Sweden's image as an international forerunner in the fight for gender equality has been damaged by recent reports comparing rape statistics across various countries.
A recent study commissioned by the European Union (EU) found that Sweden has the highest incidence of reported rapes in Europe.
And an Amnesty International report on rape in the Nordic Countries took Sweden to task last autumn for what the human rights organization saw as an abysmally low conviction rate for rape cases.
Released in September 2008, the Amnesty report - Case Closed - examines issues surrounding rape and human rights in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland.
Despite Sweden's considerable emphasis on women's rights, currently ranking an impressive 3rd place in the UN global gender-related development index, instances of reported violence against women are showing no signs of abating.
In fact, statistics published by the National Council of Crime Prevention (BRÅ) show that the number of sexual offences reported from January to August 2008 saw a 9 percent increase compared to the same period in 2007.
Amnesty's most damning criticism of Sweden relates to the considerable disparity between the number of rapes reported and the conviction rate.
Case Closed highlights the damning evidence that, despite the number of rapes reported to the police quadrupling over the past 20 years, the percentage of reported rapes ending in conviction is markedly lower today than it was in 1965.
Sweden’s profile in terms of violence against women has also attracted concern from the United Nations.
As UN rapporteur Yakin Ertürk comments in a special report released in February 2007, there is a notable discrepancy “between the apparent progress in achieving gender equality and the reports of continued violence against women in the country.”
The statistics are certainly alarming. Results from the annual, government commissioned National Safety Survey (NTU), which is conducted by BRÅ, indicate that the actual number of rapes in Sweden in 2006 was estimated to be close to 30,000.
If this figure is correct, then it indicates that as few as 5-10 percent of all rapes are reported to the police.
Equally disturbing is the statistic from BRÅ stating that in 2007, less than 13 percent of the 3,535 rape crimes reported resulted in a decision to start legal proceedings.
Over the past ten years there has been a 58 percent increase in reported sex crimes and according to BRÅ, it is now statistically more likely for a person in Sweden to be sexually assaulted than robbed.
The phenomenon of alleged offences not formally being reported to the police or dropped before reaching court is termed 'attrition'.
Amnesty slams the Swedish judicial system and the prevalence of attrition within it, concluding that, "in practice, many perpetrators enjoy impunity."
In analyzing attrition and the failings of the police and judicial system, Case Closed draws attention to “discriminatory attitudes about female and male sexuality,” which may cause police investigators to “assume that women who report rape are lying or mistaken.”
This in turn brings up the notion of ‘real rape’ and the ‘ideal victim’. Researchers for Amnesty found that frequently:
“Young (drunk) women, in particular, have problems fulfilling the stereotypical role of the ‘ideal victim’, with the consequence that neither rapes within intimate relationships nor ‘date rapes’ involving teenage girls result in legal action.”
Helena Sutourius, an expert in legal proceedings in sexual offence cases concludes that, in Sweden, “the focus appears to be on the woman’s behaviour, rather than on the act that is the object of the investigation.”
In addition to challenging victim and crime stereotypes, perceptions surrounding ‘typical’ perpetrators must also be considered. The UN Special Report discusses how there is a widespread belief that the type of men who commit intimate-partner violence are not typical, ‘normal’ Swedes.
They are usually imagined as somewhat ‘deviant’ - unemployed, uneducated, alcoholic or from non-Western backgrounds, and so on. However, as Ertürk challenges: “In absolute numbers, the vast majority of the perpetrators of intimate-partner violence are ‘ordinary’ Swedish men.”
In a country where women’s rights feature high on the public agenda, there is a pervasive “fear of public shame - being regarded as a tragic failure in a country of supposed gender equality” especially among well-educated and successful Swedish women, which creates yet another obstacle for the victims of violence and rape, the UN report concludes.
Lina Plong from the National Centre for Knowledge on Men’s Violence against Women (NCK), based at Uppsala University, tells The Local:
“There is a real concern as to why the instances of rape and violence are not decreasing, despite the law becoming more strict and there being more public information available than ever. We need to concentrate on educating those professionals working in the area."
Amnesty has also condemned the limited amount of scrutiny of and research into the quality of rape crime investigations in Sweden as, “a serious shortcoming that needs to be addressed immediately.”
The Case Closed report states that, “while an impressive level of gender equality has been achieved in the so-called public spheres [in Sweden]…this achievement seems to have halted at the doorsteps of private homes.”
In its conclusion, Amnesty blames "deeply rooted patriarchal gender norms" of Swedish family life and sexual relationships as a "major societal flaw" and a reason for the continued prevalence of violence against women in Sweden.