The half-dozen empty prams lined up by the front door at Kvennaathvarf, Iceland’s only shelter for abused women, paint a bleak picture.
“We have fifteen here right now,” says Sigþrúður Guðmundsdóttir, the long-serving director of the shelter, counting up the names silently in her head. She takes me into the consultation room, a cosy space with a coffee table and a settee, usually reserved for the professional staff to talk privately with the many women that arrive there throughout the year. “Normally we would go to the meeting room downstairs, but we have a family living in there now. The house is too small.”
Kvennaathvarf has been supporting and sheltering women in need for thirty years. As well as providing a place to stay for victims of violence, the organisation Samtök um kvennaathvarf serves as a support centre, sometimes offering consultation to women who come but may not wish to stay, providing support groups for victims of violence and running a 24-hour hotline.
The shelter is a warm and safe environment, with four dormitory rooms and a communal dining and living area, but it could never be home. “We have a ground rule that women shouldn’t be here more than four weeks. It’s an emergency shelter and we want it to be available for that, but it doesn’t always work out like that,” Sigþrúður says. “The average stay here is about fifteen days, but it can be anything from a few hours or a day up to half a year if necessary.”
BEST PLACE TO BE A WOMAN?
The experience of the women who arrive here is at odds with the familiar impression of Iceland as a bastion for gender equality and women’s rights. The country repeatedly tops World Economic Forum rankings on equality between the sexes. Last year, Newsweek named it the best place in the world to be a woman. This, after all, is the nation where a generation of women have grown up watching the world’s first democratically elected female president and where young mothers enjoy high standards of childcare and maternity leave, which allows them to raise a family and build a career without sacrificing one or the other.
When Sigþrúður meets representatives of women’s organisations abroad, they ask her with incredulity: “Is there a reason to have a shelter like this in Iceland? Who would dare beat up an Icelandic woman?”
They would be surprised: 42% of Icelandic women have been subjected to violence at some point since they were sixteen, according to a 2008 survey by the Centre for Children and Family Research. Almost a quarter—or 29,000 Icelandic women—between the ages of 18 and 80—claimed to have been victims of sexual abuse.
“I think Iceland is rather a good place for women,” Sigþrúður says. “In general!” she is quick to add. “Icelandic women have gained a strong position in society, but somehow we have not been able to fight this problem of domestic or sexual violence.”
AIDING WITHOUT TAKING OVER
The women who come to Kvennaathvarf often don’t have family or community to rely on for support. “They mainly need peace and quiet and safety for the first days: a bed, a bath, a little food, maybe medical assistance,” Sigþrúður says. “Later, when they regain their strength, they can begin thinking about taking future steps.”
Aiding without taking over is at the heart of what Kvennaathvarf does: “We try to give the women the help they need without taking away their responsibility or their independence.”
When the women arrive, Sigþrúður says they are encouraged to get on with their lives if that’s possible. That said, there are some rules they must obey: there are no drugs or alcohol and they must let the staff know when they leave the house. And the women meet with one of the shelter’s professionals at least once a week and can make appointments with social services or the police as needed.
The shelter has its own contact with the Reykjavík Metropolitan Police, an officer who often comes in to have a chat with the women who arrive if they want to talk. “But most don’t want to press charges,” Sigþrúður concedes. “Usually women just want the violence to end, not for the perpetrator to be punished. Sometimes it will make the situation even worse: if they press charges and have no evidence, no witnesses, there won’t be a conviction—and it puts them in more danger.”
When they leave the shelter, most go on to build a new life. “But it’s often very difficult: it takes a long time to get divorced for example, especially when men are not willing to let their wives go. They may have a year as officially married women but actually being single and not receiving the benefits they are due.” Some also inevitably wind up returning to a violent husband or partner.
EVERY BUTTON COUNTS
Hearing the story of every woman who walks through the front door at Kvennaathvarf, doesn’t Sigþrúður want the people responsible to be punished? “I would like more women to press charges against the perpetrators and I would like that to lead to punishment,” she says, “but I also agree that ending the violence is the most important thing.”
“I want men to be nice to their wives,” she concludes simply, “not because they’re afraid to be put in prison if they’re not, but because they want to be nice and to treat their partners as equals. We have to raise the young generation in a way that promotes this.”
Kvennaathvarf can only do so much with its current funding, two thirds of which comes from the Icelandic government and the rest from the City of Reykjavík and private backers. But this month, Sigþrúður and the team are launching a campaign to raise more, selling distinctive pin badges as part of their “Öll með tölu” campaign: “We all make a difference—every button counts.”
The aim is to raise enough for a larger house in which to host the shelter. For the women that return here and the ones that are about to walk through these doors for the first time, it could be the difference between a new way of life and the abusive past they are trying to escape.
WOMEN’S SHELTER BUTTON SALE FUNDRAISER
As part of the shelter’s fundraising mission, Samtök um Kvennaathvarf will be selling buttons through their website www.ollmedtolu.is and around the country in shops including Krónan, Nóatún, Samkaup and Nettó and in Reykjavík at cafés Kaffitár and Babalú and the post offices. Donations can also be made to the following account: 101-26-43227, kennitala: 410782-0229. They hope to raise 25 million ISK.