The Nordic countries have long been perceived as international leaders in the promotion of human rights: pioneers in progressive politics, gender equality and social cohesion.
Given that sexual violence is fundamentally a matter of human rights, it seems implausible that Nordic societies could possibly have a pervasive problem with sexual assault. But recent findings from European agencies and reports from non-governmental organisations suggest otherwise.
Failing in its obligations
Contemporary media has been a key initiator when it comes to opening up the discourse relating to crimes of a sexual nature, and this has undoubtedly been a major driver in the progression of women’s rights.
As women have become increasingly confident that their experiences of assault will be taken seriously – and crucially that the community will act to console rather than condemn – more cases are brought to the attention of the authorities.
Yet from a legal perspective, a recent Amnesty International report resolutely declared that Denmark is “failing to live up to its human rights obligations to protect women against rape, investigate rape crimes, prosecute those responsible and provide compensation to victims”.
Rape and sexual assault incidents are as complex as they are intolerable, leading to many cases remaining unreported and victims lacking the justice they deserve.
The European perspective
A survey conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) questioned around 900 women from each EU state (40,000 European women in total) about whether they had experienced any form of gender-related violence since the age of 15. Assault was defined by the study as including physical violence, emotional abuse, stalking or rape.
The results revealed that the average ‘yes’ response across Europe was 33 percent. In stark contrast, in was 46 percent in Sweden and as high as 52 percent in Denmark.
Why is it that Denmark and Sweden – the two countries which ranked the best for gender equality in 2017 – throw up such alarming statistics? Confusingly, countries perceived as being the most socially and economically developed stood at the undesirable top end of the rankings, whilst more authoritarian and illiberal countries stood at the other.
More openness needed
A few years ago, the ‘Case Closed: Rape and Human Rights in the Nordic Countries’ report from Amnesty International detailed various deficiencies in legal practice relating specifically to rape crimes in the Nordic countries.
One section refers directly to rape in Denmark. The report found that whilst each year approximately 500 rape allegations are reported to the police, three quarters of rape incidents remain unreported. A significant issue, Amnesty International contended, arises from the Danish legal system. It was found that only 20 percent of rape cases brought to trial ended with a conviction. A lack of cases being brought to trial means a lack of transparency.
The report concluded that more cases should be assessed in open court, that research should be conducted into the quality of police investigations (as was done in Sweden and Norway), and that police and prosecutors should receive training in the area of sexual assault.
Defining the crime
In a report released earlier this month, Amnesty International claimed that Denmark has a “pervasive rape culture”. The latest report, ‘Give Us Respect and Justice! Overcoming Barriers to Justice for Women Rape Survivors in Denmark’, explicitly blames social stigma and flawed legislation.
The primary concern is that Danish law defines rape according to the use of violence, threat or coercion. Forced threats are not present in all cases of rape, meaning the current law does not adequately reflect the complex realities of rape. Instead, Amnesty International contends, rape should be defined on the basis of a lack of sexual consent.
Kumi Naidoo, secretary general of Amnesty International, insists that “failure to recognise this in law leaves women exposed to sexual violence and fuels a dangerous culture of victim-blaming and impunity, reinforced by myths and stereotypes that pervade Danish society: from playground to the locker room, and from the police station to the witness stand.”
Denmark signed the Istanbul Convention in 2014 that asserts that all non-consensual sexual acts must be criminalised, but the country has yet to absorb these measures into domestic legislation. Following the report, the justice minister, Søren Pape Poulsen, came out in support of consent-based amendments to Danish law.
Stepping up to the plate
The findings from these reports should be of immense concern to every Danish citizen. Simply put, the Danish legal system does not protect Danish women adequately from sexual crime.
Yet it is a mistake to assert that Denmark as a society is more dangerous for women than any other country. The reports do not claim that Danish men are more inclined to sexual violence than men of any other nationality: the issue is in the social perception of rape, and in domestic legislative protection mechanisms.
In so many respects, Denmark is a world leader in providing equal opportunities for women, but there is a glaring need for the country to step up. It is not enough only to support women to be their best, it is also vital to support women when the worst has happened to them.
Plenty of room for improvement
Perhaps political discourse has become distracted by international praise, but it is time for Danish politicians to remember there is always room to improve. Sexual assault is an international issue that sees women too often – despite being the victim – carry the burden of the legal system’s failings.
Simple amendments such as reforming the law to define rape on the basis of consent would be significant steps towards meaningful change. Addressing the inadequacy in the laws relating to rape is the first and most urgent step needed to re-establish the international perception of Denmark.