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The Disturbing Link Between Gender Equality, Domestic Violence, and Sexual Assault

Egalitarianism appears to increase some women's risk of domestic violence and sexual assault, data indicates.

Steps toward gender equality may put women at an increased risk of domestic violence and sexual assault, according to a growing body of research. Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Sweden, for instance, boast the smallest gender gaps in the world, in terms of educational, economic, and political power—and yet these countries endure some of the highest rates of intimate partner violence in Europe. It’s called the Nordic Paradox, and it leaves scholars scratching their heads. 

“The Nordic paradox is a research question that, at the moment, remains unanswered,” Enrique Gracia, a social psychologist at the University of Valencia who studies the Nordic Paradox, told Fatherly. There are potential theories that may help to understand this phenomenon, but no evidence based on rigorous research is available.”

On paper, Nordic countries experience exemplary equality between men and women. The Gender Equality Index assigns Sweden, Finland, and Denmark equality indices between 70.9 and 74.2, compared to a mean of 52.9 throughout the entire European Union. The Gender Development Index, the United Nations’ indicator for gender equality, has Nordic countries scoring between 0.975 to 0.999 out of 1.0. Despite this egalitarianism, however, Denmark has the highest lifetime prevalence of physical and sexual violence, 10 percent higher than the average EU countryFinland and Sweden are not far behind. And the Nordic paradox may not be exclusive to Nordic countries. Analysis of 4,296 households in America found that, when women made more money than their husbands, it increased their risk for abuse, but only if their husbands held more traditional views on gender.

One possible explanation for this may be that wealthy women who are used to equality are more likely to report assault and abuse. Yet studies suggest that, if anything, fewer women in Nordic countries report abuse to the authorities. Another theory that could explain this is the backlash effect, particularly among men who have a more rigid sense of what it means to be a man and woman. It’s possible that some men are reacting to women’s advancing status with violence. “As scientists, we prefer not to speculate. We are pursuing different lines of research at the moment to better understand the Nordic paradox,” Gracia clarifies. 

While Gracia’s most recent work on the topic is currently in the peer review process, the last thing researchers want to do is imply that gender equality is a bad or dangerous thing in itself. But if gender equity is putting some women at an increased risk of physical and sexual violence in certain contexts, it’s crucial to determine what those specific conditions are and address that so women can advance without getting hurt. “We also want to look at the potential role of attitudes towards violence against women in Nordic countries as compared to other EU countries with lower prevalence,” Gracia says.

“But so far we do not have the data to support any potential explanations. This is what are setting to do in the near future.”