Gender equality, violence against women, and the "Nordic paradox"
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In their 2016 article, epidemiologists Gracia and Merlo draw attention to the perplexingly high levels of violence against women in Nordic countries, despite those countries scoring highly on measures of gender equality. The now widely accepted view in Australian policy is that gender inequality is the main driver of violence against women – a view supported by Australian domestic violence organisations, academics and the international literature. It is widely agreed that initiatives designed to prevent violence against women must address unequal gender power relations if they are to be effective.
So how can we explain the high rates of violence against women in Nordic nations - the "Nordic paradox" - given their high levels of gender equality?
While Gracia and Merlo conclude that more research needs to be undertaken in order to better understand this apparent paradox, they do not explore what is meant by the concept of gender equality itself, nor the debates about whether gender equality has been achieved in Nordic countries. This article will examine some of those debates and offer a more nuanced articulation of gender equality and its link to preventing violence against women.
Gender equality has predominantly been defined in relation to men and women having “equal rights, opportunities, responsibilities and access to resources” (Wall, 2014, p. 3). Past policy approaches to achieving gender equality in Western nations, including Australia, have been influenced by liberalism and civil rights, and have focused on addressing “visible gender discrimination” in employment and the law. Similarly, Nordic countries have tended to address gender inequality through a “gender participatory” model (Lister, 2009), seeking to promote parity through greater inclusion of women in the political sphere and paid employment (Lister, 2009). This was undertaken chiefly through policies that enabled parents to combine paid work and parenting, and affirmative action.
Yet it is argued that these efforts have not led to a reduction in "gender traditionalism" (Teigan & Wangnerud, 2009) and have mainly benefited white, middle-class women (Lister, 2009). Further, critics argue that greater representation in government, institutions and employment doesn’t necessarily address gender-based cultural and structural inequality, such as stereotypes, systems, and beliefs associated with the gender binary (Pease, 2015). It also doesn’t account for how groups of women experience gender inequality differently — how race, class, ethnicity, disability or sexuality, for example, can intersect with gender (Lister, 2009).
Nordic countries have been held up as "woman friendly" and equal, but feminists have critiqued this perception (Lister, 2009). In Sweden, for instance, women continue to undertake more unpaid domestic care work than men but on average work just as many paid hours as men. As such, progress toward equality in the socio-economic sphere has not worked to address the power imbalances between genders at a micro-level. Those intimate, everyday power relationships underpin acts of violence, particularly domestic violence, which did not gain as much policy attention in Nordic nations as it did in Australia (Lindvert, 2002).
In Australia, the shared framework to prevent violence against women and their children takes a more holistic approach, defining gender inequality as being perpetuated via:
“structures that continue to organise and reinforce an unequal distribution of economic, social and political power and resources between women and men; limiting social norms that prescribe the type of conduct, roles, interests and contributions expected from women and men; and the practices, behaviours and choices made on a daily basis that reinforce these gendered structures and norms.“ (Our Watch, 2015, p. 8).
The framework also makes clear the way in which other forms of systematic, political, economic, and social disadvantage and discrimination interact with gender inequality.1
When gender equality is understood in this manner, the Nordic paradox makes more sense. Preventing violence against women must do more than just normalise equality in public life, but also challenge the condoning of violence against women, promote women’s independence and decision-making in all spheres of life, challenge gender stereotypes and roles, and strengthen respectful relationships between men and women, boys and girls (Our Watch, 2015, p. 9).
Further reading and resources
- The Our Watch website lists a range of resources and publications on gender equality.
- Can quotas make gender equality happen in politics? Lessons from business is an article in The Conversation on achieving gender equality in politics.
- The urgency of intersectionality is a TED Talk by civil rights activist and legal academic Kimberlè Crenshaw, and provides an overview of the issue of intersectionality.
- Gender equality and violence against women: What’s the connection? is an AIFS discussion paper on the relationship between gender equality and violence against women.
- This article, published by The Guardian, provides a summary of the Australian Bureau of Statistics' Gender Indicators.
- Face the facts: Gender Equality is the Australian Human Rights Commission’s fact sheet on gender inequality in Australia.
Gracia, E. & Merlo, J. (2016). Intimate partner violence against women and the Nordic paradox, Social Science and Medicine, 157, pp. 27-30.
Lister, R. (2009). A Nordic Nirvana? Gender, citizenship and social justice in the Nordic Welfare States, Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State and Society, 16 (2), pp. 242-278.
Lorber, J. (1997). The variety of feminisms and their contribution to gender equality. Bibliotheks- und Informations system der Universität Oldenburg: Oldenburg.
Lindvert, J. (2002). A world apart: Swedish and Australian gender equality policy. NORA: Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research, 10 (2), pp. 98-107.
Murdulo , A. & Quizon, R. (2015). How do different forms of discrimination intersect with gender to contribute to violence against women and their children and what are the implications of this for developing inclusive prevention strategies? Paper prepared for Our Watch. Available in Change the Story: A shared framework for the primary prevention of violence against women and their children in Australia, Our Watch: Melbourne: https://www.ourwatch.org.au/change-the-story/
Our Watch. (2015). Change the Story: the National Framework for Preventing Violence against Women and their Children, Our Watch: Melbourne: Change the story | Our Watch | Preventing violence against women - Our Watch
Pease, B. (2015). Critical gender theory, gender equality and men’s violence against women: Our Watch think piece paper. Paper prepared for Our Watch. Available in Change the Story: A shared framework for the primary prevention of violence against women and their children in Australia, Our Watch, Melbourne, Australia: Change the story | Our Watch | Preventing violence against women - Our Watch
Schelin , C. (2015). Sweden is not some kind of equality paradise', The Local. Retrieved from: http://www.thelocal.se/20150310/sweden-is-not-some-kind-of-equality-paradise
Teigan, M. & Wangnerud, L. (2009). Tracing gender equality cultures: elite perceptions of gender equality in Norway and Sweden, Gender and Politics, 5, p. 21-44.
Wall, L. (2004). Gender equality and violence against women: what’s the connection? ACSSA Research Summary 7, Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies
1. For a further discussion of how other forms of discrimination interact with gender, see Murdulo & Quizon's (2015) discussion paper “How do different forms of discrimination intersect with gender to contribute to violence against women and their children and what are the implications of this for developing inclusive prevention strategies?” on page 46 of appendix three of Change the Story: A National Framework to Prevent Violence against Women and their Children (Our Watch, 2015).
Feature image by Jimmy Bay, CC0 1.0.