Women in Finland experience multiple societal issues stemming from sexism and lack of political will to tackle said issues. Violence against women is an ongoing serious problem with half of Finnish women having been victimized. Despite legislative measures being in place, attitudes among men remain tentatively supportive of violence. Additionally, social services such as safe houses and support hotlines are lacking in capacity due to inadequate resources. This report delves into uncovering this pervasive and often silenced problem in Finnish society.
What comes to mind when you think about Finland? Snowy landscapes and cold weather? The northern lights, perhaps? Or is it the education and welfare system that without fail seem to rise as a topic of conversation when I introduce myself as a Finn. Indeed, almost any first interaction I have had in Korea where my nationality comes up, I am met with an almost utopian view of my birthplace.
It is true that Finland enjoys a reputation of being a successful state with high-quality social services, personal freedoms and human rights for all. Indeed, back in Finland, we like to call ourselves the “model nation” on fundamental, civil and human rights. There are, however, always two sides to a coin.
According to a 2014 study conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), Finland is actually the second most dangerous country for women in Europe, only ‘losing’ to Denmark. Over 42,000 women aged 15 and older, and all across the EU were interviewed, and the results were clear: 47 percent of Finnish women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence. That is well above the EU average of 33 percent. In addition, 23 percent of Finnish women reported having experienced sexual harassment in the last 12 months. These numbers should cause alarm. What is it about Finnish society that allows a climate where half of the women can be subjected to abuse without it being considered a national emergency?
Researchers Enrique Gracia and Juan Merlo call it the ‘Nordic Paradox’. Their 2016 study published in “Social Science and Medicine” (2016 vol. 157) explores the curious phenomenon of exceptionally high rates of interpersonal violence in Nordic countries which in many other areas are leading in gender equality. What makes these countries fail in protecting women from one of the globally significant sources of injury and death among women? Could the answer be found in law books?
Finland has ratified the “Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence,” colloquially known as the “Istanbul Convention,” in 2015. Article 5 section 2 clearly states that it is the obligation of a state party to “-- take the necessary legislative and other measures to exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate, punish and provide reparation for acts of violence covered by the scope of this Convention that are perpetrated by non‐State actors”. Articles 7 and 8 lay out the obligation to adopt policies and allocate adequate financial and human resources to both prevent and fight violence against women. Yet concrete policy actions by the Finnish state can be said to be lacking: This year, an evaluation by independent experts for the Council of Europe found that despite some advances, many problems remain.
Regional access to shelters is uneven, the state is not adequately supporting anti-violence work targeted at perpetrators, rape is widely underreported and leniently punished, and the list goes on. There is also not enough data, attention or support given to ethnic minority and migrant women and their experiences of violence. Overall, the state has not adequately budgeted resources to fight gendered violence and lacks a victim-centric comprehensive anti-violence strategy (GREVIO 2019).
The Council experts also strongly encouraged the government to change current laws on sexual violence. Until now, rape in Finnish law is defined in connection to a threat or use of physical violence instead of a lack of consent. This issue has caused much buzz in civil society for the past few years. A campaign, appropriately named ‘Suostumus 2018’ (Consent 2018) rallied for support and collected signatures to change legislation, and managed to obtain the needed 50,000 signatures to send a citizens’ initiative to the parliament. Not a small feat in a country of 5 million.
The cause for the high frequency of violent incidents can be partially traced to awareness and attitudes. A recent survey commissioned by Finnish human rights organization Solidaarisuus found that a third of Finnish men consider violence against women to in some cases being the woman’s fault, with a fourth of all Finns sharing the opinion. Overall men and - perhaps surprisingly - young people exhibited more accepting attitudes towards violence (Kantar TNS 2018). Another survey on attitudes on sexual violence by Amnesty International this year showed similarly that the youngest and oldest of surveyed Finns had harder attitudes about sexual violence. A third of all respondents estimated sexual violence to be a somewhat minor problem, with a majority holding an opinion that in certain circumstances, mitigating factors for a rapist’s responsibility for his crime exist (Amnesty International 2019). These results indicate that lenient attitudes towards violence against women remain pervasive in society.
The attitude problem is not limited to privately held beliefs. The Council of Europe evaluation found that most police units did not handle intimate partner violence cases with appropriate weight. According to the experts, police had a tendency to push victims and perpetrators into a mediation process which in itself does not result in a trial. While criminal charges may be filed along with a mediation process taking place, one can question whether such a process is beneficial or psychologically safe for a victim. In fact, human rights organization Amnesty International Finland explicitly opposes this practice.
As for the citizens’ initiative for consent-based legislation on sexual violence? The campaign faced resistance at first with the previous Justice Minister calling it “alien to life” in an interview with Suomen Kuvalehti (Feb 8, 2018). The minister later yielded and initiated an inquiry into adopting into legislation a more consent-based definition for rape. The current government is pursuing the citizens’ initiative.
Although the state, for a long period of time has been slow, even unwilling to invest in substantive progress, the situation is far from hopeless. In May 2017, as required by the “Istanbul Convention,” the first rape crisis centered in Finland opened its doors. While it only serves clients in the capital area, three additional ones have established just this year. Additionally, the new government seems more willing than many previous ones to work on human rights issues. This is a hopeful sign that the state might finally be ready to step up and fulfill its duty in protecting the people it governs from violence.
In an interview with Yle News (May 29, 2017), the Head Physician at Finland’s first rape crisis center was asked the reason for Finland’s late start into providing services for victims of sexual violence. Her answer: “Perhaps it’s been a case of people closing their eyes about the issue. Perhaps there hasn’t been a belief here that sexual violence exists around us.”
Meanwhile, violence against women continues to be at the center of attention for human rights organizations and gender equality actors in civil society.
1) Council of Europe, “Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence”, 12 April, 2011
2) GREVIO (2019), “GREVIO’s (Baseline) Evaluation Report on legislative and other measures giving effect to the provisions of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention)”, 2019
3) FRA, “Violence against women: an EU-wide survey”, March 2014
4) Ulla Malminen, “Helsinkiin Suomen ensimmäinen tukikeskus seksuaalisen väkivallan uhreille – viimeisenä Pohjoismaista”, May 29, 2017
5) “Raiskauslait halutaan uusiksi – Ministeriö: Suostumuksen asema vahvistuisi”, Uusi Suomi, January 15, 2019
6) Enrique Gracia & Juan Merlo, “Intimate partner violence against women and the Nordic paradox”, Social Science & Medicine Volume 157, May 2016
7) Sakari Nurmela for Kantar TNS Oy, “Suomalaisten käsityksiä naisiin kohdistuvasta väkivallasta”, 2018
8) Solidaarisuus, “Kysely suomalaisille paljastaa: Naisiin kohdistuvaa väkivaltaa vastaan toimittava näkyvästi”, March 8 2019
9) Helsinki University Hospital HUS Seri-tukikeskus website, referenced November 2019
10) Suostumus2018 Citizens’ initiative website, referenced November 2019
11) “8 kysymystä ja vastausta naisiin kohdistuvan väkivallan vastaisesta työstä”, Amnesty International, December 21, 2017