UPDATED: The numbers revealed in a new study last week were called as “shocking” as recent reports about harassment of women in the Norwegian military: Fully 20 percent of all Norwegian women have been subjected to rape, especially young women, and sexual harassment is widespread. Illusions of Norway as a modern, safe and egalitarian society have been shattered, while those in positions of power call it “sad” and worry Norway now has “a culture of rape.”
On the morning of International Women’s Day, state broadcaster NRK woke up Norwegians with news that women were being warned against serving in the armed forces. The report comes just as the government is trying to recruit more troops, to further boost defense in troubled times.
“I think it’s very sad,” Amanda Bergh Schjelderup, leader of the Military Women’s Network, told NRK. She’s been busy defending the defense forces as a good place to work and serve the nation, but given the number of complaints filed recently by women who’ve been harassed and even raped by fellow soldiers, she said she’s not surprised. Both men and women in Norway are subject to be being drafted into military service from the age of 18, and defense leaders and politicians hope the majority will launch a military career.
Schjelderup said the Norwegian equivalent of basic training (called førstegangstjeneste) is an important part of recruiting and getting young men and women to choose a military career. “We rely heavily on attracting women to the service, too,” she told NRK, “so this is sad, but unfortunately not surprising.”
Defense chiefs have been busy defending themselves lately against the rash of complaints and defections of otherwise promising female recruits. The women simply can’t or won’t tolerate a highly sexualized culture among young male recruits, and older male soldiers and officers, too. The internet age has made pornography much more available to both boys and girls, and Norway’s heavy partying russ culture for graduating high school students gives new meaning to the term “casual sex.” Some Norwegian commentators have noted how teenage boys go straight from being russ to the military, and bring all its rough language, wild behaviour and disrepect with them.
While military brass concentrates on improving systems for handling and acting on complaints, Major Helje Borud wrote in newspaper Aftenposten recently that the real problem lies with attitudes and a social media culture rife with online bullying, promotion of social exclusion, pornography and sharing nude photos. “What do we think about russ partying, which is the last ritual young people go through before meeting up for military duty?” Borud asked rhetorically. “We can wind up with the worst of our own culture.”
Other media commentators argue that parents need to have some serious talks with their sons about attitudes toward women. Asta B Håland of the feminist group Kvinnegruppa Ottar wrote in newspaper Klassekampen that the assaults and harassment facing women today, especially in the military, amount to a “predictable crisis.” The military hasn’t succeeded at addressing it within its own ranks, Håland noted, leading to an embarrassing exclusion last week by the UN of six Norwegian officers from any further UN assignments. They were scolded for buying sex and exploiting vulnerable women while on duty in Sør-Sudan. NRK had documented their exploits, also how they hadn’t been investigated or reported by Norwegian military leaders themselves, but Defense Chief Eirik Kristoffersen says such cases will be now. He promises better “routines,” also for informing the UN about errant personnel.
New surveys, meanwhile, indicate that three out of four female recruits and students in the Norwegian military experience sexual harassment. Around half of all women in the military have been harassed, compared to 14 percent of men. Less than half recommend military service to other women.
“I think confidence in joining the service has suffered after these cases have come up,” Defense Minister Bjørn Arild Gram told NRK this week. “We don’t want that. It’s unacceptable and all illegal behaviour must be reported.” Both he and Kristoffersen, who has referred to it as a “crisis,” met recently with representatives of military personnel to address sexual harassment and systems for reporting it and dealing with the perpetrators. Kristoffersen is most keen on preventative measures and improving reporting systems.
Sexual violence is also on the rise in Norway as a whole, given the latest research by the Norwegian Centre for Violence and Traumatic Stress Studies (NKVTS). In a new study carried out for the Justice Ministry, researchers uncovered an alarming increase in violence and sexual assaults. Nearly 40 percent of more than 4,000 people surveyed had suffered some form of physical violence and 20 percent of all women had been subjected to assault, been raped while sleeping, or both. Half were under the age of 18 and most were acquainted with their attackers.
“This indicates that boys and men have little respect for women,” editorialized newspaper Dagsavisen. “More (of the sexual offenders) should be reported to police, convicted and punishment should be stronger, but most of all, we as a society must try to prevent this by talking with young men. They need to be brought up better. Schools, athletics and their fathers need to address this.”
The paper noted how many now grow up in a sexualized culture “in which the lines between sex and violence have become unclear where they need to be absolute.” Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) noted that the problem is by no means limited to the military: “Whatever it is that prompts young men to assault colleagues or friends is something more than just the defense chief needs to address,” wrote DN commentator Anne Rokkan.
“We have in reality a culture of rape,” declared Andreas Sjalg Unneland from the podium in Parliament on Wednesday. He represents the Socialist Left Party (SV), and called for quick measures from the government to address it.
“When the numbers (of assaults and harassment) are as large as they are now, when so many women experience rape in the course of their lifetimes, then we have a problem with our culture and society,” Unneland said.
Justice Minister Emilie Enger Mehl responded that the government has already formed a commission to study the reasons for the high rape statistics. She claimed she’s also working to “strengthen measures against rape and assault in general,” noting how police have been granted more funding to investigate rape cases and prosecute sexual offenders.
Mehl is also due to propose a new law that could go beyond a demand for mutual consent and rather toughen current law regarding what constitutes a rape. “A ‘no’ should mean ‘no,'” Mehl said after receiving the new study on violence and sexual assault. “I take this very seriously and new laws demanding consent are important.” Details remain unclear and gathering enough evidence will continue to be demanding itself.