The UK and Denmark share the first place when it comes to young women experiencing abuse and abusive behaviour, but while the UK made psychological violence illegal last year, it is yet to be recognized as a crime in Denmark.

By Emma Tram and Ida Maria Skovgaard Westermann  

Photo: Emma Tram. Danish Nana Byron Holmes has been a victim of psychological abuse by her boyfriend.

When Nana Byron Holmes first met her boyfriend back in 2011, she fell for his charming personality, and the couple quickly fell in love. At first everything was fantastic, but suddenly he started to show another, not so charming, side of himself. He started being verbally abusive and criticizing her in vulnerable, and even intimate, situations.   

“At one time he yelled at me: “You are the the worst fuck I have ever had!” and then I just rushed home. I was in shock and cried all night,” she says.   

This is just one example of how psychological violence and abuse against young women can start, and does so, every day all over Europe. According to a survey on violence against women drafted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) in 2014, psychological violence is especially a problem among young women such as Nana.

Difference between countries

In the survey, the United Kingdom and Denmark share the first place with 45 percent of young women saying ‘yes’ to having experienced psychological abuse and abusive behavior by a  partner. Following them are other Nordic and Western countries such as the Netherlands and Finland, while countries like Portugal, Romania and Poland rank the lowest with percentages as low as 16 percent.

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Source: Violence against women survey, European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights

Two factors can help explain why psychological violence is such a big issue in the UK, Denmark and other similar countries, according to Morten Kjærum. He was then director of the FRA, founder of the Danish Institute for Human Rights and is now in charge of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in Sweden. He points out that the first factor is the drinking culture in the Nordic and Western parts of Europe:

“If you compare the FRA survey with surveys on drinking culture, there is a clear connection,” he says and adds that the other reason, which still requires more research, is, that there has been a growing focus on women in the gender equality debate.

“The gender equality debate leads to a great deal of men feeling stressed and unsure of their gender identity. That is possibly why a higher rate of violence against women is seen in countries like Denmark compared to countries with more conservative and defined gender roles, like those who rank the lowest,” he concludes.  

The ongoing abuse

After Nana’s boyfriend yelled at her, she broke of their relationship, just to find him standing outside her door begging her to take him back. This happened multiple times, and because she loved him, she took him back every time. But the pattern was always the same: after a few days bliss, the abuse would start all over again.  When Nana tried to confront her boyfriend with his abusive behaviour, he always turned the argument around making Nana feel like the odd one.

“When I broke it off, he kept trying to get in contact with me. At that time, I felt like it would help if I just explained to him, how the abuse made me feel, so he would understand. But my explanations kept being misunderstood, and today I see that his misunderstandings was intentional and just a part of the abuse,” she says and adds that the psychological violence, she experienced, was not just verbal humiliation and belittlement.  

“He would rip off all the doors in my apartment from their hinges and lay them in a pile in the hallway. I had no privacy. Sometimes he would also get so angry, that he punched his fist into the wall, so it broke. When he got out of his crazy state of anger, he would cover the holes in the wall with posters or photos, so no one would notice,” she says.   

One day the psychological violence turned physical. The following morning she packed her bags and moved in with her sister in the other end of the country. Suddenly the psychological violence, she had been experiencing long before it turned physical, became visible, and the reflection, she saw in the mirror that morning, gave her the strength to leave him for good.

“I broke up with him for the last time, and even though I know that it was the right decision, it did not mean that my feelings just disappeared. That is the problem with being in an abusive relationship. Your brain may know what is right and wrong, but you can not just turn the feelings in your heart on and off.”

Psychological violence made illegal in the UK

Coercive and controlling domestic abuse officially became a crime in the UK last year punishable by up to five years in prison – even if the abuse stops short of physical violence. The new legislation was introduced as a reaction to reports and surveys, like the one from the FRA, showing a growing number of victims of psychological violence and abuse.

It is now possible for the Crown Prosecution  Service, who is responsible for public prosecutions in both England and Wales, to bring charges when there is evidence of repeated or continuous controlling or coercive behavior within an intimate relationship.

Controlling or coercive behavior is defined under section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 as causing someone to fear that violence will be used against them on at least two occasions or generating serious alarm or distress that has a substantial effect on their usual day-to-day activities.

According to Citizens Advice, a national UK charity, 1500 people sought help for domestic abuse between July and September 2015. This is a rise of 24 percent compared to the same period the previous year.

Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said in a press release:

“More and more people are coming to Citizens Advice because they are experiencing abuse by a partner. The Government’s change in the law making coercive control a criminal offence is an important step forward in protecting victims of domestic abuse and helping them find a way out.”

Expert: Open discussion is needed

Even though Denmark ranks as high as the UK in the FRA survey, when it comes to young women experiencing psychological abuse and abusive behaviour, the Danish Government and Parliament are yet to launch any new legislation to combat the problem. According to Morten Kjærum, the FRA survey was even met with denial here caused by the Danes view of themselves:  

“While the survey was well-received in other countries, it was shocking to see the denial that the survey was met with in Denmark. It is very common, when there is critique of Denmark, that it is blamed on faults or a lack of cultural understanding. The Danes always find reasons why we do not need to take critique seriously, which has resulted in a standstill on many important issues such as this one,” he says.

Morten Kjærum also emphasizes that psychological violence, even more than physical violence, is a taboo topic that needs more open discussions, debates and information to raise the needed awareness and knowledge.

“The most important thing is that we talk about it, so it is normalized. If you just keep silent, and claim that it does not exist, nothing will happen. Psychological violence should not be a taboo as it is a problem for our society that we have to face,” he says.

No straightforward solution  

According to Birgit Søderberg, chairman of the National Organisation of Women’s Shelters in Denmark (LOKK), criminalizing psychological violence and abuse is a good idea:

“Our own statistics show that more women report psychological violence than physical violence, so there is no doubt that the psychological violence is the one, that is most prominent and should be recognized – also in court,” she says.

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Source: National Organisation of Women’s Shelters in Denmark, LOKK

Initiatives to prevent domestic violence is discussed politically every year in Denmark, when the money from the Government Budget is distributed. Despite of this there has not been any new initiatives in this area in the past two years. According to Marianne Jelved,  spokesman on social affairs and member of the Social Affairs Committee for the Danish Social-Liberal Party, the lack of initiatives reflects that a majority of parties in the Danish Parliament, including her own, agree that the initiatives, that have already been taken, cover the problem.

When asked why psychological violence is not an individual crime in Denmark, like in the UK, Marianne Jelved points out that treatment is just as effective as putting the perpetrators behind bars:

“Even though there is no legal substance to convict perpetrators of psychological violence in Denmark, we have treatment possibilities for both those, who are victims, and those who use it,” she says.

For Nana, the solution to the problem is a combination of many things. She believes that  psychological violence and abuse can be just as harmful as physical violence – or even worse – and supports the idea of making it illegal in Denmark, but putting the perpetrators in prison will not be a sustainable solution without making correct treatment a part of the imprisonment.

She also points towards more information and awareness, so young women and girls can learn to spot the warning signs and know the right tools to get out of an abusive relationship in time:

“When you are in an abusive relationship, your partner likes when you are feeling down and feel happy, when you are sad. It is easier said than done, but the best revenge is to move on, start a new life and be happy.”