Norway: Rape & Domestic Violence Recur but Rarely Reported

The New York Times

She ran for her life. Her husband had raped her again that night, this time more violently than ever in their 15-year marriage. He forced himself on her repeatedly, he choked her and threatened to kill her.

When she fled in the early hours of March 23, 2008 — down the stairwell, through the courtyard, into the street and up to a taxi — he caught up before the driver could pull away. She ran on, finally reaching a police station.

“You have to be ready to leave behind your entire life, your identity of a wife, of a normal family,” the woman, now 43, said in an interview. “You have to be ready to call the man you once loved a rapist.

“I just couldn’t do it before. But that night I knew, if I didn’t leave him, I would die.”

Norway vies with its Nordic neighbors for the title of most gender-egalitarian country in the world. Yet gender equality still seems to stop at the bedroom door, and even here, women who recounted their experiences declined to be identified, fearful still of retribution.

Sexual violence against women in Scandinavia shares characteristics seen in more unequal societies: It is all too common and rarely reported, and those who commit it are even more rarely convicted. Ancient prejudices about male prerogative and modern assumptions about female emancipation conspire to create a thick wall of silence, shame and legal ambiguity.

One in 10 Norwegian women over the age of 15 has been raped, according to the country’s largest shelter organization, the Secretariat of the Shelter Movement. But at least 80 percent of these cases are never brought to official attention and only 10 percent of those that are end in a conviction, the Justice Ministry says.

Nowhere is this taboo more stubborn than in the family home, long considered off-limits for law enforcement and the state.

“The statistics tell us that the safest place for women is outside, on the street — most rapes happen at home,” said Tove Smaadahl, general manager of the Shelter Movement. In a 2005 survey by the Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research, 9 percent of female respondents in a relationship reported experiencing sexual assault.

“No, we don’t have equality between men and women,” Ms. Smaadahl said, “not until we have addressed the issue of relationship rape.”


Throughout much of history, marital rape was considered a contradiction in terms.

Rape law in many countries used to be in the same category as property theft, committed by a man against another person. It eventually evolved into something closer to breach of contract by the raped wife, whose family’s honor was now compromised, before finally — and relatively recently — building on consent and the notion that a woman’s body is hers to control, and that anyone violating that control is committing a crime.

But Norway is still one of 127 countries in the world — including 12 members of the European Union — that do not explicitly criminalize rape within marriage, according to a survey of women’s access to justice published by U.N. Women last July.

While all Western nations have now removed exemptions for husbands from rape legislation, preconceptions about sexuality in marriage live on, said Laura Turquet, chief author of the U.N. 2011 Progress of the World’s Women report.

Norway and other Scandinavian countries got there relatively early, in the 1960s and 1970s. But Germany only removed its spousal exemption in 1997. In 1993, North Carolina became the last U.S. state to do so. Until 1992, Britain had a common-law principle that assumed the marriage contract implied consent.

Ms. Turquet sees explicit criminalizing of spousal rape as crucial, both symbolically and practically. “Rape is rarely what our societies make it out to be: a random act by a stranger jumping out from hiding,” she said. “Explicit legislation accompanied by clear protocols send a very clear message to the police and the courts that sexual violence is never a private matter.”

The dearth of official and internationally comparable data is telling, particularly in the European Union, a bloc that meticulously tracks anything from traffic accidents to the number of manure storage facilities across its 27 countries.

If domestic violence and human trafficking have received more attention in recent years, rape and sexual assault remain largely forgotten — and misunderstood, said Liz Kelly, director of the Child and Women Abuse Studies Unit at London Metropolitan University.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, rapists tend to be well known to victims and often commit their assault in a private location, research from the past two decades suggests.

According to a 2009 study of 11 European countries co-authored by Ms. Kelly, one of the rare international comparisons so far undertaken, 61 percent of rapes took place in a private space, most frequently the home of the victim or perpetrator. Two-thirds of suspects were known to the victim, and 25 percent were current or former partners.

Injury rates in rapes appear to be far higher in victims of former and current partners. The 2009 European study found severe injuries in 50 percent and 40 percent of those cases respectively, against 24 percent in stranger rape.

These findings challenge widely held notions that partner rape is the most difficult to prosecute. Instead, as chronicled in the 2009 report, prosecution and conviction rates look deeply biased: Forty percent of rapes in which the perpetrator did not know the victim but was successfully identified were prosecuted, with conviction rates of more than 70 percent. By contrast, only 14 percent of suspects in partner rape were convicted. Suspects of immigrant origin were particularly likely to be punished.

“The more closely the suspect fits our stereotypical rapist, the more likely he is to be convicted,” said Ms. Kelly.


The husband of the Norwegian woman who fled that desperate night in March 2008 is a car mechanic described by her friends as “an ordinary guy.”

When the couple first met he was charming and flattered her with flowers, chocolates and what seemed like storybook love. He courted her parents by shopping for them and won her girlfriends’ approval with tall good looks. “Everybody loved him,” she recalled.

Six months later, he proposed, and a year later, the violence started.

The first time her husband raped her, she said, he had become jealous when another man asked her to dance. “When we came home his eyes were totally black,” she said. “He was rough. He hurt me and I said, ‘No, no, no.’ Afterward he was sorry and promised that it wouldn’t happen again.”

Over the years, she camouflaged bruises with makeup. She saw less and less of her friends to avoid uncomfortable questions — and jealousy fits that so often set her husband off.

When she finally took her husband to court, he admitted beating and threatening her but was acquitted of the rape charges. The judge issued a one-year restraining order, and her own mother urged: “Go back to your husband.”

“This is why so few women go to the police,” lamented Inger-Lise W. Larsen, who has run Oslo’s main women’s shelter since 2007. “It takes a lot to come forward, and often, you get little in return.”

In a nondescript apartment building in central Oslo, Ms. Larsen has given refuge to the daughters and sisters of immigrant men intent on avenging family honor — but also the wives of ambassadors, policemen and company directors. Some 350 women and 300 children come each year. Seventy percent have endured sexual, physical and psychological violence for at least four years before they show up at the shelter’s armored door.

Norwegian women and middle-class women of any background tend to be more embarrassed about being raped and beaten than the growing number of lower-income immigrant women in the shelter because they are expected to be that much more emancipated, psychologists and rape counselors say.

“These women have built this whole identity, this fantasy about a relationship and a family,” said Anne-Cecilie Johnsen, a psychologist who specializes in rape counseling. “The people around them believe it, and it’s very hard to admit that it isn’t true.”

When children are involved, it is even harder to walk away. Another woman who was sexually abused by her now ex-husband for years would have left him much earlier but for their daughter, she said.

There was the impossible admission that “the father of your child is a rapist,” she said, and the concern that this labeling would forever color not just her own but also her daughter’s life. But there was also a lingering fear that leaving might be worse than staying.

“As long as you stay in the marriage you have a certain amount of control,” this woman said. “Yes, you are beaten up; yes, you are raped. But you can also manage the situation and keep him away from the child.”


Knut Storberget, the minister of justice and police, has made violence against women a priority.

He recently joined a U.N. initiative of men against violence against women, along with Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of Spain and the U.N. secretary general, Ban Ki-moon. One important message: “This is not just a female issue,” said Mr. Storberget’s deputy, Astri Aas-Hansen, who has commissioned an ambitious study profiling rapists to better combat stereotypes.

Norway’s infrastructure to deal with rape cases is dense. Every county has a rape assault center, a medical facility where rape victims are offered free counseling and medical care and examined for forensic evidence, irrespective of police involvement. Every police district is obliged to have at least one officer trained to deal with domestic violence, including sexual assault. The legal definition of rape is broad and includes situations where the woman is incapable of giving consent.

The trouble, says Helle Nesvold, a doctor at Norway’s oldest rape assault center, is that good intentions still do not always translate into good results.

Most rape victims, particularly of spousal abuse, do not come to the hospital for the forensic exam, she said. As many as 60 percent of those who do choose not to involve the police. Evidence gathered in a five-step process piles up in an archive.

“Even in cases reported to the police, they don’t always pick up all the evidence we collect,” Ms. Nesvold said, pointing to a room full of files. But, she added, “the situation is gradually improving.”

In 25 years at the center, Ms. Nesvold has seen several cases of what appeared to her evidence of forced sexual intercourse excluded from the criminal case because the police and prosecutors did not believe it would stand up in court, and they preferred to focus on evidence of nonsexual violence. She also said that many sexually abused women simply refuse to talk about their experience.

“What we ultimately need is a much more comprehensive structure where women exposed to domestic violence are systematically asked about sexual abuse,” she said. Nurses, teachers, midwives should routinely ask the question, she added, to get victims to open up.


Why is sexual violence still so prevalent in countries where gender equality has made such gigantic strides? Some experts, like Ms. Kelly, argue that as a society moves to redistribute power between genders, there might be a transitional period where violence rises as the last expression of male domination.

“As women gain in status, earn more money and take their rightful place in society, some men may resort to their physical strength,” Ms. Kelly said, noting that most couple rape is ultimately based on a feeling of emasculation.

In the long term, most observers concur that the best antidote to violence is greater gender equality across the board. “The more independent women are from men and the more equal in terms of pay, status, education and everything else, the more likely are we to clamp down on this type of crime,” said Ms. Aas-Hansen of the Justice Ministry. “When a crime has happened in it, the bedroom ceases to be private.”