And one in 10 suffered sexual abuse as a child, says the research, based on a unique set of life histories of more than 800 women whose collective childhood experiences cover half a century dating back to the end of the First World War.
The study, carried out by researchers at the Royal Holloway College, University of London, found that women who had been sexually abused were three times more likely to have attempted suicide during childhood.
But although badly neglected by stepmothers, or abused or assaulted by fathers, neighbours, brothers and family friends, most never spoke out about what was happening when they were children. Many were bullied, threatened, blamed, or shamed into keeping quiet.
The study, reported by Antonio Bifulco and Patricia Moran, of the Socio- Medical Research Centre at Royal Holloway in a new book, Wednesday's Child, due to be published shortly, is based on detailed interviews with women in their own homes dating back to 1975. "Even though some of their experiences were distressing to account, the women often expressed relief that their accounts were believed, and seemed pleased to have the chance to speak to an outsider in confidence about what they view as important life experiences," they say.
Corroboration was sought when neglect and abuse was alleged, and in some cases sisters were also interviewed to get another view of childhood family life. The team found that nearly one in five had suffered parental neglect, but that figure rose steeply to 44 per cent among women who had lost their mother in childhood. "Parental neglect was four times as common after the loss of a mother when a stepmother took over responsibility for childcare," say the authors.
A number of women looked after by stepmothers described themselves as Cinderellas, forced to do the housework while their step-siblings were given affection and privileges. The researchers found that sexual abuse was reported by around one in 10 women, but few had disclosed what was happening to them at the time.
"Most of the incidents of sexual abuse in our series of women were kept secret, especially the more severe ones where a third of the women were either threatened or bribed into secrecy. Secretiveness was imposed by the abuser in nearly a quarter of cases," they say.
"Children were often threatened with violence to their siblings or mother if they did not comply with the abuser's wishes, one woman's siblings were beaten if she did not comply with her father's sexual demands. In another instance a father built up his daughter's reputation as a liar so that if she did tell anyone she wouldn't be believed."
The team found that 17 per cent of the women who had been sexually abused had tried to kill themselves during childhood, and that in later life they were three times more likely to suffer with depression. It cautions against assumptions that the father is always to blame in sexual abuse: "Much sexual abuse is not from a natural father or even a relative but from family friends. If a child is being sexually abused, one cannot assume, as intervention agencies often do, that the father is necessarily the culprit."
The book points out that despite heightened awareness, children are still at risk. In the last recorded 12-month period, 28,000 children were added to child protection registers.Reuse content