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How women and mums are working to make Sweden's suburbs safer

Catherine Edwards
Catherine Edwards - [email protected]
How women and mums are working to make Sweden's suburbs safer
Fatma Ipek (fourth from left) set up a group of mothers to carry out nighttime walking patrols in her neighbourhood. Photo: Catherine Edwards/The Local

"I live here, I have lived here for years, and I want to make a difference," says 64-year-old Fatma Ipek, a mum of seven who spends her weekend evenings patrolling her neighbourhood with an all-female group. Their goal is to strengthen community bonds and over time, reduce the crime rate in the area.


This feature published in 2018 is part of The Local's award-winning Sweden in Focus series, taking an in-depth look at the issues that make this country tick. Click here to read more articles.

Fittja, a suburb southwest of Stockholm's city centre, has experienced elevated levels of crime for decades, with gang violence prominent from the 1990s. It is one of Sweden's so-called 'especially vulnerable' areas, a designation given to neighbourhoods characterized by an above average crime rate that can affect the local population. 

In mid-December, a man was shot and injured in the leg, not far from the local tunnelbana (underground) station, which contains a sculpture showing a gun with a knotted barrel.

This artwork, a global symbol for non-violence, is one of the first things residents and visitors see when they arrive in the neighbourhood. The Local joined Ipek on one of her Friday evening patrols, together with eight other mums, most of them Turkish.

After a planning meeting held over traditional Turkish roasted chestnuts and strong Swedish coffee, we headed into central Fittja before beginning the route through the shopping centre, residential streets, and community gathering places.

The mums or 'night-walkers' discuss plans for the evening over a snack. Photo: Catherine Edwards/The Local

"Stop, you can't do that," Ipek sternly tells one man standing by the Lidl supermarket who is apparently drunk.

His friend apologizes, promising to look after him, and she moves over to compliment a group of young men on their smart attire in suits and ties. They are meeting to go to a friend's wedding, and promise to invite Ipek to the next such event.

When asked if she knows a lot of the young people here personally, Ipek smiles broadly. "Oh yes! They help me, if something happens; they support me," she says.

During the almost one-hour walk around the neighbourhood, groups of teenagers stop to ask the women how they are and to offer hugs to Ipek, who also cheerfully greets local business owners. The mums pass by the neighbourhood's Diversity Centre and Ungdomens Hus (a community centre intended to offer social and leisure activities to young adults in the area), and into the local school, which is still open and serving food and drinks from the canteen. 

"We aren't looking out for anything special," one of the women explains as Ipek chats to a few youngsters she knows in the canteen. "If we see anyone fighting or arguing, we call the police. But I've been doing this for five months and I've never seen anything."

So how does it feel when she's out on weekend evenings? "I feel happy. Very, very happy."

"It has helped me become integrated in the Swedish culture," she adds. "I like being a part of it; it feels good to be out and to gather together and walk."

A residential part of Fittja at night. Photo: Catherine Edwards/The Local

This explanation highlights the dual role of the walk. The presence of adults is intended to set a good example to youngsters and potentially help de-escalate and troubled situations, but it's also a way for women in an area with a high proportion of immigrants to meet each other and gain some independence.

Residents of especially vulnerable areas are more likely to feel unsafe when out in their neighbourhood at nighttime, with 38 percent saying they felt unsafe at night in comparison to 27 percent in other urban areas of Sweden, according to a report by Sweden's National Council for Crime Prevention, Brå.

Among women, the figure was even higher. Over half said they felt unsafe at night.

Ipek is also working on organizing Swedish and English courses for the women, many of whom moved to Sweden as adults and have spent much of their time at home, making it hard to learn the language. These classes are aimed at giving the mothers more opportunity for involvement in local community life, as well as boosting confidence.

She has also travelled around the country sharing some of the lessons her group has learned – and their successes. Last year, she was named Sweden's Trailblazer of the Year at an awards ceremony held by Aftonbladet, one of the country's largest newspapers, for setting up her group of all-female 'night-walkers' four years ago.

A similar group of mothers now patrols the streets in Rinkeby, another area designated as 'especially vulnerable' by police in the north of Stockholm, and earlier this year, a mothers' walking group was launched in Sofielund, Malmö.

"There have been a lot of problems in Fittja, but children and young people have told me it feels safer and calmer now. I just want to help children and to help Fittja; people have moved to Sweden to build their lives here and we want people to feel safe in their neighbourhood," Ipek tells The Local.

At first, she had planned to work together with local men on the scheme, but says some of the men weren't happy with the idea of women playing a key role.

"The whole time, men were deciding. I thought, 'there are women here who can help too' so I made this a women's group – I created Kvinnokraft. I live here, I have lived here for years and I want to make a difference."

"The young people show me a lot of respect," she adds. "Children don't listen to dads, they listen to mums! My group does an important job."

The mums walk across a car park during their patrol. Photo: Catherine Edwards/The Local

The Fittja mums make up part of a wider network of 'night walkers'; local citizens who have taken the safety of their community into their own hands.

These initiatives have been going on across Sweden on a local level for decades, and since 2008 the umbrella organization has helped the groups with company sponsorship (providing equipment such as jackets), support, and a national network of night-walkers.

Susanne Bakken from Bjuv in Skåne, southern Sweden, was named this year as the organization's 'Night-walker of the year' as part of the tenth anniversary celebrations. Bakken set up a group of regular volunteers after first getting involved in night-walking through her job, and now they patrol in three different areas using a car provided by the local municipality.

"I felt like there was a lack of adults on the streets. I have grown-up children myself and I thought it was important to do it," she tells The Local.

"I feel like I'm making a difference," she adds. "The young people are really positive, they recognize the jackets and they chat to us. Adults need to show they are present and here to help. It's had a positive effect on me, I never would have thought I'd go out as often as I do now! We are very close to each other because we meet so often."

Another night walker, Sargit Sundström who leads the group in Märsta in Stockholm's north, has over 20 years of experience with nattvandring; when she started work in the social services in 1999, it was part of her role to do these walks during busy times such as the end of the school year and public holidays, despite the formally organized patrols not yet existing. Now, she works with the local municipality to arrange the walks.

"I've worked with children and young people my whole life, and it's so important for them to have adults they can turn to and talk to, to offer support. It can help them find some calmness – it's hard to tell what," she says. "We also get to know other people through the night-walking."

On a typical evening, the walkers will meet first and organizers distribute jackets, mobile phones if needed and emergency contact numbers, as well as log books for noting anything important – this includes any disturbances, but also issues such as broken street lighting or vandalism. They then split into groups, usually of no fewer than three, and walk through different areas of town where people tend to gather at night: playgrounds, public transport stations, and town squares, for example.

The Fittja mums talk with young people in the local school canteen, which stays open on Friday evenings. Photo: Catherine Edwards/TheLocal

These initiatives exist across the length and breadth of the country, but can have a particular value in those neighbourhoods classified as 'especially vulnerable' such as Fittja and Rinkeby.

This is because of the different challenges faced in these areas: not even necessarily relating to the crime rate, but linked to the demographic and social differences.

Felipe Estrada-Dörner, a criminologist who studies trends in criminality and how this relates to social exclusion and other social problems, says it is important not to exaggerate the picture of criminality in Sweden's vulnerable areas. He says that "no-go zones" where it's dangerous to live or even spend time in don't exist in Sweden, but there are other big differences which impact how safe a place might feel and the quality of life residents can expect there.

"There are some big differences in resources. This might relate to how good the schools are – we know this is an important factor and that schools are very segregated in Sweden today – it might be the possibility of finding work and having good transport connections that allow you to get to a job in the centre or to be a part of the community," Estrada-Dörner explains.

"We also have a high population density in these areas with a lot of young people, many unemployed, and you need things for them to do in their free time – they need somewhere to be during daytime and evenings and if that's not provided, they end up in public spaces and in the worst cases, may get involved in drug dealing or crime. On top of that, high rates of instability and migration in these areas makes it harder to forge a sense of community."

"Everything that brings people together to work for the benefit of the community creates a positive dynamic," he says.

Another common characteristic of these neighbourhoods is a low rate of crime-reporting, often driven by fear of retaliation from gang members. Collaboration between residents and police can help combat this, and in Fittja, the nighttime patrols are just part of a patchwork of engaging residents in initiatives to improve safety.

Another project in Fittja has seen nine women, all of whom have been unemployed for several years, given paid employment by a local housing company, Botkyrkabyggen. 

The women work to keep the common areas clean, improving the living environment and in return they get paid work and Swedish lessons. Their presence on a daily basis has multiple benefits: the areas are cleaner than when weekly cleaners were employed, the fact that other residents know who is cleaning their hallways raises the incentive to keep spaces clean, and the women's presence may also deter loitering or petty crime. 

In October, after the first year of the project went successfully in Fittja, the scheme was expanded to nearby Norsborg and Botkyrkabyggen hopes to employ 100 such women by 2025.

"It's not just a project anymore, it's a part of our business," explains Chris Österlund, the company's CEO. "The idea is to make these women independent, so they have a salary and can make choices for themselves. That's the primary goal, but we've also seen other positive consequences. These women live in the areas where they work and we know from research that that creates a good environment. The perceived safety among our tenants has increased – it's very natural, the tenants feel safer.

"Of course, we have some broken lights, some graffiti and some crime. We can't ignore that, it's a fact. Qvinna i Botkyrka is just one thing we do; we also work with the municipality and Brå for example, to make a weekly analysis of each area in order to be able to synchronize resources with the police and municipality so they know where to do their patrols. It's all these things together that make a difference," she says.

"The areas that have got the label of vulnerable should be like any other area. Every person, no matter where they live in Sweden, has the same right to be safe. But in order to get there, in order for it to be a safe place for everyone, everyone needs to help," says police officer Christoffer Bohman.

Bohman works in Stockholm's Järva area including Rinkeby, and his work involves close coordination with the night patrol groups in that neighbourhood.

He notes that there are many factors which may affect the crime rate in Sweden's vulnerable areas, from population overcrowding to lower socio-economic status to different behavioural norms. Nattvandring won't change the former two factors, but it can be crucial in adjusting behaviour – and perception of other people's behaviour. 

For example, Bohman says that night-walking initiatives can help change the perspective of young men hanging around in public spaces and make people more comfortable about sharing space with these groups.

"It might not be criminal gangs that are there, but there's a connection to criminality when you see these men hanging around, so that affects people's feeling of safety even if the groups aren't actually doing anything wrong," he says.  

And he shares Fatma Ipek's assessment that women and mothers have a unique role to play in this collaboration.

"We see a lot of initiatives specifically from mums, and we know that mums are something that people respect in a different way, even compared to other adults," Bohman tells The Local. 

"I think it has an effect to have adults who are a collective, boundary-setting power and a visible presence in these environments, in these areas with a lot of people. If you think of those who need a parental presence the most, it's those who haven't had enough of a parental presence during their upbringing, and you often see that among young criminals," he says.

"No one has a monopoly on the solution. We need the police, we need security guards, we need night walkers, we need everyone. It's important to create the right conditions for nattvandring, we don't want them to take on the role of the police or social services, it's just about having an adult presence. But we others who have a good understanding of the problems, can help them."

He adds that he thinks the level of collaboration between the different groups and the police is good, but adds that the community volunteers might have a different opinion, and that "of course you can always do more".

Crime researcher Estrada-Dörner agrees that the role of the community is crucial when it comes to improving perceived safety.

"Whether it reduces crime rate is not as clear; there's not such an obvious link between criminality and safety as you might think – you have to separate the two," he says. "But even if crime rate is not changed, it can make a big difference when it comes to how safe people feel. When residents have the opportunity to engage themselves in the local area, it gives hope: here, we care about each other, you don't need people in uniform to come in."

"When people know that it's their own neighbours, parents of people they know, this can often have greater legitimacy than formal checks which are sometimes offered in the form of police and others."

Estrada-Dörner refers to studies into 'collective efficacy' or the power of people within a community to control behaviour, for example through norm-setting as well as supervision of areas. This changes the relationship with the local area, setting the standard for other forms of engagement in the future, from political campaigning to joining a sports team to other community volunteer work.

And all this can make a huge difference in these areas: in the best case, setting off a domino or ripple effect for decades to come.

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[email protected] 2018/12/22 18:13
This is a nice feel good article but ignores the main problems in these "problem areas" - it's overpopulated by migrants who (for the most part) are not friendly towards women or even think of women as their equals.<br />These men bring their cultures and ways and refuse to take on Swedish culture.<br /><br />The articles talk about women 'patrolling' the neighbourhoods in these highest crime areas in Sweden, while it's the men there (quite possibly some of their husbands) who are committing the crimes (unless someone is suggesting it's the Swedes who are committing crimes there? )... this is clearly not a real solution.<br /><br />While the tone of the article was quite upbeat, I am saddened to think that it's gotten so bad that the local women have to take it upon themselves because the police feel it's unsafe for them to handle the situation is a proper manner.<br /><br />Further down the article was something that was just... so Swedish.<br />An 'expert' saying there are no "no go" zones in Sweden while the women who live in these communities themselves are saying they don't feel safe. Personally, I'll trust the women who live there than an "expert" sitting in an office who wouldn't dare go to one of these no go zones, alone, after dark.

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