Sweden tops statistics of gender equality and domestic violence

Parliament House (Riksdagshuset) on the island of Helgeandsholmen in Stockholm, Sweden. Photo by Jorge Láscar/Wikimedia Commons

By Anna Stjernquist 
BU News Service 

Editor’s note: “Marcus” is a pseudonym and some details of his life have been changed to protect his identity.
Content warning: this story contains descriptions of domestic violence that may be triggering for some readers.

“It took me a long time to realize that I had been mentally abused and manipulated,” Marcus said. “I think the worst part was being misunderstood and met with disbelief because of being a man, in the courtroom but even among family and friends.”

Marcus works as a social worker at a rehabilitation center for the mentally ill. Last year he was in an abusive relationship with a woman. Although it only lasted a few months, he said he still suffers the consequences.

“I was depressed and self-medicated with alcohol and food,” he said. “I am normally a mentally strong person with healthy self-confidence and esteem but that has declined ever since I met her. I am 38 now and I want a family, but my trust is ruined. Every time I try to date someone, I look for signs that something is wrong. And if I have to choose between living alone or to meet someone like her again, living alone is obviously a better choice.”

Marcus and the woman share a 2-year-old daughter, whose parentage was confirmed just over a year ago when Marcus’ ex-girlfriend agreed to do a DNA test. He said she used their daughter to manipulate Marcus several times by suddenly leaving the country without notice. He also said he fears she is mistreating their child.

“I worry that she can’t give her the care that she needs,” Marcus said. “Both I and neighbors have noticed how she screams at her, doesn’t feed her or change diapers and threatens to leave the house when she is crying.”

They are now in a custody battle which Marcus fears he will lose. 

“I record a video diary everyday where I tell her about the situation and how much I love her, so that I will be able to show her how much I care and try to be there for her when she gets older,” he said.

Marcus is not alone. Nordic countries rate among the highest in gender equality and domestic violence. It is a phenomenon that has been referred to by scholars as the Nordic paradox.

Sweden ranks fourth in gender equality in the world as measured by the World Economic Forum’s latest Gender Gap Index. That places it after Norway, Finland and Iceland. The Gender Gap Index  measures equality across work, politics, health and education. The United States is listed as 53rd.

Yet, Sweden ranked third for partner-based violence among women over the age of 15. A survey on intimate partner violence by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights placed Finland second while Denmark and Latvia shared the highest numbers.

Debates surrounding the so called Nordic paradox often involve those who believe that gender equality leads to greater awareness and therefore more reporting, but there are also those who believe gender equality sparks a backlash. 

Anna Franzell, researcher at the National Council for Crime Prevention in Sweden, said international comparisons are difficult to make for three reasons.

“First, laws are different in each country, and what is illegal somewhere may not be in another country,” she said. “Second, crime statistics are not the same everywhere. In some countries, one woman reporting several abuses will be counted as one case. In Sweden, they count as separate cases. Finally, norms and culture vary. In Sweden we openly discuss intimate partner violence but that really isn’t the case everywhere.”

In Sweden, the government regards domestic violence as the most pressing obstacle to gender equality. Yet about 7% of both men and women report violence in an intimate relationship. In the U.S., that number is 25% among women and 11% among men.

In 2014, the National Council for Crime Prevention did a nationwide study on abuse in intimate relationships using data from 2012.

“Male and female victims were relatively similar,” Franzell said. “However, a larger group of females said they had been victimized at some point in their lives, and a significantly higher number said that they, following severe abuse, had to seek medical care.”

Before 1970, domestic violence was rarely talked about, or only done so in measured tones. Since then, domestic abuse has been recognized by professionals as men’s violence towards women. Violence by women has generally been thought of as counter-violence. 

Although the prevalence appears to be equal between the genders, men like Marcus often report being ridiculed or met with disbelief when turning for help with domestic abuse, says Tero Leskinen, an organizer at Mansjouren, a service which translates to a Men’s Helpline.

“I have heard many stories about men who call the police when their female partner hits them but get taken away themselves,” Leskinen said. “Going into a police station which already has a strong macho culture and telling them that you are abused by your wife, just to be received with mockery, is hard but something that we hear about often.”

Leskinen first got involved with the helpline as a volunteer almost 10 years ago. Since then, he said, the organization has gotten much more recognition.

“Violence against women is often worse physically and has larger consequences,” he said. “But even if a larger group of victims are women, the few men also need the same support.” 

According to Leskinen, because of the shame associated with being abused as a man, he believes they are likely even higher among men.

“The sentiment that ‘boys don’t cry’ runs deep,” he said. “Men who reach out to us have often lived in destructive relationships for years and only call when they are desperate for help. They may already be thinking of suicide and have lost their family.”

Lucas Gottzén, who studies men’s violence against women at Stockholm University said although men report as much domestic violence as women, it remains a gendered issue.

“Domestic violence definitely has to do with masculinity,” he said. “It is because we have increased equality, knowledge and debate about sexuality, violence and sexuality, that self-reports increase. We see that with all crime statistics: more debate leads to higher numbers.”

Having worked with men in therapy who have committed violent or sexual offenses, Gottzén said gender equality is a myth. 

“Men I meet are often committed to gender equality, both in theory and practice,” he said. “A man can be a great father but still be violent towards his wife. I have interviewed men who take more responsibility in the home, take more care of the children and even identify as a feminist but are still violent towards their partner.”

This year, the Swedish government increased support towards violence against women and children. They now spend $15 million towards health care, prevention and advocacy work.

The National Centre for Knowledge on Men’s Violence Against Women is one example of a government-funded initiative that aims to raise awareness of violence against women and children.

“We see that calls to our helpline have increased a lot,” said Ulla Albért, head of education and training for the center. “We think that has to do with the ‘me-too movement’, more people identify with being victimized and ask for help. It does not mean that violence has increased or decreased but that they understand that they are not alone.”

Sara Skoog Waller, a psychology professor at the University of Gävle, agreed.

“One reason that the numbers seem paradoxical is that women are more likely to identify violence,” Skoog Waller said. “And we have come far with normalizing discussion around it.”

Men who use deadly violence in intimate relationships tend to be older, live a more stable life and are less likely to be unemployed compared to other offenders of deadly violence.

A recent study by the Lund University showed that women are more likely to be abused by a partner when becoming more financially independent, according to medical reports. This theory is backed up by economic theories on the backlash-effect.

On the other hand, other studies show that women who are economically dependent are at higher risk, Skoog Waller explains.

“Intimate partner violence most often has to do with power and that is why it directly relates to gender equality,” she said. “But there is a need for more research on the specifics around the topic because right now, people are able to interpret these numbers as they wish.”

Skoog Waller says that if intimate partner violence is high, that would mean that Sweden is not gender equal at its core.

“If women living independently are at higher risk of being exposed to violence, then per definition, that is not a gender equal society,” she said. “It would mean that traditional masculine attitudes and norms are still strong.”

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