Iceland: a utopia for women, forged by equality. In recent years, international surveys have consistently named the country as the best in the world in which to be a woman—yet reports show that 25% of Icelandic women have experienced domestic violence. Police have recorded bottles, bricks and even a bible amongst the weapons used. Despite making waves in the fight for women’s rights, dark issues remain.
“He made me feel that it was my fault. I started to blame myself for his behaviour. I was the trigger.”
Guðrún found herself in an abusive relationship when she was eighteen years old. (Her name has been changed for this article.) “I thought I could handle the situation,” she reflects now, but after several trips to the emergency room “someone stepped in to help me, because I couldn’t help myself.”
Since 2007, there have been almost 1,200 cases of domestic violence reported in the capital—78% of the victims were female.
The Nordic paradox
Women in Iceland have strong status so it would be logical to think that the rate of domestic violence in the country isn’t that high, but it is,” Sigþrúður Guðmundsdóttir, the Director of Kvennaathvarf, tells me. Kvennaathvarf is Iceland’s first and only women’s shelter. Last year, Sigþrúður and her team provided shelter for over 200 women and children.
This is the “Nordic paradox”: many are puzzled as to why these countries have among the world’s highest rates of reported domestic violence despite leading the way in gender equality. “I think the old idea that the man is in control still has something to do with it,” Sigþrúður says. “There’s a lot of men who have problems with drugs, alcohol and depression, but there is no excuse. These men are not violent to their co-workers; it’s a lack of respect for women.”
“I once met a colleague from outside of Iceland. He said, how could anyone dare to hit an Icelandic woman because they are so strong,” Sigþrúður continues. But being “strong” has nothing to do with it.
Supply and demand
Sigþrúður has been working at the shelter for eleven years, and in that time has seen the landscape change dramatically.
“Demand for places in the shelter has doubled over the last ten years, but the number of people calling us has remained the same. The majority who call for counselling are Icelandic,” she says. Inside the women’s shelter, children’s paintings cover the walls and warm, bright colours try to make this house a home.
Sigþrúður believes that more needs to be done to support victims of abuse: “Historically, the justice system has failed our women. There is always an excuse, and abusers are not convicted, especially when they are well-known.” But she assures me that times are changing.
Top of the agenda
In 2014, amongst other changes to the police force, Sigríður Björk Guðjónsdóttir was declared Reykjavík Police Commissioner. For over fifteen years, Sigríður and her team have served society to help deliver lasting impact.
“When I moved to Reykjavík, we put domestic violence at the top of the agenda,” Sigríður tells us. “We reformed the system so that we work much more closely with social workers and experts to ensure that every case is investigated fully.” Sigríður believes that this will help to bring justice to those affected by domestic violence.
“We have learnt that if we investigate a case in retrospect, the whole scene has changed,” she continues. “Now, we build a full report for every case, carry out a risk assessment, and take note of what has happened there and then. It means that we have evidence to take things further in severe cases when a victim may not wish to press charges.”
A new hope
Thanks to these reforms, more people are seeking help. “Since we have put the changes in place, we have seen a notable increase in the number of monthly cases that have come to us—from twenty to fifty,” Sigríður explains.
“But,” she clarifies, “there’s always more we can do. The City of Reykjavík has just opened a new service centre for all victims of abuse called Bjarkarhlíð. Here people can get all the help they need, it’s a one-stop shop. We also offer perpetrators the opportunity to get help.”
I asked Sigríður what advice she would give for those suffering in silence. “It’s easy to think women should just leave their abuser. It’s not easy. There may be children involved, or psychological issues at play. People may not have a support network. The key is to always seek help. Talk to someone you trust, call the police or call the shelter. There is always hope.”
Call the Women’s Shelter helpline on +354 561 1205 for information and support at any hour. To find out more about Bjarkarhlíð service centre, visit https://www.facebook.com/bjarkarhlid/.