Parties tackle sexual abuse of power

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Sexual harassment and even assault are believed to be far more widespread within Norway’s political parties than most politicians want to admit. Now, after the latest cases hit the headlines this week, calls are going out for male politicians especially to take responsibility and stop abusing their power.

Liberal Party leader Trine Skei Grande (center) has begun searching for a replacement for deputy leader Helge Solum Larsen (right), who remains in a psychiatric ward after allegedly raping a teenage party member over the weekend. At left, co-deputy leader Ola Elvestuen. PHOTO: Venstre

“Men are the problem but men are also the key (to finding a solution),” Arild Stokkan-Grande of the Labour Party told newspaper Dagsavisen on Thursday. “Therefore it’s the men who need to take responsibility.”

Norway is known internationally for having among the highest level of equal rights and opportunities for women in the world. That made it all the more embarrassing and disturbing for local politicians when cases of sexual harassment and abuse of power flared up once again this week, within political parties that otherwise preach egalitarian policies. First began the sexual assault trial of a former top Progress Party politician in Stavanger, and then the  Liberal Party announced that its 43-year-old deputy leader had been accused of raping a 17-year-old member of the party’s youth organization Unge Venstre.

Labour, which leads Norway’s current coalition government, has also had to deal with recent allegations of sexual assault against one of its own top politicians. Politicians at both ends of the political spectrum think harassment and even assault are problems within all parties. They also fear there are many cases of harassment and assault that go unreported. Just last month, several female Members of Parliament also reported how they’ve been victims of sexual harassment, but that mostly involved anonymous harassment from the general public.

Complaints had been made against Helge Solum Larsen before the weekend's sex scandal broke. Now he faces arrest and a rape trial. PHOTO: Venstre

“Men across all party lines must stand at the forefront of this and take responsibility … so women can feel secure within politics,” Stokkan-Grande told Dagsavisen. “It’s especially important that men in positions of power set a good example, and think about the signals they send out and those that they get. Many young party members can feel flattered when someone they look up to pays attention to them. The responsibility lies with those who have power in the party, not the young, new members.”

He gained quick support from colleagues and rivals, including MP Snorre Valen of the Socialist Left (SV) party. It has avoided media coverage of any incidents, but Valen says that doesn’t mean his party is immune. SV’s youth organization, he claimed, has actively tackled issues of exploitation and abuse of power, especially across gender lines.

Leaders of all the parties’ youth organizations also claimed they’ve invoked new, stricter rules against alcohol consumption at party events. They also claim they’re much more conscious of situations where older party members could exploit younger ones.

‘In despair’
That didn’t prevent the rape allegations that came after a regional Liberal Party (Venstre) meeting at a hotel in Rogaland over the weekend. Deputy leader Helge Solum Larsen has admitted having sex with the 17-year-old member of the party’s youth organization, but denies rape. Police had been unable to question him as of Thursday, because he reportedly suffered a nervous breakdown and doctors have said he’s too ill. He remained in the psychiatric unit of a west coast hospital, where his defense attorney described him as “deeply troubled and in despair.”

VG Nett reported that another female employee of the Liberal Party had complained to party leadership about Larsen’s behaviour in December. Party leader Trine Skei Grande confirmed that Larsen allegedly had verbally harassed a secretary at the Liberals’ Christmas party and it was agreed the party’s top administrator should have a talk with Larsen, but there was no follow-up. VG also reported that Larsen had been the subject of complaints from two women in the 1990s and had a drunk-driving conviction in 1999.

The party, meanwhile, is already discussing who will replace Larsen as deputy leader. While some feared the sex scandal would harm the party, which is in the midst of rebuilding efforts, Grande has received praise for how she and other party leaders have openly tackled the incident. Many commentators claim they’ve “done everything right,”  showing concern for the alleged rape victim and resisting any impulse to cover up the scandal.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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