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Finland last among Nordics to set up centre for victims of sexual violence

Finland’s first centre for victims of sexual violence opened its doors in Helsinki on Monday. The Seri centre means that Finland has finally complied with the obligations of an EU agreement to combat sexual violence, and is the last of the Nordic countries to do so.

Hiuksista tukistetaan.
Victims of sexual violence are often reluctant to speak out. Image: Heini Holopainen / Yle

The Council of Europe’s Istanbul convention on combating violence against women and domestic violence was signed in 2015 and requires all member states to take measures to prevent violence against women.

On Monday, the National Institute for Health and Welfare THL and the Women’s Hospital officially opened a support centre for victims of sexual violence in Helsinki’s Meilahti district.

The centre will provide victims of sexual violence with comprehensive support in the so-called acute phase, meaning within one month of the experienced sexual violence.

"At this stage, we don’t have the resources to treat cases that took place earlier, but we can also direct such cases to others," said chief physician Leena Laitinen.

The centre will serve victims of sexual violence aged 16 and over. Victims under the age of 16 will receive assistance from Helsinki’s Children’s Hospital and the children’s accident and emergency unit of Jorvi Hospital in Espoo.

Victims encouraged to file criminal reports

The centre aims to provide crisis care and support for sexual violence victims of all orientations – women, men, transsexuals and intersexual individuals.

Officials will collect forensic evidence and also conduct forensic investigations as well as provide care and psychosocial support. While victims are not required to report a crime in order to receive assistance, they will be encouraged to do so.

"We have a psychologist, social workers, a coordinating midwife and a part-time doctor. If need be we will have the option to direct [patients] to a psychiatrist, third sector or municipal officials. We have put together a good team and a chain to assist investigators and patients," Laitinen said.

Sexual violence often linked to domestic violence

Laitinen said that she had previously encountered victims of sexual violence during her work at the Women’s Hospital. She said that it is often difficult to confront such violence and there may be a tendency to downplay it.

"Sexual violence is quite often linked to domestic violence and violence within a relationship. It is partly invisible and causes a great deal of shame, guilt and fear. It is difficult for people to talk about it, and perhaps it is also difficult to confront it."

Police in Finland record about 1,000 reported rapes per year, but the physician said that is only represents a small number of the true total.

"The problem is that the true number is not known. According to studies conducted around the world, only ten to 20 percent of victims report rapes," she noted.

The new centre is meant to improve victims’ opportunity to receive long-term support. If victims are left alone, they may not necessarily find the support they need and may become traumatized. The support centre will also offer the services of a hospital pastor if victims need counselling.

Istanbul convention behind support centre

Finland is the last of the Nordic countries to set up this kind of state-funded support centre for victims of sexual violence.

"Perhaps here we have somehow closed our eyes to the issue. Perhaps we have not believed that sexual violence is among us," Laitinen speculated.

The impetus for setting up the centre comes from the European Council’s convention on combating violence against women and domestic violence.

The Istanbul convention came into force in Finland in 2015 and among other things, requires the state to establish a support centre for victims of sexual violence.

Located on the premises of the Women’s Hospital in Meilahti, the centre is a pilot project that will serve residents of Helsinki, Vantaa and Espoo. Similar centres will be established in Finland later on.

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