Finland is ferociously proud of the freedom it grants women. “Tasa-arvo,” the Finnish word for equality, is not—as is the case with so many countries—an empty statement of intent. It is a badge of honour worn by a young nation that does indeed have the seeds of gender equality woven into its brief history.
In 1906, Finland became the first country in the world where women could be elected members of the parliament. It also became the first country in Europe to allow women to vote. It set the benchmark.
Today, Finland continues to be held up as an example of a country that embodies the principles of gender equality, exemplified by its female-led government and perhaps most of all by the young, dynamic prime minister at its helm, Sanna Marin.
Underneath this seemingly shiny exterior of female empowerment; however, lurks a stark, if inconvenient truth. Finland has one of the worst records of domestic violence in Europe.
According to a dissertation published by Tampere University last year, every other woman above the age of 15 in Finland has experienced physical or sexual violence. A shocking figure for a country known for its progressive stance on women’s rights.
Terhi Heinilä, Secretary General of the National Council of Women of Finland reveals that the country has had a long and painful history with domestic violence. The issue was even highlighted by celebrated writer and social activist Minna Canth in the nineteenth century.
For those women that relocate from other countries, Finland represents a much-needed escape from the shackles of everyday sexism and harassment. It is a place where one does not constantly feel the need to glance over their shoulder.
Katijah Wellings-Thomas, a UK native, finds it amusing when her Finnish friends and coworkers recommend she not travel alone in certain parts of Helsinki, as the city appears far safer than her hometown of London.
Sonia Cienfuegos, who moved here two years ago, also finds assurance in what she calls Finland’s respectful culture. “Just the feeling of trust in the government and the police makes a massive difference,” says Cienfuegos, who admits to being afraid to stand alone while waiting for the bus in her home country of Mexico.
However, Seija,* a Finnish woman in her forties who has survived an abusive relationship in the past, believes that the image of Finland as an idyllic safe haven is not just flawed, but dangerous.
“Finland is a safe place for women in general, yet it can be a hell for many of us,” she reveals. “The false sense of security is naive and it can lead to irreparable damage.” The bleak reality Seija describes is clearly reflected in Finland’s appalling record on domestic abuse.
The results of a survey conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) in 2012 indicated that 5 per cent of Finnish women had experienced physical violence from their partner or ex-partner within the last 12 months.
Additionally, 31 per cent of Finnish women had experienced physical violence from their partner or ex-partner at least once in their lifetime (since the age of 15).
According to the Centre for Gender Equality Information, in 2019, 77 per cent of adult victims in domestic violence cases reported to the authorities in Finland were women. Women also represented 91 per cent of adult residents in shelters for victims of domestic violence the same year.
Anna,* a marketing professional from Finland, knows women who are currently in abusive relationships. “That is, maybe, the most unsafe thing about being a woman in Finland,” she says. “You might be very safe on the streets, but when violence is domestic, there is no easy way out. It is hard to admit that you need help or even to get it.”
Heinilä draws attention to the fact that ethnic minorities and marginalised groups such as the LGBT community face an especially high rate of violence.
As per a 2011 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), sexual and gender-based violence is the foremost area of concern for all refugee communities in Finland.
While services and shelters are provided for all victims of domestic abuse, inadequate staff training leads to cultural barriers and often prevents women with a foreign background from receiving the help they need.
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has only served to worsen the pre-existing crisis in the country, with police reporting an unprecedented rise in cases of domestic violence last year.
The situation has not gone unnoticed by the international community. In a recent report, global human rights organisation Amnesty International criticised Finland’s shameful track record on domestic abuse and accused the country of not doing enough to curtail the spiralling epidemic of violence.
The UN Human Rights Committee also highlighted the rising cases of violence against women during the COVID-19 crisis in its findings on Finland.
Women in Finland do not face violence exclusively at home; however, as the digital age has enabled misogyny to take on new and ugly forms. “Online violence against women should be tackled more effectively,” asserts Heinilä.
Several ministers in Finland’s women-led cabinet have been the targets of sexist abuse and hate speech online. A report by the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence which examined online harassment of government officials in Finland found that the five ministers most frequently targeted with abusive messages on social media were all women, with Prime Minister Marin receiving the highest amount of abuse (34 per cent).
According to Heinilä, female politicians and journalists frequently face online harassment. Several female municipal leaders are deterred from actively participating in the decision-making process due to hate speech. It subsequently poses a threat to the country’s democracy.
“It’s not a simple issue,” Heinilä admits, as regulating online abuse would require extensive collaboration between government and social media representatives and would necessitate changes in legislation.
Prime Minister Marin herself acknowledged the prevalent problem of online and offline gender-based violence in a speech she gave at a virtual forum earlier this year.
Women’s safety is an issue that rarely receives the attention it needs. Incidents such as the Sarah Everard case in the UK have brought the problem to the fore once again, sparking debates about what can be done to protect women from the constant threat of danger looming behind every street corner.
“I used to think that “first world countries” never had these kinds of horrors,” reflects Cienfuegos, who lived in London for four years. Wellings-Thomas is glad that the tragedy served as a catalyst for important discussions, but feels that not enough is being done to prevent future incidents. “It is frustrating that these extreme situations must happen for change to appear necessary to those groups who are often the ones in power and don't experience these types of issues,” she says.
The streets of Finland are widely considered to be free from such dangers, yet Seija and Anna have both had bad experiences when travelling alone at night and would rather avoid walking alone in Helsinki after dark for fear of being followed or approached by male strangers. Police also recently revealed that a taxi driver is suspected of drugging and raping several female passengers in the capital city in April.
What then is Finland doing to protect women against everyday violence, both physical and virtual? And how is it attempting to solve the ever-growing crisis of domestic abuse?
Heinilä indicates that the government is preparing new acts of legislation and programmes, such as those under the Action Plan for Gender Equality for 2020–2023, which are aimed at enhancing women’s safety and improving gender equality in the country.
“We need more resources,” she states. “Women’s shelters, for instance.” According to the Finnish Institute of Health and Welfare (THL) Finland had a total of 28 shelters for victims of domestic violence in 2019. Only one additional shelter was added in 2020. The service has been funded by the state since 2015.
Heinilä also believes that education, especially for young children, is key to dismantling current outdated stereotypes concerning power and women’s role in society.
Seija points out the paradoxical lens through which Finland views femininity. “Women have been somewhat secondary to men, but at the same time there co-exists a paradigm or a myth of a powerful Nordic woman: a strong matriarch, best portrayed in Hella Wuolijoki’s series of plays about “Niskavuori,” (written between 1936–1953) where women are strong and powerful and men are weak. In the mythology of Kalevala the hostess of the North, Louhi, is clearly a matriarch. She is described as a witch with immense magical powers.”
The images are stirring, and conjure up the idea of a fiercely self-sufficient woman that requires no protection. Yet the truth remains clear: Finland needs to do more to keep women safe.
*Name changed to protect privacy