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Woman with beaten face, bandaid on her forehead as if she were in an abusive relationship
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Violence Against Women in Scandinavia

Source: Corbis

Scared in Scandinavia

This is Happening to More Than Half of Scandinavian Women and It’s Awful

Why you should care

Because things are not always what they seem in the land of the Midnight Sun.

Scandinavia is supposed to be a progressive place —with stable democracies, impressive wealth, great health care and environmental awareness. But there’s a problem lurking under its shiny surface.

Over half of Danish women have experienced physical or sexual violence.

As if torn from the pages of a Stieg Larsson thriller, these countries — all of which rank in the top 10 worldwide in terms of the smallest gender gap — conceal a disturbing reality: Violence against women is rife.

Over half of Danish women, 52 percent, have experienced physical or sexual violence, with Finnish and Swedish women trailing at 47 percent and 46 percent respectively, according to a recent study by the European Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA). The European average, by way of comparison, is 33 percent, and in the U.K., it’s 44 percent.

Globally, one-third of partnered women have suffered physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner, and 7.2 percent have experienced sexual violence from a non-partner.

Despite stereotypes depicting Eastern and Southern European countries as having “macho” cultures, the European country with the lowest reported violence against women is Poland, with 19 percent. In fact, since 2005, Poland has had a dedicated Law on Domestic Violence and a nationwide program to increase awareness and provide support for abuse victims.

The fact that the forward-thinking Nordic countries have such high rates of violence against women seems counterintuitive, but here are some possible explanations.

I think cultural bias definitely explains some of the differences, but not all them.

— Rebecca Mahlea, Nordic Gender Institute

First: Nordic women, because of their progressive political climate, have clearer notions of what constitutes abuse, and therefore feel more compelled to denounce it. “In countries like Finland, Denmark or Sweden, it is culturally more acceptable to talk about violence against women,” argues Blanca Tapia, spokesperson for the FRA. “They know they have the same rights as men, and it is clear to them that there are certain things they do not have to put up with.”

In other nations, where talking about the issue is less socially acceptable, women are far more hesitant to report attacks for fear of being stigmatized.

But this explanation doesn’t satisfy everyone. “I think cultural bias definitely explains some of the differences, but not all them,” says Rebecca Mahlea, an expert on gender equality at the Nordic Gender Institute. “We should keep investigating and not swipe it under the rug.”

One reason for the higher rate, Mahlea says, could be the fact that women in Nordic countries work outside the home more, and socialize more as a result, and that with added exposure comes a higher risk of sexual harassment.

Yet another reason might be that, thanks to gender equality policies, Scandinavian women often have higher education and income levels than their partners. “This can cause men to feel frustrated and prone to use violence as a way to compensate,” explains Ole Kristian Hjemdal, a researcher at the Norwegian Centre for Violence and Traumatic Stress Studies.

Alcohol abuse could also be a factor contributing to the alarming gender violence rates. Danes and Finns are renowned for heavy drinking, and the FRA study shows a correlation between men’s drinking habits and women’s reports of domestic violence.

Understandably, the findings of the FRA study have become a source of major public concern for the countries involved, especially for top-ranking Denmark, where the minister of equality has vowed to address the issue.

But so far, no concrete political actions have been taken. If Scandinavia hopes to maintain its image as a global leader in women’s rights, it needs to do more at home to tackle gender-based violence.

Laura writes about politics, gin & tonics and everything in between for OZY. Filter coffee is her weakness and carry-on packing is her super-power. Follow her on Twitter @laurasecorun.

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