Zero Tolerance – A summary

The Nordic countries unite against gender-based violence

Zero Tolerance was the title of a seminar on actions against gender-based violence, held on the 25th of September 2014 at the Grand Hotel Reykjavík. The seminar was part of Iceland’s presidency programme in the Nordic Council of Ministers for the year 2014; the fight against gender-based violence being one of the focus issues of Nordic cooperation. The event was jointly organised by the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Welfare and the Centre for Gender Equality, Iceland, in cooperation with the Nordic Council of Ministers. 

Nine lectures were given at the seminar among them an introduction of the Council of Europe Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence and national obligations in this context. The Convention remained a focus issue in the ensuing discussion. Two lectures dealt with a new survey of violence against women in 28 European countries. Then there was a presentation of a brand new and unique Swedish review of legislation, regulations and actions adopted in that country in the fight against violence. The lectures were followed by presentations of successful projects from each Nordic country.

The first lecture of the seminar was given by José Mendes Bota, Member of the Portuguese Parliament and chairman of the European Council’s team of experts that developed the Istanbul Convention. In his speech, he presented strong arguments with regards to the causes of gender-based violence, originating in masculine cultures and systemic consequences of a dominant patriarchy.  All men share the responsibility for gender-based violence, although they may not be actively involved, and a joint effort is required to eradicate it.

A third at risk

The seminar included the presentation of a survey of the extent of gender-based violence in 28 European countries, commissioned by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. Arni Hole who represented the Agency gave an account of the preparations for the survey and outlined its significance. At the end of her lecture, she emphasised the importance of never losing sight of the root of the problem; that is, a lack of gender equality education in schools and the accepted notions of traditional gender roles.  She said the question that needs to be asked is “why, why, why?”. Sami Nevala summarised the main conclusions of the survey which comprised 42 thousand interviews with women all over Europe. The results show that a third of the respondents have been subjected to physical or psychological violence after the age of 15. The women were also asked about the consequences of the violence and many of them, especially those who have been victims of sexual abuse, have feelings of guilt and shame, combined with fear of reporting to the police. In general, only a fraction of those crimes are reported and only a small proportion of victims seek help.

A public health issue – individually based solutions

Carin Götblad is a former police commissioner in Stockholm and the Swedish government’s counsellor on matters relating to violence. She presented an enquiry she led in Sweden with regard to those issues; furthermore, she based her talk on her own experience and knowledge. The final report outlines 50 proposals to the Swedish government; for example the systematic scanning of violence within the health sector across all professions. Such an initiative needs to be conducted with care so as not to shock or offend the person being interviewed. It is also important to approach people in an environment they are familiar with, for example the home and always to show due consideration to individuals concerned. Thus the approach and measures to be taken must always be individually based. The report contains a special chapter on children and how they must be protected. The Swedish enquiry is the first of its kind and it clearly underlines that gender-based violence is a public health issue. In Sweden a committee has already been appointed to implement the proposals.

Which way works?

During the second half of the seminar successful Nordic projects were presented. Dorte Rievers Bindslev from Denmark emphasised the importance of an action plan for each country. In Denmark, work has been carried out according to special coordinated plans for four years at a time and now the fourth action plan is being implemented. At the end of each period, an assessment is conducted as to what has been successful and where further action is needed. It was realised early in the process that violence is prone to occur in young couple relationships. As a result, special attention was paid to young people. Education has been a particular area of emphasis and this approach has been successful. There is now less violence in close relationships in Denmark and violent relationships are of a shorter duration. This is believed to relate to the fact that women now know where to seek help. Current actions involve increased focus on individuals of foreign origin and on human trafficking.

María Gunnarsdóttir from the social service department of Reykjanes municipality gave an account of the Suðurnes-project which is characterised by broad-based consultation between social services, health care, police and other groups concerned with domestic violence. A violent individual is removed from the home and early intervention, combined with follow-up action, constitutes a key element in the successful prevention of further violations. Due to its success, this project has attracted considerable attention.

There was considerable discussion relating to women shelters and the safety of children who are the victims of violence. The participants agreed on the obligations of the state as expressed in the Istanbul Convention. Suitable approaches may vary, however and in this respect grass roots knowledge and strength may play a critical role. In Finland the state has a legal obligation to ensure safe houses for victims of violence. In Norway this is the legal responsibility of municipalities.  Mendes Bota is of the opinion that the participation of the community is of vital importance; the main point must not be forgotten, however, which is finding a place in society for the perpetrator of violence, taking appropriate measures with regard to residence, counselling, treatment, penalty if appropriate and follow-up required to prevent further violence. In all cases, the victims should be able to stay in their homes. An unsolved problem remains, however, regarding those who do not seek assistance from authorities. The difficulties must be mapped, analysed and satisfactory solutions found to bring about an end to the violence. In the event that the victims of sexual abuse decide to express themselves and seek help, health service staff is usually the first to hear their story.  It is important, therefore, to have a special contingency plan in readiness when such circumstances arise, both to identify the issues at stake and to work with the victims. Helena Ewalds from the Finnish Health and Welfare Ministry described the systematic scanning of violence among clients as it has been practised in Finland. The best method of preventing violence is talking about it. Systematic scanning in the health and social sector where, among other things, questions are posed regarding violence adds to the safety of both victims and staff. A procedure of this kind will assist in providing victims with the necessary help. 

Dag Simen Grøtterud from the Oslo police has long experience of dealing with issues related to gender- based and domestic violence.  He told participants about greatly improved instructions and education for the entire Oslo police force aimed at improving their knowledge of violence-related matters, enabling them to promptly identify problems and respond more effectively to them. He described the risk assessment SARA which is used by the Norwegian police and is now being adopted country-wide. 

Juno Blom has for many years been working within the social- and health services in Sweden. She spoke with insight and knowledge earned by her comprehensive experience as she has played a leading role in these matters in Eastern Gothland and been a consultant to the Swedish government. She spoke of honour killings and described the traumatic event in Sweden when Fadime Sahindal, of Kurdish origin, was murdered by her father in 2002. Swedish authorities were suddenly confronted with a frightening reality. Action were urgently needed and it was necessary to maintain constant vigilance. June Blom gave an overview of instructions and education in Sweden especially highlighting programmes aimed at young people of foreign origin. Juno Blom discussed the extent of gender-based violence, how it is often hidden, how children experience it with their mothers, brothers and sisters or alone. It is the responsibility of society as a whole to eradicate the violence.

Cooperation, understanding, knowledge and funding 

The conclusion of the seminar is that gender-based violence is systematic, widespread and appears in many different forms. It has been researched within various disciplines, the concept is well-known and its extent is fairly well understood. The consequences of gender-based violence for each community are economic, political, social and health-related. The violence often has severe consequences on the victim’s health, which may even lead to social isolation and exclusion. The violence occurs in every community, independent of social class, culture and religion. To achieve success, different professions must cooperate, problems must be identified in initial stages and an action plans must be in implemented. Within administrative circles there is a need for increased knowledge and understanding of this matter and different social groups must join forces. It is demonstrated, both by statistics and serious consequences that preventive measures are required, both with regard to perpetrators and victims. Vulnerable groups and individuals must be identified and protection must reach those who need it most. Women with disabilities are at much higher risk of being exposed to violence than others and this must be taken into consideration. Last but not least, increased knowledge and funding is required in support of more focus on gender equality in general, especially within education.

In closing remarks given by Eygló Harðardóttir, the Icelandic Minister for Gender Equality, the importance of preventive actions was emphasized in addition to the need for further research. She also informed participants of the seminar about plans by several Icelandic ministers aimed at joining forces across different policy areas to eradicate gender-based violence.