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Finland and Domestic Violence: The Strong Nordic Woman is in Trouble

by Catia Bruno


Finland is an amazing country, especially if you happen to be a woman. This was the first place in the world where women could vote and be elected – and in less than 100 years, Finns elected a female president and a female prime-minister. It is a country where more than half the workforce is female, as well as almost 50% of the cabinet ministers. Here, maternity leaves are well-paid and don't hinder your return to work. If you are a female voice in the media or in business, you are going to be respected and possibly praised. No wonder this country is number three in the gender equality index of the European Union.

When it comes to domestic violence, however, the figures tell another story. Here, almost half (49%) of all women in a 5.4 million population confess they were victims of violence by a partner – a much bigger percentage than that of other Nordic countries – for example, Denmark (22% in 2003) or Norway (26.8% in 2008), both of which have roughly the same population as Finland.  On this front, women even fare better in  Albania, a much poorer country by far, where 31% of women are victims of partner violence.  

In Finland, close to one-quarter of police house calls are about domestic violence. Finland is also a place where being raped by your husband was no crime until 1994, more than 20 years after Finland's Nordic counterparts criminalized it. 

How can it be explained that in a country where the gender-equality levels are so astonishingly high, Finnish men can be so violent towards Finnish women? Lapland University Professor Suvi Ronkainen, who has been studying violence against women since 1998,  summarized it for me through three interrelated factors: a masculine drinking culture that “reminds one of Eastern Europe”; a historical background with several wars that “has created a certain kind of tolerance towards violence and the attitude that if life is hard, you just have to accept it”; and a cold and dark climate that forces people to spend more time inside, so the home “becomes also a site for violence.”

Finland has its own kind of “macho” culture - not in the typical sense where the man is seen as superior to the woman – but it exists. “One could use the metaphor of Tango”, said Ronkainen, referring to the Argentinean dance loved by the Finns, who created a version with their own twist. “The man is leading but in a more egalitarian way, and women can also ask men to dance.” In spite of that, masculinity is still highly valued in the country, and often linked with violence – through mandatory military service or a strong hunting culture. The problem is when that violence starts to translate into domestic life. 

Despite the scary figures, the country has been trying to improve the situation. The criminal law was revised in 1995, and now all assaults inside the home are prosecuted, even if the victim doesn't want to press charges. There is a National Action Plan, and it is now more likely that a TV news anchor uses the expression “parisuhdeväkivalta” (intimate partner violence) than the more general “perheväkivalta” (family violence). But that is definitely not enough. 

With an economic crisis straining European countries, even financially-balanced Finland has been applying austerity measures, and the money to address this issue seems to be lacking. Professor Merja Laitinen, another Finnish gender-violence specialist, puts it well: “Besides the talk and the papers, there should be deeds”, she says. “Unfortunately, those deeds have been also negative from the victim's point of view. For example, I was listening to the news with my coffee this morning. There is already a lack of shelters for victims, and some municipalities are dissolving the contracts with the shelters.”

That is not the only issue. The Finnish State usually resorts to mediation, and forces both victim and aggressor to face each other in the hope of reconciliation.  As Amnesty International stated in its latest report about Finland: “Mediation is not an appropriate method of dealing with crimes of violence against women, as such processes do not offer protection equal to the criminal law and frequently lead to repeated re-victimization of women at risk.” 

The problem, as Professor Ronkainen explains, lies in the “idealistic view to treat people as equal individuals.” Not that the aggressors should be treated as villains, but Finnish laws rely so much on equality and gender-neutrality they fail to find proper measures of dealing with intimate violence. “The ideology of gender-neutrality closes the possibilities to discuss what is similar and what isn't between genders, what are the effective ways to work with men as victims, women as victims, with violent men, with violent women”, Ronkainen underlines.

Ironically, the biggest strengths in the Finnish mentality are harming more than helping when it comes to domestic violence. In a culture where privacy is much respected, it is harder to step in and help a neighbor, a friend or a sister, even though 38% of Finns admit they personally know someone who was a victim of domestic violence. Most of these women probably won't ever share the fact that they are victims in the first place, not only because you are not supposed to discuss such personal matters, but also because women are so respected in Finnish culture that violence towards them almost seems unthinkable. The Finnish woman is still the “strong Nordic woman”, as the Lapland professor calls it, even though she doesn't work in the fields side by side with “her man” anymore. She is still the strong center of the home, and, as such, she is considered the one who has to the fix the problem, even if the problem is her husband's violence. Finns can be relentless when it comes to condemning  wrongdoing: they don't tolerate stealing, loathe corruption and have a strong sense of justice. They only have to start using these great traits against domestic violence as well.

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Cátia Bruno is a journalist from Lisbon, Portugal. She worked for a national daily newspaper covering sports, with a focus on life stories, particularly about women.  She spent August 2013 in Finland participating in the Foreign Correspondents Program.  Now working as a freelancer, she writes about foreign affairs, women and minorities' rights and all sorts of inequalities.


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