Finland’s paradox of equality: professional excellence, domestic abuse

Finland is regularly touted as a paragon of gender equality and one of the most progressive countries for women’s rights.  So why are its rates of domestic violence almost twice the European average?

Valerie Hopkins
27 November 2013

Finland may the best place in the world to be a mother or a student, and a great place to be a female politician, but it’s a less appealing place to be in a committed relationship. 

The country of 5.3 million is often hailed as a paragon of gender equality, and for good reason: it was the first country to have two women serving simultaneously as president and prime minister, and the famously difficult Finnish language even boasts gender-neutral pronouns that everyone uses. Finland has received many accolades: The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report, which ranks access to education, healthcare, politics and employment, ranks Finland second, after Iceland.

But what these metrics and international surveys miss is the endemic problem of domestic violence in the country, much higher than its Nordic counterparts.  Finland has repeatedly been admonished by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the body tasked with implementing the Convention Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

The rate of domestic violence in Finland is almost twice the European average, at 43.5 percent, according to Naisten Linja, a hotline for victims of family violence.  Twenty percent of all homicides in Finland are attributed to a woman’s death at the hands of a current or former partner, according to the National Research Institute of Legal Policy.

Despite the fact that it is the only Eurozone country that maintains an AAA credit rating, it does not have the amount of shelters for domestic abuse victims.  There are only 21 shelters in the entire country, according to the public broadcaster YLE.  That means there is room for 108 abuse victims, five times less than the European Council recommends.

This is a result of the paradox of gender equality as manifest in the post-WWII welfare state building project, according to Suvi Ronkainen, a professor at the University of Lapland whose research has focused on sexual violence.

“We do not do open feminist politics,” Ronkainen told openDemocracy 50.50.  “Our welfare state wasn’t an open feminist project.  It wasn’t even a project for the affirm women’s rights, it was part of nation building.” Ronkainen stresses that any policy development like free daycare, or even abortion, is presented to the family as “pro-family,” rather than pro-women.“Our political arena and the practices within each are such that if you want to do something that could be called good for women, it has to be presented as something that is good for others.”

Women’s equal rights are protected in the public sphere but not in the private sphere, says Paivi Naskali, a professor of Gender Studies at the University of Lapland. “The welfare state has given many rights to women, but this policy has concentrated on the labor market and womens’ ability to participate in working market, not equality in private life,” she said.

 As a result, mediation, rather than the judicial system, is still considered the best means of coping with domestic violence.  This approach has been sharply criticized by Amnesty International in its most recent report about rape in Nordic countries.

“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,” they wrote in the report. The reliance on mediation may be one reason why the number of reported rapes in Finland is far lower than its Nordic neighbors, according to the same report.  In Finland, only 2-10 percent of rapes are reported, compared to 25 percent in Denmark.

The reliance on mediation and the slow criminalization of rape in marriage, which occurred in 1994, 20 years after most of Finland’s neighbors, is a result of strong Finnish attitudes about privacy, individuality and endurance, says Kevat Nouisainen, a lawyer active with Amnesty International.

“It has been very difficult to have any changes in the penal code when it comes to assault and sexual offenses,” said Nousainen. “A specific problem to be dealt with has been an old procedural way of looking at certain types of crimes...that is the idea that certain types of crime are not under public prosecution and the victim has to demand that the prosecution starts.”

After the Finnish government adopted a National Gender Action Plan last year, but progress is slow and it does not look like the country will be able to ratify the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention, the first European legally binding instrument governing violence against women, any time soon.

After a recent review of current legislation by the Finnish foreign ministry, “There was so much critique about the lack of resources and problems of legislation,” Nouisainen said. “The convention is supposed to protect the victims, prevent violence, to see that the perpetrators are punished, and we have problems in all of these areas.”

According to Eurobarometer, 38 percent of Finns know of a female friend or family member who is a victim of domestic violence but 32 percent say that while domestic violence is unacceptable, it does not always require punishment, more than twice the EU average.

Many ascribe Finland’s particularly tumultuous history of violence--five wars in the twentieth century, and the lingering vestige of obligatory military service for men (women can opt in, but few do).

“To do violence is not taboo in Finland, but to be victimized and to be vulnerable and weak, that is much more taboo,” says Ronkainen.  “In a way or another, we respect that kind of strong agency, the way that people survive on their own.”

Read more 50.50 articles published during 16 Days: activism against gender violence

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