Norway has the reputation of being one of the most gender-egalitarian countries in the world. But a recent report about sexual violence against women in Norway — where one in 10 women over the age of 15 has been raped — sadly suggests that gender equality and an extensive infrastructure to address rape cases are not sufficient to prevent violence against women.
The Norwegian Justice Ministry says that at least 80 percent of those cases of rape are never officially reported while only ten percent end in a conviction. Furthermore, 9 percent of women experience sexual assault in a relationship, says a 2005 survey by the Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research. Indeed, Norway is one of 127 countries in the world in which rape within marriage is not explicitly criminalized.
Laura Turquet, chief author of the U.N. 2011 Progress of the World’s Women report, says that explicit criminalization of spousal rape is necessary because
“Explicit legislation accompanied by clear protocols send a very clear message to the police and the courts that sexual violence is never a private matter.”
A 2009 study of 11 European countries conducted by Liz Kelly, director of the Child and Women Abuse Studies Unit at London Metropolitan University, found that rapists are often “well known” to their victims and that most rapes occur in a private location:
According to a 2009 study of 11 European countries co-authored by Ms. Kelly, one of the rare international comparisons so far undertaken, 61 percent of rapes took place in a private space, most frequently the home of the victim or perpetrator. Two-thirds of suspects were known to the victim, and 25 percent were current or former partners.
Injury rates in rapes appear to be far higher in victims of former and current partners. The 2009 European study found severe injuries in 50 percent and 40 percent of those cases respectively, against 24 percent in stranger rape.
However, only 14 percent of suspects in partner rape have been convicted. In contrast, forty percent of rapes in which the accused did not know the victim but was successfully identified were prosecuted and more than 70 percent convicted. Moreover, suspects who were immigrants were “particularly likely to be punished” — suggesting, in the case of Norway, that those who do not appear to be “stereotypical racists” are rarely charged.
Helle Nesvold, a doctor at Norway’s oldest rape assault center, notes that the majority of women who have been sexually assaulted by a partner do not come to the center for a forensic exam and only 60 percent of those who do wish to report the assault to the police. Police as well as prosecutors bear some responsibility for this:
In 25 years at the center, Ms. Nesvold has seen several cases of what appeared to her evidence of forced sexual intercourse excluded from the criminal case because the police and prosecutors did not believe it would stand up in court, and they preferred to focus on evidence of nonsexual violence. She also said that many sexually abused women simply refuse to talk about their experience.
“What we ultimately need is a much more comprehensive structure where women exposed to domestic violence are systematically asked about sexual abuse,” she said. Nurses, teachers, midwives should routinely ask the question, she added, to get victims to open up
Kelly of London Metropolitan University suggests that “as a society moves to redistribute power between genders, there might be a transitional period where violence rises as the last expression of male domination.”
Even as women gain in status and gain more economic clout, men “may resort to their physical strength,” out of fears of emasculation, of feeling threatened. Could the continued high rate of sexual violence against women in Norway be in some way related to the country’s gender equality? If this is the case, what — despite its elaborate system — is Norway not doing to ensure that women not only have equal rights, but live in a society in which they can speak out about the violence that too often occurs to them?
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