No. XL (2018)

Gender Equality and Violence Against Women. Understanding the So-called Nordic Paradox

Magdalena Grzyb
Jagiellonian University

Published 2018-09-16


  • violence against women,
  • gender equality,
  • “Nordic paradox”,
  • hegemonic masculinities,
  • victimisation survey,
  • varieties of patriarchy,
  • Bourdieu

How to Cite

Grzyb, M. (2018). Gender Equality and Violence Against Women. Understanding the So-called Nordic Paradox. Archives of Criminology, (XL), 221–261.


According to the prevailing assumption, the main cause of violence against women isa structural inequality between men and women. That idea is common in internationalhuman rights discourse, widely accepted on political level and enforced by severalscientific studies. The structural nature of violence against women means that it isgender-based violence and one of the crucial social mechanisms by which womenare forced into a subordinate position compared with men. It is a manifestationof historically unequal power relations between men and women which have led todomination over, and discrimination against, women by men, and have prevented fulladvancement of women.Logically thinking, achieving gender equality would lead to the elimination ofviolence against women. Respectively, in societies with greater gender equality, wherewomen enjoy better rights, have a better footing towards men, greater legal protectionand access to power, they also should be less vulnerable to violence based on theirgender. The most gender-equal countries in the world are Scandinavian countries –Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Finland.Yet, the recent EU-wide victimisation survey on violence against women (FundamentalRights Agency 2014) produced startling results. It turned out that the highestrates of violence against women (in almost every single aspect, intimate partner violenceand non-partner violence) were reported in the Nordic countries, particularly in Sweden,whereas countries considered traditional and conservative, e.g. the Mediterraneancountries or Poland, revealed a lower prevalence of violence against women. The FRAresults on Scandinavian countries were coined the “Nordic paradox”.The main problem is this: is really gender equality a factor reducing or increasingthe likelihood of violence against women’s victimisation? Is the subordinate positionof women typical of more conservative societies a protective factor against violenceagainst women? And are actually the FRA study results sufficiently reliable to drawsuch conclusions?The first section of the paper discusses the FRA results regarding the Scandinaviancountries and presents it against a larger picture of gender equality indicators. Thenext section examines the possible explanations for differences between countriesoffered by the authors, which are mainly methodological and contextual ones, such as:cultural acceptability to talk with other people about experiences of violence againstwomen, higher levels of disclosure about violence against women in more gender-equalsocieties, patterns of employment or lifestyle or levels of urbanisation, differencesbetween countries in the overall levels of violent crime and drinking habits in particularsocieties.The third section reviews the previous research findings, looking at the relationshipbetween gender equality or women’s status and violence against women. There are twochief hypotheses tested in the studies: the ameliorative hypothesis (violence againstwomen will fall along with greater gender equality) and the backlash hypothesis (ifwomen remain in their subordinate position, men are less threatened and less likely toresort to violence against them). Overall, the studies showed mixed results, dependingon the used measures. Furthermore, most of the them were conducted on the US data,and their application to the European context is doubtful.The final section presents some theoretical explanations from the critical sociologyfield. The three most relevant theories suitable to explain the “Nordic paradox” andthe relationship between gender equality and relatively high rates of violence againstwomen include the variety of patriarchy theory of G. Hunnicutt, the hegemonic masculinities of R.W. Connell and J. Messerschmidt and the symbolic violence ofP. Bourdieu. All of these theories critically frame the use of violence by men as a meansof upholding their superior position towards women.


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