Sweden is improving street lighting to reduce rape

(WOMENSENEWS)–A simple cardboard box is one way Sweden, with its high rate of reported rape, is trying to address its low rate of convicting rapists.

Inside there are cotton swabs; tape to capture foreign fibers and hairs; and paper, rather than plastic, envelopes to prevent samples of saliva, blood and semen going moldy before the rape case goes to court.

With only 1 in 8 reported rapes going to trial in the last few years, Sweden in 2007 drew a reprimand from Yakin Erturk, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on violence against women, for its low prosecution rates.

In 2007, crime statistics revealed that 216 rapists were convicted out of about 4,800 reported rapes, said Olga Persson, coordinator of the team for raped women at Sweden’s biggest help line and shelter, All Women’s House. She also notes a study that showed police do not question the suspects in about one-third of reported cases.

Of the relatively few cases that make it to the court room, about 80 percent result in conviction, according to lawyer and academic researcher Eva Diesen at Stockholm University. She estimates that only 1 in 10 reported cases go to trial.

Sweden had a conviction rate of 8 percent from 1993 to 1997, according to data collected by the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit at London Metropolitan University. That compares to Finland’s 17 percent conviction rate, Norway’s 15 percent, Germany’s 17 percent and Czech Republic’s 22 percent in the same years.

Re-Tooled Rape Kits

In response, the National Center for Knowledge on Men’s Violence Against Women, a governmental research and advisory institution created in 1994 at Uppsala University, launched the new rape kit box on Nov. 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The contents of the box were developed with input from the State Criminal Laboratory.

The refined rape kit developed by the center also contains tests for pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. "The judiciary needs to understand that there can be long-lasting illnesses and consequences of rape," said center co-ordinator Asa Witkowski. She emphasized that medical staff must take tests even when the victim is undecided about reporting the crime.

Next year 2,000 boxes will be given to medical staff in five cities across Sweden along with a guide book explaining all tests needed to gather criminal evidence.

The National Center for Knowledge on Men’s Violence Against Women recommends that medical facilities store the box for two years, allowing police enough time to request it if the rape is formally reported to them.

In 2005, Stockholm’s largest hospital, Sodersjukhuset, established a special emergency room for raped women. Head doctor Lotti Hellstrom recently told reporters that police request only 63 percent of the tests and evidence collected at the center.

The Swedish National Police Board is set to improve its officers’ training on assisting rape victims when it releases a new guidebook on Dec. 15 about violence in relationships, where most rapes are committed.

Collecting Evidence

DNA has been analyzed and used in Swedish investigations and trials since the late 1980s. In the majority of cases in which a rapist was found guilty, DNA evidence helped secure the verdict, said forensic officer Ricky Ansell at the State Criminal Laboratory, which analyzes biological evidence.

After Iceland, Sweden has the highest rate of reported rape among European Union countries, according to the 2003 European Sourcebook of Crime and Criminal Justice Statistics. Last year, the number of reported rapes almost doubled in Sweden to 52 per 100,000 people in 2007 from 29 per 100,000 in 2004.

The Swedish National Council of Crime Prevention says the spike may be linked to the 2005 expansion of the legal definition of rape to include victims incapacitated by drugs or alcohol. Previously such situations had been classified as "sexual exploitation."

Differences in how countries record rape make international comparisons difficult.

Some answers may be provided in April 2009, when a large comparative study on rape in Europe is published.

Diesen, who is working on a Stockholm University study of Stockholm County for that report, says comparative analysis will be hampered by difficulties accessing case files. In one participating country, for instance, police have produced only cases where the rapist was convicted, making it impossible to determine how high the conviction rate actually is.

In southern Europe, she says, rapes in intimate relationships are rarely reported. "Awareness that sexual offenses in a relationship constitute crime may be higher in Sweden," says Diesen.

Turning on the Lights

In another anti-rape initiative by Sweden–this one aimed at prevention rather than prosecution–Equality and Integration Minister Nyamko Sabuni last month announced $5.7 million to improve public safety in towns and suburbs through such means as redesigning the layout of public areas and improving lighting in underpasses and parks.

Stockholm City Council has already joined forces with energy company Fortum to invite residents to vote via the Internet and text messaging on locations that need better lighting. Five areas have already had more lamps installed.

Carina Listerborn, who focuses on urban questions of gender, planning and theory at the University of Lund, joins other critics in saying better public lighting misses the point that the most dangerous place for women is in the home.

In 2007, 48 percent of reported rapes took place in the victim’s or aggressor’s home, usually with previous acquaintance or intimacy between them, according to Swedish police statistics. "Attack rapes" between strangers accounted for 17 percent. Statistics indicate, however, that men may be more likely to be attacked outdoors than women.

Despite the relative safety for women outside their homes, research by academics, insurance companies, government institutions and landlords indicate women are more likely to stay at home because of fear.

"It has long been known that women’s and men’s experiences of fear in public spaces are different," Sabuni wrote in response to questions in an e-mail. "It limits freedom of movement and quality of life."

Ann Tornkvist was born in Bahrain to an Anglo-Swedish family. She studied politics at the University of Glasgow, followed by print and photojournalism at Columbia University. Her writing has been published in American and Swedish magazines. The Financial Times, the Guardian (UK), the Christian Science Monitor and numerous online publications including Time and Stern have featured her photographs.