The Nordic Paradox

By virtually every measure, the Nordic countries – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden - are a paragon of gender equality. It doesn’t matter if you’re looking at the wage gap or political participation or educational attainment: the Nordic region is the most gender equal place in the world.

But this equality comes with a disturbing exception: Nordic women also suffer from intimate partner violence (IPV) at extremely high rates. (IPV is defined by the CDC as the experience of “physical violence, sexual violence, stalking and psychological aggression by a current or former intimate partner.”) While the average lifetime prevalence for intimate partner violence for women living in Europe is 22 percent – a horrifyingly high number by itself – Nordic countries perform even worse. In fact, Denmark has the highest rate of IPV in the EU at 32 percent, closely followed by Finland (30 percent) and Sweden (28 percent.) And it’s not just violence from partners: other surveys have looked at violence against women in general. Once again, the Nordic countries had some of the highest rates of violence in the EU, as measured by reports of sexual assault, physical abuse or emotional abuse.

A new paper in Social Science & Medicine by Enrique Gracia and Juan Merlo refers to the existence of these two realities – gender equality and high rates of violence against woman – as the Nordic paradox. It’s a paradox because a high risk of IPV for women is generally associated with lower levels of gender equality, particularly in poorer countries. (For example, 71 percent of Ethiopian women have suffered from IPV.) This makes intuitive sense: a country that disregards the rights of women, or fails to treat them as equals, also seems more likely to tolerate their abuse.

And yet, the same logic doesn’t seem to apply at the other extreme of gender equality. As Gracia and Merlo note, European countries with lower levels of gender equality, such as Italy and Greece, also report much lower levels of IPV (roughly 30 percent lower) than Nordic nations.

What explains this paradox? Why hasn’t the gender equality of Nordic countries reduced violence against women? That’s the tragic mystery investigated by Gracia and Merlo.

One possibility is that the paradox is caused by differences in reporting, as women in Nordic countries might feel more free to disclose the abuse. This also makes intuitive sense: if you live in a country with higher levels of gender equality, then you might be less likely to fear retribution when accusing a partner, or telling the police about a sex crime. (In Saudi Arabia, only 3.3 of women who suffered from IPV told the police or a judge.) However, Gracia and Merlo cast shade on this explanation, noting that the available evidence suggests lower levels of disclosure of IPV among women in the Nordic countries. For instance, while 20 percent of women in Europe said that the most serious incident of IPV they’d experienced was brought to the attention of the police, only 10 percent of women in Denmark and Finland could say the same thing. The same trend is supported by other data, including rape statistics and “victim blaming” surveys. Finally, even if part of the Nordic paradox was a reporting issue, this would only reinforce the real mystery, which is that gender equal societies still suffer from epidemic levels of violence against women.

The main hypothesis advanced by Gracia and Merlo – and it’s only a hypothesis – is that high gender equality might create a backlash effect among men, triggering high levels of violence against women.  Because gender equality disrupts traditional gender norms, it might also reinforce “victim-blaming attitudes,” in which the violence is excused or justified. Gracia and Merlo cite related studies showing that women with “higher economic status relative to their partners can be at greater IPV risk depending on whether their partners hold more traditional gender beliefs.” For these backwards men, the success of women is perceived as a threat, an undermining of their identity. This backlash is further exacerbated by women becoming more independent and competitive in gender equal societies, thus increasing the potential for conflict with partners who insist on control and subservience. Progress leaves some people behind, and those people tend to get angry.

At best, the backlash effect is only a partial explanation for the Nordic Paradox. Gracia and Merlo argue that a real understanding of the prevalence of IPV – why is it still so common, even in developed countries? – will require looking beyond national differences and instead investigating the risk factors that affect the individual. How much does he drink? What is her employment status? Do they live together? What is the neighborhood like? Even brutish behaviors have complicated roots; we need a thick description of life to understand them.  

On the one hand, the Nordic paradox is a testament to liberal values, a reminder that thousands of years of gender inequality can be reversed in a few short decades. The progress is real. But it’s also a reminder that progress is difficult, full of strange backlashes and reversals. Two steps forward, one step back. Or is it the other way around? We can see the moral universe bending, but goddamn is it slow.

Gracia, Enrique, and Juan Merlo. "Intimate partner violence against women and the Nordic paradox." Social Science & Medicine 157 (2016): 27-30.

via MR