Nordic countries: Survivors of rape unite to end impunity for rapists and break barriers to justice

Despite being among the top-ranking countries in the world in terms of gender equality, four Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden) have disturbingly high levels of rape and survivors of sexual violence are being failed by their justice systems, Amnesty International said in a report published today. 

Time for change: Justice for rape survivors in the Nordic countries reveals that flawed legislation and widespread harmful myths and gender stereotypes have resulted in endemic impunity for rapists across the region.

If women come together and bravely speak out – change is not just possible: it is inevitable
Kristine Holst, rape survivor from Denmark

“It is a paradox that Nordic countries, which have strong records of upholding gender equality, suffer shockingly high levels of rape,” said Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty International’s Secretary General. 

“Social stigma and a lack of trust in the justice system often mean that women and girls fail to report attacks, and those that do, are frequently failed by callous and prejudiced justice systems or outdated laws. One survivor told us she would never have reported her rape if she had known how she would have been be treated, and her story is typical in justice systems which are stacked against rape survivors.”

Whilst the situation facing survivors of rape is not uniform across the four Nordic countries, there are disturbing parallels among them whose criminal justice systems ignore, deny and tacitly condone sexual violence against women.

It is a paradox that Nordic countries, which have strong records of upholding gender equality, suffer shockingly high levels of rape
Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty International

A first step towards protecting women and girls from rape is to adopt and effectively implement consent-based laws on sexual violence, and there has been some recent progress in this area. So far, Sweden is the only one of the four Nordic countries to have passed a consent-based law, but Denmark has recently announced that they support consent legislation, and in Finland the Ministry of Justice is preparing a complete reform of sexual crimes legislation, which aims to “strengthen the role of consent”.

Definition of rape based on violence and incapacity

Under the Istanbul Convention, a human rights treaty ratified by all the Nordic countries, rape and all other non-consensual acts of a sexual nature must be classified as criminal offences. However, the laws in Finland, Norway and Denmark still do not define rape on the basis of lack of consent. Instead, they use a definition based on whether physical violence, threat or coercion is involved or if the victim is found to have been unable to resist due to, for example, sleep or heavy intoxication.

The implicit assumption in law or in practice that a victim gives her consent because she has not physically resisted is deeply problematic since “involuntary paralysis” or “freezing” has been recognized by experts as a very common physiological and psychological response to sexual assault.

This focus on resistance and violence rather than on consent has an impact not only on the reporting of rape but also on wider awareness of sexual violence, both of which are key aspects in preventing rape and tackling impunity. The definition does not cover all cases of rape and thus some cases cannot be punished as rape.

Whilst amending rape laws are a vital step towards changing attitudes and achieving justice, much more is needed to effect institutional and social change
Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty International

Finland

Every year, around 50,000 women in Finland experience sexual violence, including rape. Most of those responsible for these crimes are never brought to justice. In 2017 only 209 convictions were secured for rape.

Some survivors told Amnesty International that they had had positive and supportive experiences with the police and justice system. Others have described how the lack of understanding reflected deeply entrenched myths about rape and female sexuality that impact directly on access to justice.

In one disturbing district court judgment analyzed by Amnesty International, a judge acquitted the defendants in a case of multiple perpetrators saying: “The fact that a sexual partner says ‘no, I don’t want to’ before sexual intercourse or between intercourses, is not always a sufficient signal to the other person that consent and willingness to continue sex is not present.”  

Interviewed survivors described the process as stressful, scary and stigmatizing, regardless of the outcome of the case. One survivor told Amnesty International: “At the trial I thought, and said to my counsel, that if I had known what this would be like, I would never have reported the rape.”

Norway

Norwegian authorities have not taken the necessary measures to prevent rape and other forms of sexual violence or to address the consequences when such crimes occur. Prevailing and erroneous myths about rape make it hard for rape victims to report the crime to the police or to seek medical help. They also influence the way rape cases are handled by the criminal justice system.

Gender stereotypes and rape myths underpin attitudes of many people in the justice system. These damaging attitudes are reflected by one regional public prosecutor who told Amnesty International: “I have had a lot of student cases – decent young men who have done something stupid. It is not easy to convict a student who has come to this city to get a good education and who behaves well in court. He was drunk and horny and has done something stupid.”

Many rapes are not reported to the police, but even those survivors who do turn to the police face a lengthy and often flawed process. One survivor told Amnesty International: "It took almost two years from the time I reported in the autumn of 2016, until the case was closed in the spring of 2018. It is a long time to wait.”

One of the positive developments in recent years highlighted by several of the rape survivors interviewed by Amnesty International is the high standard of police interviews. As a rule, those who are responsible for conducting the interviews in cases of sexual assault including rape are trained specialists. In addition, the right to free legal counsel is an important and necessary support to the victims of rape during the whole judicial process.

Sweden

In 2018, Sweden adopted a new consent-based law on sexual crimes, making sex without consent a criminal offence as well as introducing the new offence of ‘negligent rape’.

Whilst it is still too early to assess the full impact of these legislative changes to the law, it is clearly an important step in tackling an issue that is pervasive in Swedish society. But changing the law will not be enough.

In Sweden flaws in the judicial processes need to be addressed, particularly in the police's handling of rape cases. The inconsistent application of best practice working methods for investigations of sexual offences against adults and delays in results of forensic analysis were highlighted by representatives of different authorities, while some survivors described unacceptable delays in interviewing identified suspects.

One survivor told Amnesty International: “If they had done it properly from the start, I would have had justice today. All those hopes for justice and redress, and in the end - nothing. It was just another police report.”

Harmful attitudes will not be suddenly changed by a change in the law. A recent study found that that almost one in 10 people in Sweden agreed that gender-based violence against women is often provoked by the victim herself. One survivor told Amnesty International: ”I even got that comment from my mother. She said ’I have always tried to teach you how to dress.’”

Despite high levels of rape, there are very low prosecution rates in Sweden with only 6 percent of cases involving adults resulting in prosecution in 2017. Low prosecution and conviction rates affect confidence in the justice system.

Nevertheless, in many instances treatment of rape victims by the police has generally improved in recent years and the 2018 legal reforms require investigating police officers to immediately inform the victim about their right to counsel of their choice, free of charge.

One survivor who got a conviction in her case told Amnesty International: “It’s part of the healing. You feel: At last! At last they believe you, the system believes you…I think I am one of few who got justice. I do have hopes though, and the experience I had is what I want for everyone else.”

Denmark

Rape in Denmark is hugely under-reported and even when women do go to the police, the chances of prosecution or conviction are very slim. Of the 24,000 women found by a recent study to have experienced rape or attempted rape in 2017 alone, just 890 rapes were reported to the police. Of these, 535 resulted in prosecutions and only 94 in convictions.

Following the publication of an Amnesty International report last month, the Danish prime minister, announced that his government will back consent-based rape legislation and opposition parties have put forward a proposal on consent legislation expected to be debated in the Parliament this week.

The authorities must take steps to challenge rape myths and gender stereotypes at all levels of society
Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty International

“Whilst amending rape laws across the Nordic countries, are a vital step towards changing attitudes and achieving justice, much more is needed to effect institutional and social change,” said Kumi Naidoo.

“The authorities must take steps to challenge rape myths and gender stereotypes at all levels of society. Professionals working with rape survivors must receive adequate continuous training and broader sexuality education and awareness-raising programmes are needed from a young age."

Kirstine Holst, a survivor from Denmark, who became an activist after she was raped by a friend and whose story is included in the report, told Amnesty International: “I hope that the journey that began on the night of my rape, will culminate soon in the passing of consent-based legislation in Denmark. What this experience has shown me is that – if women come together and bravely speak out – change is not just possible: it is inevitable.”

Background on rape legislation in Nordic countries

In 2018, Amnesty analysed rape legislation in 31 European countries, and only eight of them have laws that define sex without consent as rape.

Last year alone, Iceland and Sweden became the seventh and eighth countries in Europe to adopt new legislation defining rape on the basis of lack of consent.  The Spanish government announced in 2018 legislative changes to amend the current rape definition, in Portugal a bill is under discussion in Parliament and in Greece, the government has opened a public consultation over the current definition of rape in the Greek Penal Code. This report is a follow up to Amnesty International’s report, Case Closed: Rape and human rights in the Nordic countries, published in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden in 2008.