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21 June 2006

On 21 June 2006, Prof. Yakin Ertürk, the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Human Rights Council on violence against women, its causes and consequences issued the following press statement:

“I would like to thank the Swedish Government for inviting me to undertake an official fact-finding mission on the situation of violence against women in the country. During the course of my mission, I have visited Stockholm, Uppsala, Malmö, Lund and Luleå. I held consultations with national and local authorities, women’s organisations and other civil society actors, and appreciated how open, informed and well prepared they were. I also visited shelters for women and talked to women who suffered extreme violence. I would like to express my special gratitude to them for sharing their personal experience, which has contributed to enhancing my understanding of the diverse manifestations of violence against women and how it is dealt with in Sweden.

Gender equality is a highly valued principle in the Swedish society. Public discourse and public policy in this regard is firmly established within an equal opportunity framework, which has led to impressive advances towards the achievement of equality between women and men in the public sphere, although challenges remain. For example, while women are overrepresented in the service sector, part-time and low paid jobs, they remain underrepresented in senior management positions in private business and in some important public institutions such as the police and the armed forces. Also of concern is the existence of a gender wage gap whereby women earn less than their male counterparts in comparable positions.

The gender equality experience in Sweden has been a contradictory process. While the equal opportunity agenda has paved the way for public representation of women, it was not effective in countering the deeply rooted patriarchal gender norms that sustain unequal power relations between women and men. As a result, the root causes of violence against women remained unchallenged and perceived as pertaining to the private realm of life. In the quest for equality, violence against women is said to have become normalized and personalized.

The increased recognition of this contradiction is reflected in the 1990 Government Bill on Gender Equality, which sees violence against women as an expression “of the prevailing imbalance of power relations between the sexes.” A 2001 survey, commissioned by the Government, found that 46% of all women have experienced male violence since their fifteenth birthday. 12% had been subjected to such violence in the last year prior to the survey. The study also highlights that those men who perpetrate violence against women can be found at all income and education levels. Contrary to common stereotypes, they are “normal”, more often than not, Swedish-born men. Similarly, women who suffer gender-based violence can be found in all segments of society.

The legislative and institutional response of the authorities to violence against women in Sweden is impressive. By way of example, I would like to highlight the 2005 reform of the Penal Code, which now recognizes that sexual intercourse or comparable acts with a person while exploiting a state of helplessness constitutes a form of rape. Also commendable is the existence of almost 150 shelters run by non-governmental organisations in a country of only nine million people, which offer protection to women who escape protracted situations of violence. A number of these shelters battle with considerable resource constraints, which makes their work even more remarkable.

Yet, despite the strengthened legislative framework, only about 10% of all reported crimes of sexual violence result in a prosecution of the perpetrator. Enhanced understanding of gender hierarchies in different settings, specific training of police, social services staff, medical personnel and judges as well as employment of more proactive methods in investigating cases of gross violations of a woman’s integrity could bridge the gap. There also appear to be considerable differences among Sweden’s autonomous municipalities in the way they discharge their responsibility to protect and assist women victims of violence. More public scrutiny and guidance must be directed towards municipalities that are lagging behind.

While it needs to be emphasized that violence against women remains a mainstream problem in Sweden, some groups of women appear to face higher risks of violence because they are at the cross-roads of intersecting systems of oppression and discrimination. Women with alcohol or drug problems, women with disabilities or mental illness, lesbian women, Saami women and women from immigrant communities are among these groups. They deserve to receive special protection and assistance from both the State and society at large.

Although, with respect to violence against immigrant women, the murders of Pela Atroshi and Fadime ?ahindal have attracted much public attention, the Swedish society appears to tip-toe around an open public debate on how to dissolve seeming contradictions between the principles of gender equality and cultural diversity in practice. In this regard, it is important to recall that cultural, traditional or religious considerations can never be invoked to justify any form of violence against women. Yet, it is equally important not to entrench a false dichotomy between what is referred to as “honour-related violence” and other forms of violence against women.

Finally, I would like to briefly comment on the 1998 law through which Sweden criminalized the buying of sex, while at the same time decriminalizing women (and men) in prostitution. Unfortunately, a comprehensive and independent review of the effects this policy has had on human trafficking and on violence against women in prostitution has yet to be undertaken. A number of my interlocutors have suggested that the trafficking of women to Sweden has become less lucrative and therefore shifted to other countries. At the same time, however, I also received reports that women who remain in the low-end of the prostitution sector, especially drug addicted women, are now more vulnerable to violence and remain largely excluded from public policy measures.

Thank you for your attention.”