The Swedish VAW act
Besides being third best in countries’ list and the home of Abba, Sweden has created a best practice model for combating violence against women (VAW). Earlier this year, a generous invitation by the Swedish institute allowed me to witness some of the efforts in the fight of VAW in Sweden. The first stop was in the Swedish Ministry of Justice, an overview of the major developments in the VAW act ensued. Though Sweden is one of the countries where equality between men and women is adopted in laws and practice, the power relations between men and women is yet imbalanced. Thousands of reports have been filed by women subjected to assaults and violence, the perpetrators of violence is often well known to the victim as in many countries around the world. However, the response to victims is not the same. An allocation of SEK 41 million to use on variety of measures in VAW and major changes in legislation improved the government response to violence.
In 1999, a new offense “violation of a woman’s integrity” was introduced, considering repeated acts of violence against a woman by a closely-related perpetrator as a serious crime. Recognizing repeated offense to a woman as damaging to her self-confidence and integrity. The punishment of a convicted perpetrator is imprisonment for at least six months and up to six years. This is considered severe in a country abiding by human rights framework where capital punishments and prolonged imprisonments are unconstitutional. Under VAW revised act, more articles were introduced; rape definition became widened to include other sexual acts and not merely forced sexual intercourse. Moreover, neglecting to report certain sexual crimes are punishable, as well as prohibition on the purchase of all forms of sexual services. The latter was being recognized as coercion and exploitation of humans in need of monetary help. However, the law does not punish the prostitutes who sell the service, rather considering them as the weaker party in the exchange of sexual services. The VAW obliged local welfare services to provide for victims of violence who needed support according to guidelines set by the National Board of Health and Welfare. Circumcision became punishable by law and the term definition included genital mutilation. Circumcision was considered as a serious crime punishable by a minimum of two years and a maximum of four years imprisonment The law extended the criminal responsibility of a person committed the circumcision to include acts performed outside the country. Sexual harassment at work, additionally covered by the equal opportunities act, encompasses any discrimination based on sex or any unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature or other unwelcome behavior based on sex that violates the employee’s integrity at work. The VAW is gender-neutral, recognizing both sexes as potential victims or perpetrators of violence. There were a number of preventive measures adopted by the act, including assigning special governmental branches with developing programs and policies to combat VAW and follow on global development, improving statistics to include sex of offenders and follow up of cases, and setting up a special research study of VAW in Sweden in addition to other preventive measures. For someone like me coming from the world of science and research, it was a heartwarming gesture to see research translated to policy and to witness government representatives listening to research findings about the impact of VAW and the futility of capital punishment as means to resolve crimes. Intervention through counseling and special rehabilitation programs designed for incarcerated perpetrators of violence have shown improved behavioral attitudes toward violence according to the Swedish experience.
Legal intervention of VAW in Sweden
Brå, or The Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention, is a public agency directed towards researching and preventing crimes and improving the safety based on evidence. Brå represents the government agency responsible for official data and statistics on crimes including those related to VAW. Reports produced by Brå are used by the government decision-makers to generate policies and amend laws. The statistics generated by the center, showed an increase in rape and sexual crimes, explained as results of increased reporting, possibly due to better response by the governmental entities. Researchers recognized that there is a large number of hidden statistics on VAW and suggested other surveys reporting on women and perpetrators to be used for a better estimate of sexual assaults. To date, the reports are not generating statistics on perpetrators unlike the Swedish Crime Survey for instance.
In another interesting visit to the Police and Prosecution, we met two members of a team of VAW, a detective and prosecutor, who explained to us the procedures of reporting a crime related to VAW and the usual legal response. The team showed up expertise in crimes of this nature due to specialization and cooperation of the team with each others. The police follow a strict protocol in responding to cases and social services are called in while perpetrators of violence are held for investigation. The prosecutor discussed with us the emotional instability of victims, which complicates investigating violence cases and taking effective measures by victim of abuse. During the discussion, we learned that reporting crime of VAW can be done by any suspecting person and not merely by the victim, and that women choose at times to stay in abusive relationships without reporting for fear of social stigma despite the measures of protection available through the system, a finding which is common in many cultures. In fact, in a society where gender-equality is fundamental, being abused by a partner can be more shameful to a woman than in any other society and conductive to hiding abuse by the victim. Julien Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, was part of the discussion as he was being accused of sexual misconduct in cases filed by two young women in Sweden. Controversy exists as to whether charges are genuine or part of a governmental plot to control Assange political activities.
The Social Services response to VAW
In a side street without a visible sign, we reached a homey place, one in many nationwide places for shelters and women’s empowerment centers, the Swedish Association of Women’s Shelters and Young Women’s empowerment Centers. The center provides accommodation, counseling and activities tailored for victims of violence and their children. There are 140 women’s shelters centers in Sweden, operated by different organizations. In turn, the services provided are different, but generally all shelters provide accommodation and coordination between victims and different agencies in the government like the legal system and the social services. Though most women don’t have to be referred to shelters by the social services, many shelters accept women based on social services referral. Centers are largely maintained and operated by unpaid volunteers who are well oriented and trained to perform the needed tasks and duties. The centers offer education and training to young boys and girls about VAW and help in raising awareness on violence through different initiatives and activities. One of their productions “I said I had a bad dream” targeting children witnessing family violence are available by order in most languages.
The Healthcare & Counseling of VAW victims
The National Center for Knowledge on Men’s Violence against Women (NCK) is knowledge & resource center based at Uppsala University. NCK is an agency commissioned by the government to promote knowledge about VAW and to generate methods to treat victims. The center is run by a handful of staff with expertise in the field. A hotline is maintained by a well-experienced nurse who provide counseling, referral and supporting advises to victims of VAW. Through different publications, the center provides training for healthcare professionals and engage in discourse on sexual assaults and the negative consequences sustained by victims of violence. The handbook of national action programme for the healthcare and medical services reception and care of victims of sexual assaults provides a detailed guide for healthcare professionals dealing with victims of VAW.
We ended our visit at a specialized clinic dealing with victims of violence, the Södersjukhuset Rape Victim center/ Dept of Clinical Science & Education, Karolinska Institutet. We met with Dr. Lotti Helstrom, an authority in the field, where she answered our questions on women at risk. VAW occurs across all socioeconomic strata, and clinical findings of assaults are not always evident. Victims are often either in vulnerable state to resist the assault or paralyzed by fear and helplessness, making clinical signs of assault untraceable at examination. Victims’ recovery after an assault is variable and dependent on a woman’s internal strength and the availability of support and effective guidance. In answering a question about the root causes of violence, Dr. Lotti discussed the culture of violence promoted as a feature of masculinity, that to end VAW, young boys must be taught about the culture of violence and all the negative aspects associated with it.
A comparison with Saudi Arabia
Most of the figures we met have stated that the political will in Sweden has been a major force behind the concerted efforts regarding the VAW act. Maybe this was possible by a previous implementation of gender equality act and the active engagement of women in politics and decision-making. Swedish government is almost half-filled by women politicians, parliamentarians, and decision makers. Having women as fifth of the Consultative council, Saudi Arabia can begin to push the envelope further in VAW. Some research studies estimate that one in three women are living under one form of violence and that half of the Saudi children are subjected to violence. Our experience has shown that adoption of solutions without empowering victims or creating a protective legislation and a national awareness program was ineffective. We started to combat violence against women as a side job to violence against children program, both programs did not protect the target populations. Victims were left with unresponsive hotlines, inadequate shelters and social services, and lengthy, male-oriented legal system. Our solutions are fragmented, cosmetic, and misguided. The lack of evidence-based policy making and the bureaucracy of governmental action are major obstacles. Unless we start collecting statistics, create protocol for handling cases, and develop a national plan to combat VAW, women will not be saved and the cycle of violence will regenerate. Most importantly, unless we recognize VAW as a major threat to women’s health and well being, little can be offered, a political will has to be raised.