Sweden's Response to Domestic Violence

By Nylen, Lars; Heimer, Gun | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, November 1999 | Go to article overview

Sweden's Response to Domestic Violence


Nylen, Lars, Heimer, Gun, The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


"Violence at home is a significant reason for disability and death among women, both in the industrialized world and in developing countries."(1)

- Rebecca and Russel Dobash

In 1993, the United Nations approved a declaration calling for the elimination of violence against women in all of its forms, from violence within marriage and sexual harassment in the workplace to female genital mutilation and forced prostitution. These issues were discussed further at the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995. At about the same time, the European Council issued a declaration with strategies to fight violence against women in a democratic Europe. Additionally, through the World Health Organization, the United Nations began to view this violence as a female health issue.(2)

With the final report of the Committee on Violence Against Women in June 1995, the issue of violence against women also started to attract significant attention in Sweden.(3) As in most Western countries, Sweden's response to violence and threats against women has varied considerably in the last decade. Swedish society has begun to view domestic violence against women not as the silent, hushed-up problem of the past but as a serious situation affecting the health of women.

In the past, to prosecute a domestic violence case, prosecutors needed explicit accusations from victims. In addition, Swedish legislation mandated that the courts view each criminal act as an isolated matter. Courts rarely could consider the aggravating circumstances or the number of repeat occurrences perpetrated by an offender. Moreover, the Swedish legislature previously viewed reconciliation between the involved parties as preferable to judicial intervention.

Now, domestic violence is a general indictable crime. On July 1, 1998, the government introduced a new offense into the Swedish Penal Code. One part of the new offense, gross violation of a woman's integrity, covers repeated acts committed by men against women with whom they have a close relationship. Its companion offense, gross violation of integrity, protects children and other close relatives. The new offense means that if a man commits certain criminal acts (e.g., assault, unlawful threat or coercion, sexual or other molestation, or sexual exploitation) against a woman to whom he is or has been married or with whom he is or has been cohabiting and seriously damages her self-confidence, the courts can sentence him for gross violation of the woman's integrity in addition to sentencing him on each traditional crime, such as aggravated assault. In this way, the new legislation allows the courts to take into account the entire situation of the abused woman and increase the offender's punishment to fit the severity and frequency of the acts.(4)

In September 1998, the Uppsala District Court issued one of the first sentences based on the new offense. On four occasions during a 6-week period in the summer of 1998, a man had battered his cohabitant, once bruising her entire face and, on another occasion, beating her severely and knocking out a tooth. The court sentenced the man to 10 months in prison.

Understanding the Crime

With the change in Sweden's attitude about violence against women, police officers began to examine the crime and its impact on society. Swedish police consider violence against women as the most extreme example of the imbalance or disparity between the sexes and a phenomenon that cannot be explained in the same way as other crimes. In support of this belief, a process known as normalization(5) illustrates the difference between how men and women may rationalize domestic violence and may help explain why this type of violence continues to plague modern society. For men, the normalization process is a goal-oriented strategy designed to control women and prove their own masculinity. For women, the normalization process represents a defense mechanism, a way of rationalizing, adopting, accepting, and surviving the man's behavior. …

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