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A Land of Gender Equality: Why Denmark’s Reported ‘Rape Culture’ Should Serve as a Warning for All.


‘Danish women still remain the envy of the world’ – US News and World Report survey in 2016


On 5th March 2019, Amnesty International published a report on the barriers to justice and factors affecting victims of severe sexual offences in Denmark. The report in itself was unremarkable, with many similar studies published annually, but Denmark’s involvement has generated international headlines, due to its reputation as a world leader on gender equality and women’s rights. The report’s findings and the light it casts on the offense of rape as a whole, will surely provide all other ‘progressive’ nations with a lesson about effective rights protection.


Denmark’s Gender Equality Paradox


Helena Gleesborg Hansen, Deputy Chairwoman of the Danish Women’s Society, argued in an interview with Amnesty that ‘Denmark is a paradox in terms of gender’,[1] and nowhere is this more clear than in relation to sexual violence and rape. In 2017, the Gender Equality Index, which examines areas such as work opportunities, money and health, named Denmark as the second best country for female equality. However the same body in 2017 reported that Denmark has the highest prevalence of violence (particularly sexual violence) of any EU member state. In 2014, Denmark were one of the first nations to ratify the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Treaty, aimed at tackling all forms of violence against women. Despite this, the Group of Experts on Action against Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO), the regulatory arm of the Istanbul Treaty, were heavily critical of the protection available for Danish victims of sexual violence in their 2017 Baseline Evaluation Report.[2] A survey taken by US News and World Report in 2016, named Denmark as the ‘best country for women to live in’, even going as far as reporting that ‘Danish women still remain the envy of the world’.[3] This seems bizarrely at odds with the views of Amnesty International’s Secretary General Kumi Naidoo, who cites ‘shockingly high levels of impunity for sexual violence and antiquated rape laws’[4] that make young women particularly vulnerable in Danish society.


These contrasting results indicate a disconnect between sexual violence and other forms of gender equality. This is an issue that goes to the heart of Danish society, as from a legislative and societal perspective rape is dealt with in an antiquated and anachronistic fashion.

‘Give us respect and justice when we say no to violence and abuse’


Amnesty’s report brought to light two core issues affecting how Denmark is able to protect victims of sexual violence: insufficient legislative protection and the poor treatment of victims in the aftermath of the crime. When combined together, these two issues have created serious underreporting of sexual offences in Denmark. In a 2014 study by the Fundamental Rights Agency on violence against women in the European Union,[5] Denmark was found to have to highest rates of rape amongst women and girls aged 15 and over (19%). Equally, however, they were amongst the lowest nations for the number of rapes reported to the police (just 7%). Although rape by its nature is a very difficult to prosecute, as it often the word of the victim against the alleged perpetrator, this statistic is still shocking and points to fundamental legislative and procedural shortcomings.


i) Insufficient Legal Protection.


Unlike the UK, Denmark does not have a statutory definition of rape based on consent. This is contrary to the country’s international obligations, as consent is ‘the central element in the way the Istanbul Convention frames sexual violence’.[6] Instead under Danish law, there is a requirement that there was either ‘violence or the threat of violence’, the sexual intercourse happened ‘by duress’ or the victim was ‘incapable of resisting’.[7] This is problematic, as without the requirement of consent, submission or a lack of resistance will often be sufficient to acquit the perpetrator. Thus the onus is placed on ‘the victim to oppose’ instead of on ‘the perpetrators not to rape’[8] as they must expressly inform their attacker about their non-consent. The dangers of such an approach were illustrated by a Spanish case in late 2018, as a group of five men, calling themselves ‘La Manada’ (the Wolf-pack), subjected an 18-year-old woman to a non-consensual sexual attack and posted a video of it online. Despite the court’s acknowledgment of the victim’s ‘passive suffering’,[9] all five were acquitted due to a lack of evidence of any threats or violent actions.


The La Manada case illustrates that a non-consensual definition places a disproportionate amount of emphasis on physical violence and resistance, making prosecution more difficult and discouraging victims from reporting attacks without these elements. One Danish victim interviewed by Amnesty did not bring forward her case because when her attacker ‘grabbed [her], he didn’t do it hard enough to make bruises’.[10] Another was informed by police that they would not bring her case before the court because she ‘did not say anything, just like [she] did not resist’.[11] This expectation of the ‘model victim’ that aggressively resists attack is exposed as more ludicrous following a 2017 Swedish study that suggests 70% of rape victims suffer ‘involuntary paralysis’ during their assault’.[12] Such attitudes also feed into a wider acknowledgment that Danish law regards rape as more believable if there is no personal connection between the perpetrator and victim. This perception is incorrect and negligent; according to research undertaken in 2017, 37% of rapes in Denmark were carried out by a current or former partner of the victim.[13] Under the sentencing guidelines for sexual violence in the Danish Criminal Code, if the attacker was known to the victim, the punishment will be less severe. Indeed, until 2013 reforms, marital rape was legal under Danish law. This trivializes rape committed by a known assailant and deeply undermines the scope of legal protection offered to victims.


ii) Poor treatment of victims


Not only does the law not sufficiently facilitate effective prosecution of sexual offences, but the treatment of victims by the police and media acts as a deterrent against reporting these crimes in future.


A persistent theme in Amnesty’s report was that the attitudes of the police deterred the reporting of sexual offence crimes. The lawyer Helle Hald referred to this as a ‘domino effect’,[14] as inappropriate questioning and focus on irrelevant behaviour of the victim reinforces the fear and shame many suffer during such attacks and discourages future complaints. A journalist interviewed by Amnesty reported that, when attempting to report a rape, she was repeatedly told about the consequences of lying by the police and was then informed that there was no point pursuing a case, as she had known her attacker.[15] Another victim alleged that she was repeatedly questioned on her sex life and sexual preferences, as if a woman that has an active sex life ‘sort of accepts a violent attack’.[16] Such heavy handed questioning is especially destructive in cases of rape due to the humiliating and personal nature of the offense, and may impact on the ability of the victim to accurately report the details of the attack.


Media presentation of sexual violence only compounds outdated societal perceptions of sexual offences. According to a report made by several Danish NGOs to GREVIO in 2017, the media often presents cases involving sexual violence ‘with unnecessary sexual detail additionally victimizing the women in question’.[17] Such reports often mention what the victim was wearing and the amount of alcohol she had consumed as relevant factors in the case, supporting stereotypes that rape is partially the fault of the victim. An example of poor media coverage reinforcing societal misconceptions about the crime came in the high profile rape and murder of the journalist Kim Wall by the entrepreneur Peter Madsen. The crime was widely reported by Danish media as ‘sex misuse’[18] instead of a violent crime, when in reality Madsen had stabbed Wall twenty times in the vagina. This supports the idea that rape is a ‘form of sex and…not a form of violence’,[19] and therefore, involves some level of conscious involvement by the victim. Such reporting is neither necessary nor helpful and reinforces ‘victim blaming’.


Why is this relevant from a UK perspective?


The report illustrates problems relevant to how all European nations deal with rape case. Incredibly, considering the terms of the Istanbul Convention, only seven of the current 28 EU Member States have a statutory definition of rape that is consent-based. As the case of Denmark illustrates, this places an obligation on the victim to ensure that their case is prosecutable by struggling, instead of imposing on a potential perpetrator a requirement to make sure they do not engage in non-consensual sex. Additionally, all precautions should be taken to ensure that media and legal practice offer as much support as possible for victims whilst their case is being heard. Although the UK offers better protection in this regard than nations like Denmark, some procedural aspects may severely discourage complainants from coming forward. For example, under the strict application of disclosure laws, complainants are forced to hand in all electronic data which may be pored over and presented for cross-examination in court but there is no such obligation for defendants.[20] This means the complainant’s personal life and past sexual history, particularly with the defendant, will be placed into the public domain; an understandably horrifying prospect for victims of such a personal crime.


The contrast between Denmark’s public perception and its failures in sexual violence prevention also raises a wider point about rights protection in first world ‘progressive nations’. It is tempting to view human rights abuse as an issue that only affects other, less developed countries, but this is certainly not the case. Gleesborg Hansen attributes Denmark’s failure to resolve their long-standing problem with sexual violence to the ‘perception that we already have equality so there is no need to talk about it’.[21] This is an attitude that should be guarded against vigilantly. Prior record on rights protection, or effective rights protection in other areas, does not exclude a country from falling short of its international obligations to protect its citizens. We, as a society, therefore, must remain vigilant to protect the most vulnerable and ensure the rights of all are adequately respected.



Edward Olsen

Human Rights Section Feature Writer

6th April 2019


 

[1] ‘”Give us Respect and Justice”: Overcoming Barriers to Justice for Women Rape Survivors in Denmark’, Amnesty International (5th March 2019) <https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/EUR1897842019ENGLISH.PDF>, 14


[2] Baseline Evaluation Report Denmark, Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO) (24th November 2017)


[3] Emma Henderson, ‘Denmark Named the Best country for Women to Live In’, The Independent (21st January 2016) <https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/denmark-named-the-world-s-best-country-for-women-to-live-in-a6824456.html>, accessed 4th March 2019


[4] ‘Denmark: Women Failed by ‘Dangerous’ Victim Blaming Culture and Impunity for Rapists’, Amnesty International (5th March 2019) https://www.amnesty.org.uk/press-releases/denmark-women-failed-dangerous-victim-blaming-culture-and-impunity-rapists-new


[5] ‘Violence Against Women: an EU-wide survey’, Fundamental Rights Agency (March 2014) <www.fra.europa.eu/en/publication/2014/violence-against-women-eu-wide-survey-main-results-report>


[6] Ashitha Nagesh, Does Denmark have a ‘Pervasive’ rape problem?, BBC News 11th March 2019, <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-47470353>


[7] Article 216, Danish Criminal Code


[8] ‘”Give us Respect and Justice”: Overcoming Barriers to Justice for Women Rape Survivors in Denmark’, Amnesty International (5th March 2019) <https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/EUR1897842019ENGLISH.PDF>, 21


[9] ‘Spain “wolf pack” sex attack gang not rapists, say judges’, BBC News, (5th December 2018) <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-47470353


[10] ‘”Give us Respect and Justice”: Overcoming Barriers to Justice for Women Rape Survivors in Denmark’, Amnesty International (5th March 2019) <https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/EUR1897842019ENGLISH.PDF>, 20


[11] Ibid


[12] Möller, Söndergaard, Helstrom ‘Tonic Immobility during sexual assault – a common reaction predicting post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression’ Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scanadanavia (2017) 96 <www.obgyn.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/aogs.13174>


[13] Heinskou, Schierff, Ejbye-Ernst, Friis, Leibst, ‘Sexual Violations in Denmark, Scope and Character’, Det Kriminalpæventative Råd (October 2017), <www.dkr.dk/media/12694/seksuelle_kraenkelser.pdf>, 23


[14] ‘”Give us Respect and Justice”: Overcoming Barriers to Justice for Women Rape Survivors in Denmark’, Amnesty International (5th March 2019) <https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/EUR1897842019ENGLISH.PDF>, 47


[15] Ibid, 27


[16] Ibid, 47



[18] ‘”Give us Respect and Justice”: Overcoming Barriers to Justice for Women Rape Survivors in Denmark’, Amnesty International (5th March 2019) <https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/EUR1897842019ENGLISH.PDF>, 52


[19] Ibid


[20] Joan Smith and Clair Waxman ‘No wonder so few people report rape. They are hung out to dry in court’, The Guardian (21st March 2018) <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/21/rape-complainant-loss-privacy-intrusive-investigations>


[21] ‘”Give us Respect and Justice”: Overcoming Barriers to Justice for Women Rape Survivors in Denmark’, Amnesty International (5th March 2019) <https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/EUR1897842019ENGLISH.PDF>, 14



Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes above.

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