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Feminism, war and silence fuel domestic abuse in Finland
Sat, Oct 23, 2010
AFP

HELSINKI, Finland - Until her husband slammed his fist into her face and knocked her to the floor, Taru never thought she would fit the particularly Finnish profile of a dominant yet battered wife.

"I opened my eyes and saw all the blood on my hands, on the floor. I don't remember everything because I was in shock." 33-year-old Taru, not her real name, told AFP.

It's a scenario that underlines a Finnish paradox: in a country that is a pioneer of gender equality, with a national stereotype of iron-willed women, one in 10 females have been abused at home, according to government data.

European Union statistics show that nearly 40 per cent of Finns know a friend or relative who is abused at home, nearly double the European Union average of 25 per cent.

Experts explain this puzzle by piecing together a psychological profile of a society where private matters are kept private, where men have had violence drilled into them through five 20th-century wars, and where women feel like failures if they cannot rescue themselves.

"I would say that the way Finns conceive gender is different," said Turku University law professor Kevaet Nousiainen, who is an expert on women's law and domestic violence.

"It's assumed that women are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves, and if they are not able to do so, that is unacceptable."

Miika Peltonen, a counsellor at a centre for violent men called Lyoemaetoen Linja Espoossa, says many men tell him they lash out at women they feel are aggressive or dominating.

"They resort to violence when they think they don't have any alternatives," he said.

When this is combined with Finland's sky-high alcohol consumption, the results can be deadly.

A fifth of all homicides in Finland involve a woman killed by a current or former partner, according to the National Research Institute of Legal Policy, and most cases involve alcohol.

This pushes the homicide rate for women far above the average in other Nordic countries and the European Union as a whole, data from the World Health Organisation shows.

While victims of domestic violence elsewhere typically feel guilty for angering their partners, experts say Finnish women tend to berate themselves for being weak-willed.

"I felt ashamed. It wasn't my fault he hit me, but I was ashamed that I was the one who allowed him into my life," Taru says.

"I've noticed a lot of my strong-willed friends end up with scumbags because they are so confident that they can handle anything."

Heli Raja-Halli, the director of a women's shelter in the city of Espoo, says Taru's feelings are typical.

"They don't tend to feel guilty about 'provoking' violence. They ask themselves, how could I have allowed it?" said Raja-Halli.

The perceived strength of Finnish women can make them unwilling to ask for help, she says, describing a mother of four who refused to acknowledge she was a victim even though her husband made her walk on broken glass and stand naked in sub-zero weather.

Raja-Halli's shelter, a cheerful yellow house tucked into a forest and fronted by a playground, is one of the country's largest but still has room for only 11 women and their children.

There are only 21 women's shelters in the country of 5.3 million - far below the EU recommendation of one family placement per 10,000 people.

Post-war generation 'unbalanced'

After World War I, Finland fought a war of independence, a civil war, and two decades later the Winter War, the Continuation War, and the Lapland War, which made up Finland's part in World War II.

In each case Finland fought as a poorly equipped underdog in brutal conditions that Nousiainen says left Finnish men "unbalanced".

"Violence was taken somehow for granted, it was tolerated. And then you have to consider the transfer of violent behaviour from generation to generation," she said.

Peltonen agrees that part of the Finnish recipe for domestic abuse is the violence that fathers and husbands brought back from the fronts.

"Most of the men here say that this was a model they learned," he said.

The Finnish insistence on privacy is also a big part of the problem.

"This is a culture of silence," explained Raja-Halli.

The government, for example, struggles to craft guidelines that would urge or oblige police and health care workers to speak up.

"There's an old tradition, legally speaking, of non-interference in family violence," said Nousiainen.

Taru says the nurse who treated her mottled face ignored the obvious.

"I saw that she didn't buy the story I told her. She should have asked.. I would have broken down," Taru said.

Women's groups are pushing for more education of health care workers, while men's organisations like Peltonen's have launched violence awareness programmes in the Finnish military.

"The younger generation is the first to really understand the way things should be, and understand how you should treat your spouse and children," said Peltonen, who adds that more young men reaching out before they cross the line into physical violence.

"The Finnish man is changing," he added.

Raja-Halli also feels Finland's younger generations are increasingly abhorrent of domestic violence and more willing to talk about it.

"It feels like the younger the woman is, the lower her tolerance is for violence," said Raja-Halli.

"At a young age, we can save the man too."

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