When you form a mental image of a perpetrator of domestic violence, you might envision a drunk, uneducated foreign man with a beer belly and white tank-top. When you form a mental image of a survivor of domestic violence, you may picture a non-native Icelandic woman who only recently joined Icelandic society.
According to various organizations working in Reykjavík to assist targets of domestic violence, however, these caricatures are wrong. They reflect an Icelandic tendency to detach from and associate domestic violence with uneducated foreigners, when those involved in this form of violence are, in fact, predominantly Icelanders.
These misconceptions have a great impact on women of foreign origin, who have remained vulnerable to domestic violence for nearly a decade without much government intervention in the matter. New research sheds light on the true cost of domestic violence to society and will serve as a testament to the fact that domestic violence involves not only women of foreign origin, but also society at large.
A lack of awareness and support network
The biggest factor that renders women of foreign origin vulnerable to domestic violence is their limited awareness of support systems and their legal rights. For these women, multiple factors often stand in the way of reaching the resources that can help them out of their situation.
“These women often lack the support network that local Icelandic women can turn to,” says Sigþrúður Guðmundsdsóttir, the director of the Women’s Shelter in Reykjavík. “People typically hear about us through word-of-mouth, but these women often don’t have many connections within Icelandic society. Also, they are often not familiar with Icelandic customs and laws. Many have Icelandic spouses on whom they depend for this information, and these spouses can easily make up lies that work in their favour, such as ‘if you leave me, you will be deported,’ or ‘if you walk out the door, you will never see your children again.’”
It is up to the government
In a 2009 Grapevine article on a study concerning domestic violence and non-native Icelandic women, it was reported that the women’s lack of awareness could be combated with a law necessitating women who marry Icelanders to come to the Directorate of Immigration, alone, to be informed of their rights in this country.
“We’re still talking about making that a reality, but there is no official plan for it,” Sigþrúður says. “To be honest, I don’t believe it will happen. The government must take that step. But this mentality exists of saying ‘no one is supposed to do this, no one is obliged to deal with the matter.’ There is no initiative to make it a reality.”
An Icelandic problem
Sigþrúður attributes this lack of initiative to the misconceptions regarding Iceland’s connection to domestic violence.
“Perpetrators are predominantly typical Icelandic men—men who work in well-respected jobs as pilots, dentists, etc.,” she says. “Victims are often native Icelandic women. When we form these mental images of drunk, uneducated people of foreign origin, we distance ourselves from domestic violence. Domestic violence is an Icelandic problem, committed by Icelandic people. We, as a society, have to stand up against it.”
Sparking a bustle
To help debunk myths about the extent and gravity of domestic violence in Iceland, PhD student Drífa Jónasdóttir has calculated the cost of domestic violence to society by tracking data from various public institutions, including hospital visits that result from domestic violence and police involvement in the matter.
The figures quoted in her paper, which is yet to be published, are in the millions. “The government wants pure fact data,” she says. “I hope my research will show that domestic violence is a far-reaching issue that costs millions to society each year. It’s not ‘just’ something that happens to foreign women or that is perpetrated by a select group of society. It might be hard for us to admit, but domestic violence affects all of us in Icelandic society.”
Drífa’s paper, which she hopes to publish in the next year, has the potential to serve as a pivotal turning point for the discourse surrounding domestic violence in Iceland so that women, regardless of their origin, may receive the help that is due.
If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, or if you are a perpetrator of domestic violence, visit The Women’s Shelter website for more information and to receive help.