of biological and psychological factors in explaining female involvement in crime. Although, early explanations of crime focused heavily on male criminality and treated female crime as somewhat of an anomaly, some attempts were made to explain female crime. As was the case in criminology, more generally, two competing viewpoints informed the writings on female offending in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One viewpoint emphasized the role of biological factors and psychological factors in women and girls’ crime, typically postulating that criminal women exhibited masculine biological or psychological orientations (Lombroso and Freud) or what Igbo (2007) refers to as “penis envy”.
The second view stressed the role of social or economic forces and assumed that the social and cultural influences affecting male criminality similarly influenced female criminality. The issue of increase in rate and change in pattern of female crime in Nigeria is alarming. This is because women by their nature are bearers and nurturers of children; and the social responsibilities that go with these biological and social functions demand that they should be worthy in character. Over the years, societies devised ways and means of controlling crime and dealing with those who deviate from its norms and values. In pre-colonial times women were more or less restricted to their traditional social roles.
The communal system of living together added to the internal and external mechanism for crime control, (mainly of ridicule and public disgrace) and kept the level of criminal activities by women low. With the coming of westernization (money, economy and emergence of private property) anchored to colonial period, some women began to seek employment outside the home. With increased labour force participation for them some had the opportunity of getting involved in criminal activities.
Some theories claim that the female role limits offending. Persons (1937) as cited in Igbo (2007) claims that women tend to take up the expressive role in a family-providing emotional support and caring for children as a full-time job, rather than seeking paid work. Due to this obligation, women are seen as having less opportunity to commit crime, being required to stay at home, caring for children. However, nowadays we cannot assume that such obligations are a deterrent against committing crime. New technologies (such as the internet) enable everyone to commit crime. A woman can be at home looking after her children and at the same time she can be cheating innocent people on the internet or even committing identity theft or fraud (Ameh, 2013).
The rate of female crime is on gradual rise around the world. He added that this is particularly evident in developed countries. Germany’s female crime rate is 24% of the total crime, and the rate in the U.S. is 30%. In China, the female crime rate also has increased rapidly. After the founding of New China, from the 1950s to the 1970s, the female crime has accounted for 2% of the total number of crime. After the 1980s, with the social transformation, the number of female crime has increased significantly. While the number of crime increases, the proportion of the female offenders has increased from 2% in the 1970s to 3% in the 1980s, to 5% in the 1990s, and to 18-20% now which almost equal to that of Germany and the United States (Li, 2010). Similarly Enahoro (2017) noted that cases of women violence against their husbands are becoming alarming issues in the different parts of the country.
Ameh (2013) in his study supported the assertion that there is an upsurge in female criminality in Nigeria by indicating an increase of 1001, representing 16.4 percent increase in the number of admission into the prison between 2007 and 2009. Further probe into the data presented on table 1 revealed that female criminality is not only on the increase numerically, but also on the increase in the severity of offences committed, because in 2007 female offenders charged for capital offences (armed robbery, robbery and murder) are 720 representing 11.7 percent, while in 2009 there is 3.5 percent increase in the number of female offenders admitted into Nigerian prisons, represented by 1087 (15.2%). This data indicates that women are not only committing crimes that are ascribed to them as noted by Feminism and Crime (2009) but are now competing seriously with their male counterpart.
Contemporary explanation of female criminality was summarized into nine correlated points by Steffensmeier and Schwartz (2013); the duo reviewed hypotheses and evaluated them based on the findings of empirical data. Below are their submissions:
Law and the Organisational Management of Crime: Change in female arrest trends are due to more efficient official responses to criminality rather than to actual changes in criminal behaviour among females.
Net widening and changes in law: Changes in law enforcement and in statutory law toward targeting less serious forms of law-violating (especially for violence) has increased the pool of female offenders at risk for arrest, since females are disproportionately involved in the less serious forms of law-violating. A more punitive political environment has been an important factor in the net widening process.
Gender equality and female emancipation: The improved status of women, particularly their advances in the paid workforce, offers females more desire and opportunity to commit crime.
Increased economic marginalisation of women: Higher levels of economic insecurity faced by large sub-groups of women in American society increases the pressure to commit (especially) consumer-based crimes.
Increase inner-city community disorganisation: A growing detachment of many inner-city minorities from mainstream institutions, like education and employment, leads to weakened social controls and to adaptive strategies that include crime. The effects of weakened social controls are especially detrimental to female conformity.
Expanded opportunities for female-type crimes: Shifts in pattern of productive activity, including increased consumerism and the availability of consumer goods and greater reliance on a credit-based system, have expanded opportunities for “female-type” crimes more rapidly than “male-type” crimes.
Changes in the underworld: Recent changes in the criminal underworld, such as the reduced supply of male crime partners due to increased incarceration rates and the emerging dominance of drug trafficking, have augmented the prospects for female involvement.
Trends in drug dependency: Drug addiction amplifies income-generating crime for both sexes, but more so for females than males. Also, the likely incapacitation effects of locking up chronic , high-risk male offenders has opened up slots for females in drug and other crime networks while also tending to diminish overall levels of male offending.
Crime prevention programmes targeting male offenders: Implementation of crime prevention programmes aimed at male offenders has reduced male offending for some crimes, thereby narrowing the gender gap.