Sweden is among the global gender equality elite. So, what is left to do?
Quite a lot, in fact. Women are still subjected to sexual violence, receive low pensions and suffer ill health because of stress.
Join us for a year-long trip around one of the best countries to be a woman. We have followed some of the key issues over the course of a year.
Thousands of people brave the sleet falling over Malmo to march on International Women’s Day 2017.
The demonstrators stop outside the city’s main hospital to highlight pay inequalities in the health care sector where the majority are women. They form their hands in the shape of hearts and give healthcare workers a standing ovation as they pass the hospital entrance.
Midwife Anneli Hagen Andersson is one of the demonstrators. Every year, she takes a day off on the 8th of March.
“I always demonstrate on the 8th of March. It’s an important day and we haven’t always had the rights we enjoy today,” she says.
Swedish parents enjoy 480 days of paid parental leave, per child. Fathers take, on average, almost 28 percent of the shared parental leave, and their proportion increases every year.
Alva nearly falls asleep in her pram. Martin Bergheim tries to keep his daughter awake by putting her in a sling.
They are on their way to the aquarium. But Alva is more interested in getting out of her father’s grip so that she can walk by herself.
“She’s become a lot more mobile in the past few weeks,” says Martin Bergheim and ties Alva’s shoelaces. The red shoes she is wearing are her first pair.
Martin Bergheim is a construction worker. His union is campaigning against the macho culture that is still prevalent in the building industry, where few fathers take parental leave. But for Martin Bergheim it was no problem to get time off.
“My boss asked me how long I was going to be away for, and that was it. But I have a friend who is a plumber and at his workplace there was a lot of hullabaloo when he wanted to take parental leave.”
I thought it was going to be fantastic. But it’s a little bit better than fantastic
Most political parties in Sweden want dads to spend more time looking after their children when they are young. That is why some of the shared parental leave is earmarked for one of the parents. Three months of the leave cannot be transferred to the other parent. Earmarking days for each parent is the only political incentive that has been successful in encouraging more dads to stay at home with their children. One in four fathers take no parental leave at all, but an increasing number of couples share the responsibility.
Martin Bergheim and his wife Linn agreed to share the parental leave equally. It has now been a few months into his leave.
“I thought it was going to be fantastic. But it’s a little bit better than fantastic,” he says.
Since 1975, Swedish women have had the right to an abortion until the eighteenth week of pregnancy. The support for free abortion is enormous.
Midwife Ellinor Grimmark stands outside the Swedish Labour Court in Stockholm, taking questions from a group of journalists.
The court has just ruled that Ellinor Grimmark was not discriminated against when she was denied employment at the maternity ward at Varnamo hospital in 2014.
A midwife must be willing to carry out abortions. A person who is a vocal anti-abortionist cannot work in a Swedish maternity ward. It makes no difference if, as Grimmark claims, she has a calling from God.
I am being discriminated against because of my views. I cannot terminate life. I simply cannot do it
During the trial she has tried to keep her spirits high. She says she stands up for the truth.
But the court has a different view.
”I used to believe in the Swedish justice system. But I don’t anymore,” she says.
The battle is far from over. Backed by a crowdfunding campaign and with assistance from pro-life groups in the US, Ellinor Grimmark has appealed to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Her aim is to drive wedge into the Swedish abortion legislation.
”I am being discriminated against because of my views. I cannot terminate life. I simply cannot do it,” she says.
Reports to the police of sexual assault reached a record high in 2017. Sexual molestation is the criminal offence that has increased the most over the years. The increase of the number of reported rape cases is primarily linked to crimes committed against women indoors.
”It has taken me a long time to change roles.”
The highly experienced prosecutor Ulrika Rogland caused headlines when she left her position in 2014. Now she works for a law firm in Malmo, representing women and children who have been physically and sexually assaulted.
“As a prosecutor, you are constantly busy building a case and look for supporting evidence to see if it stands. When you enter a case as a complainant’s representative, it all becomes a lot more real. It hits home when you see pictures of people you have met several times, and the pictures show them bruised and battered.”
Rapists walk free. I don’t think the situation has ever been this bad
Her leaving the post as public prosecutor was a protest against the police’s limited resources to investigate domestic violence and sexual crimes. Few allegations led to legal action, and the investigations were piling up.
“The situation hasn’t improved. Quite the opposite, in fact. When I was working as a prosecutor, the police didn’t have enough resources to investigate domestic crimes. Now, they don’t have enough resources to investigate sexual crimes either. This means evidence is not secured, and in rape cases time is crucial. Rapists walk free. I don’t think the situation has ever been this bad,” says Ulrika Rogland.
During the first half of 2017, a perpetrator was charged in only eight percent of all reported cases of rape. This is the worst result of the past decade, according to the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention.
In April 2017, Ulrika Rogland made her political debut, writing an opinion piece on behalf of the Liberal Party. She also announced that she will stand for election in 2018.
”I want to be able to influence politics, something I previously haven’t been able to. Time will tell how involved I’ll be.”
In Sweden there are no laws that prevent women from wearing veils or other religious attire. The police, fire brigade and the Swedish armed forces actively encourage Muslim employees to wear veils by designing custom-made headscarves.
A photo exhibition entitled “The veiled woman” opens at the Dunker Culture House in Helsingborg, in the south of Sweden.
Eighteen-year-old Baraa Ahmed Abd-aljawad has worked hard to bring the exhibition to the public.
“I want to show the human being behind the veil. Many people think we are extremists, but we are just ordinary people who choose to practice our religion,” she says.
She stared wearing a veil when she was a child.
“I’ve been called a witch several times, but I haven’t been exposed to any serious racial attacks. At the same time, I feel people look at me suspiciously.”
The judging look.
“It’s there, but it’s hard to describe. I just know it. Veiled women are often attacked and suffer prejudice. Many people blame us for terrorism.”
I don’t let fear take over my life. I want to live just like everyone else
A debate about veils sweeps across Europe. In France, a ban was introduced in schools already in 2004, alongside other religious symbols. The Netherlands, France and Austria have banned women from wearing a burqa or a niqab.
In 2017, the European Court of Justice ruled in favour of an employer who fired a woman for wearing a headscarf. After the ruling, several veiled women have been denied employment at several private companies in Sweden, claiming company policy. For example, the airline SAS refuses to employ people who wear visible religious symbols. There is currently no law that bans women from wearing a veil in the public sector. However, the Swedish Democrats is motioning a ban.
Baraa Ahmed Abd-aljawad wears her hijab with pride.
”I don’t let fear take over my life. I want to live just like everyone else,” she says.
Only a hundred yards from the Dunker Culture House lies Helsingborg’s town hall. One of the town’s top politicians wants to ban headscarves in schools.
”Swedish schools shall not accept symbols of repressions,” she writes in an opinion piece. But her party, the Liberals, vote against the proposal later in the year.
The number of pensioners living in poverty in Sweden has increased rapidly in the past few years, from one in ten in 2005 to nearly one in five today. More than 70 percent of them are women.
“Thank God I don’t smoke. I could not afford it”
Birgitta Schöning laughs loudly. But she is serious. When she was admitted to hospital for a percutaneous coronary intervention four years ago, she dreamt that God said to her parents: “Please tell Birgitta that she will die from cancer if she takes as much as a puff on a cigarette.”
She quit smoking there and then. Now she is seventy years old, and has recently retired. Almost all her pension goes towards paying rent and other bills.
The apartment she lives in was bought as an investment. If interest rates go up, she might have to sell it.
I never thought about my pension, as all I wanted was for my children to be cared for at home rather than at day care centres
Birgitta Schöning is a trained after school instructor and a mother-of-three. She has worked in supermarkets, care homes and after school clubs. Her work has always been fitted around her family commitments. She was a stay-at-home mum when her children were small, and over the years she has had various jobs and part-time positions.
”I have cared for a lot of people, young and old. I never thought about my pension, as all I wanted was for my children to be cared for at home rather than at day care centres,” she says.
Her situation is far from unique. Women across the country have worked for decades but still receive low pensions because they have been in low-paying or part-time jobs. For women who live alone, the financial burden is even higher.
Partners can share their pensions, but few choose to do it.
Birgitta Schöning recalls when she was 25 years old and someone mentioned that she should start saving for her pension.
“I just laughed. It was so far off, and I wasn’t even sure I’d still be alive at 70. But now I tell all my children to start saving. It’s not much fun having no money.”
In 2016, more than 33 000 Swedes fell ill because of stress. That is twice as many as ten years ago. Two out of three people who suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome are women.
Ponies graze outside Humlamaden Rehab. Birds tweet in the nearby woods. Under a blossoming cherry tree, Lis-Lott Andersson serves coffee. Fourteen women sit on blankets that are spread out on the grass.
Lis-Lott Andersson is a specialist nurse and a certified horse riding therapist. At Humlamaden she offers nature-based rehabilitation, a form of therapy that has proven very effective by researchers at Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. For fifteen years, the researchers have run a “living lab”, a rehab garden for patients suffering from stress and depression. The majority of patients are women over 40. Teachers and nurses are the most common professions.
To suffer from a stress-related illness is like having a wound on the inside. You cannot see it, but you need time to heal
According to Lis-Lott Andersson, our brains need to be surrounded by nature to recover from the stress of modern life.
“To suffer from a stress-related illness is like having a wound on the inside. You cannot see it, but you need time to heal,” she says.
The fourteen women who are gathered on the lawn know the symptoms all too well. After the session, they will just sit down with the horses or lie in the hammocks.
”Now it’s relaxation time,” says the hostess.
Mental illness is the most common cause for long-term sick leave. More than half of the cases are stress related. It takes a long time before those affected by chronic stress can go back to work. Women are more affected than men, and the rapid increase of stress-related sickness leave in Sweden in the past few years is attributed to women.
Sweden is one of the safest countries for a woman to give birth. Neonatal deaths are among the lowest in the world. But a staff shortage has increased the workload for midwives and other healthcare workers.
It is nearly 3 p.m. and midwife Anneli Hagen Andersson’s shift is coming to an end. Today, the labour ward is full.
”There were only three midwives attending ten women giving birth. There were a lot of complications, such as episiotomies, and quite a few cases where the babies had to be turned,” she says.
She is chairman of the local branch of the Swedish Association of Midwives, a professional organisation that is currently lobbying for birthing women to have their own midwife, in other words one midwife per woman in labour.
– I think it’s a reasonable demand, says Anneli Hagen Andersson.
We know that fear and anxiety interferes with the delivery and that it can cause perineal tears.
In 2017, maternity care is at the top of the political agenda in Sweden. Midwives describe a very stressful work environment at hospitals around the country.
“The couples who come in notice how we run between the labour rooms. When we talk to women who have a lot of anxieties about giving birth, they always say we don’t spend enough time with them, says Anneli Hagen Andersson and continues:
“We know that fear and anxiety interferes with the delivery and that it can cause perineal tears.”
Although the most severe tears are uncommon, between three and four percent of all women who give birth in Sweden experience third- or fourth-degree lacerations. This is higher than in the other Nordic countries, and among the highest among the OECD countries.
”Injuries sustained during delivery affect women for the rest of their lives,” says Anneli Hagen Andersson.
Pensioners are the winners of the Swedish government’s budget for 2018. One of the budget’s key numbers is the lower tax for pensioners. On top of that, low income pensioners will receive additional housing benefits.
“I’m really pissed off,” says Birgitta Schöning as she storms into the 60s music tent at the Malmo Festival.
”Mortgage interest rates have gone up and I have to sell my flat. My children must help me clear the place. There’s nothing to do about that. But I have no idea of where I’ll go.”
She wears red lipstick and carries a pair of shades in her hands. Tonight, Johnny’s Boogie Band is playing.
“I know the guys,” she says and walks towards the stage.
I drink one beer all night. That’s all I need. I’ll need the toilet if I drink any more.
She’s been coming to the festival for years.
”I’m here every year! They crayfish party on the Friday. The blues tent. The 60s tent. It’s perfect for me as it’s free!
She loves the lively atmosphere.
“I drink one beer all night. That’s all I need. I’ll need the toilet if I drink any more. It’s also saving me money.”
On election day 2018, one in four voters will be 65 years or older. Sweden’s three largest OAP organisations will cooperate for the first time to lobby for issues affecting the elderly population. On top of their demands is equal pensions. Women receive, on average, 6600 SEK less per month than men.
Swedish employers want to shorten the current parental leave. They claim that women’s careers are hampered by the long absence from the workplace, and that planning ahead is more difficult for the employer.
It is a sunny but bitingly chilly day in the old industrial area in Malmö where a new housing development is underway.
A wall is lowered into place by a huge crane. Next year, 110 new apartments will be built on the site.
My wife works seven hours a day. I drop Alva off on the days I start late, and I fetch her on the days I leave work early.
Construction worker Martin Bergheim covers all the doors and windows to protect the building from the harsh winter weather.
His daughter Alva has just started preschool. Martin Bergheim works six hours per day.
”It’s working out really well. My wife works seven hours a day. I drop Alva off on the days I start late, and I fetch her on the days I leave work early,” he says.
Soon, the government will propose changes to the parental leave. Martin Bergheim argues parental pay should increase to encourage more men to stay at home with their children. Because women often earn less, many families lose financially when the fathers go on parental leave.
The new government proposal includes higher pay, but fewer days. Additionally, the days that are earmarked for the other parent will also increase. The reason is gender equality. Swedish mothers take a substantial proportion of the shared parental leave and miss out on career opportunities. Not only will their wages be affected, but also their pensions.
Sexual crimes are underreported. In a survey among Swedish women aged 16-84 years, eight percent of respondents say they have been exposed to sexual violence in the past year. In the youngest age group, one in four say they have been sexually violated. But only one in ten crimes are reported to the police.
Sweden’s feminist government is busy in the wake of #metoo.
The internet campaign has led to a watershed of witness accounts of sexual harassment and assault throughout October. In the past two weeks, thousands of women across various industries have made public statements in protests against sexual harassment. They want to break the silence and see change in attitudes.
Ministers have been busy setting up crisis meetings with heads of departments. Today, gender equality minister Åsa Regnér and justice minister Morgan Johansson have called a meeting with the directors of the National Police Board, the Prosecution Authority and the Courts.
You can’t just make empty promises ahead of the election. You have to take action.
The lawyers’ witness accounts in the hashtag appeal #medvilkenrätt (with what right) have shaken them up. After the meeting, the ministers say sexual violence against women must be prioritised.
”The issue is already at the top of the agenda,” says Ulrika Rogland, the previous prosecutor who now works as a lawyer and has recently moved into her new offices.
“This is not news, but nobody has done anything about it. You can’t just make empty promises ahead of the election. You have to take action.”
Why more sexual crimes are being reported than ever before is unclear. Apart from the fact that more sexual crimes are now classified as rape, experts are baffled as to why the reporting of these crimes has increased. One explanation could be a greater awareness, as well as a lower tolerance for sexual crimes. Another explanation is simply that more women speak out.
But it could also be the case that more sexual crimes are being committed. A surplus of men following a large influx of refugees is one theory behind the increasing numbers of cases of sexual crimes. Other theories include the view of women in some cultures, pornography and the exposure of young people on the internet.
The likelihood of falling into depression before the age of 70 is 27 percent for men and 43 percent for women. Not because women are more susceptible to depression, but because women have jobs that increase the risk of developing stress-related mental illness.
Once a year, Lis-Lott Andersson bakes saffron buns. She puts the bright yellow bakery goods on a plate. The summerhouse in Humlamaden has a whiff of mulled wine and candles.
Three young women sit around the table. They all work in the public sector as caregivers and teachers, and have heard their bosses say that there are no resources for extra staff when someone is off sick. Still, they carried on working until the ground beneath their feet disappeared and their brains stopped functioning.
It’s something that people can do whenever they have the energy.
They have been on sick leave for a long time, and now they have come to Humlamaden Rehab as a first step to get back to work.
Here, there is always something to do: a yard that needs sweeping, a water trough that needs to be filled.
”It’s something that people can do whenever they have the energy. These tasks have a clear result, far away from office desks and piles of paper,” says Lis-Lott Andersson.
Her ambition is to start a research project about horse-based therapy, and work alongside the public healthcare system. Humlamaden will be a research lab facility.
One in twenty Swedish workers show symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome. The professional groups that seek help at Humlamaden often have a third party to consider.
For example, people working in the healthcare sector have patients to care for. Teachers and pre-school teachers have pupils and children to look after. Many people working in these jobs are prepared to put in a little more effort, even though that extra care takes its toll. These jobs are dominated by women.
Doctors can now save premature babies born at 24 weeks or younger. Today, four in ten children born at 22 weeks survive. Sweden’s abortion limit is currently at 21 weeks and six days.
“Abortion kills small people” says a banner. Supporters of the pro-life organisation MRO (Människorätt för ofödda), gather on Stortorget square in central Malmö. They show graphic pictures of embryos and features, torn apart after an abortion.
The tactic is controversial in Sweden. Even avid anti-abortionists want to distance themselves from the graphic violence shown in the pictures.
I appreciate that people get angry when they see these pictures. But we want to make them think.
”People come up to us and say we should feel ashamed of ourselves. We are viewed as a backward religious sect. But I’m willing to stand up and be pointed at, just so that young women don’t have to go through this,” says MRO supporter Anna Endenborg.
She says that the pain and hurt many women – and men – feel after an abortion is often hushed.
“I appreciate that people get angry when they see these pictures. But we want to make them think.
Abortions carried out later than 18 weeks require a special permission from the National Board of Health and Welfare. Only around 300 are granted every year, and almost all late abortions are due to medical reasons, such as a malformed foetus or if the mother suffers from life-threatening condition.
If doctors believe the foetus will survive outside the womb, permission for a late abortion is denied.
The abortion limit is currently 21 weeks and 6 days. But medical advances have put pressure on the Swedish abortion legislation. Several doctors have tried to resuscitate foetuses that have been aborted at 22 weeks. The National Board of Health and Welfare recommends doctors to terminate the life of a foetus with an injection of potassium if the abortion happens after 22 weeks. But few doctors are willing to do it.
Pregnant women write in social media about their fears of being turned away at the hospital when they are due to give birth. The aftercare is another worry. Swedish mums stay in hospital, on average, 1,8 days after giving birth vaginally. This is the shortest post birth hospitalisation in the EU.
Malte was born three weeks ago. The labour was quick – only forty minutes.
”I go through labour quickly, so when I realised the baby was due I called up the hospital. They told me they had space, but that quite a few women were about to come in,” says Anneli Hagen Andersson.
As a midwife, she found it useful to experience the care from a patient’s perspective.
”It was pretty awesome. It made me think of all the deliveries I have assisted. After this experience, I want to be more relaxed in my role as a midwife, and view the whole experience as a stage for the women giving birth and her partner. I shall just assist when it’s needed.”
The Swedish government has earmarked a billion SEK over five years to improve maternity care in the country.
The money will be spent on improving the work environment to attract more staff to the labour wards.
The Swedish government proposes a change to the sexual offence legislation. As from now, it is a criminal offence to have sex with someone without their consent. New criminal offences are introduced: negligent rape and negligent sexual abuse. Intent is no longer needed for a conviction. The minimum sentence for the most severe rape crimes is also increased.
The sexual offence legislation changed in June 2013, but public opinion demands politicians to do more.
“It’s an important chapter in the history of Swedish gender equality,” says vice prime minister Isabella Lövin (Green Party), when the proposal is announced shortly before Christmas.
But the Law Council says no, with the motivation that these acts are already criminal offences.
There is a risk that it won’t result in an increase of rape convictions at all.
Ulrika Rogland does not believe new legislation is needed. But her party, the Liberals, wants to see a consent law.
”It’s already against the law to have sex with someone against his or her will. Violence is not necessarily a factor,” she says.
The newly appointed head of the national police force has a key role to make sure sex offenders are being punished for their crimes, she adds.
“More police patrols are needed, but they must be used wisely. To solve sexual crimes, we need competent investigators who can focus only on these crimes, and salaries that attract the best people in the field.”
But one of the most important aspects, argues Ulrika Rogland, is to talk about what a sexual abuse is and to encourage women to talk about it, without feelings of guilt and shame.
She worries that many women will be disappointed should the legislation go through.
”There is a risk that it won’t result in an increase of rape convictions at all, and that the crime will be viewed as a lesser offence where the sentences are not so tough.”
Winter holds a grip of southern Sweden. Baraa Ahmed Abd-aljawad meets up with some of her friends. They are on their way to a local café.
International Women’s Day is important, the young women agree. All of Baraa’s friends were born in Sweden.
”In our parent’s home countries, women are more restricted. The men work and women are expected to look after the children. If I ever have children, it goes without saying that my husband and I will share the responsibility,” says Jessica Pham who has just started a new job at furniture giant IKEA.
”IKEA has a lot of female managers, and the company has come a long way in terms of gender equality in the workplace. I drive a forklift truck, just like the guys. I haven’t noticed that men and women are being treated differently at work.”
As a veiled Muslim woman, Baraa Ahmed Abd-aljawad says she finds it difficult to be part of the gender equality debate. But she also sees a lot of women supporting each other, despite their differences.
”Women make up half the population. If we back each other, we will become stronger.”