With snow-cloaked cities in winter and birch forests glowing in the summer midnight sun, Finland is a vision of beauty and calm.
The picture-book gloss hides a grim fact--the country’s 5 million people have the highest rate of deaths from violent crimes in Western Europe.
Late-night strollers and moviegoers have little to fear on quiet city streets. The violence mostly happens indoors, within families or among friends.
Finnish newspapers are a chronicle of domestic bloodshed: a 39-year-old man repeatedly stabs his wife and three children to death; a 22-year-old drunken woman hacks her lover to death with an ax.
Until this year, Finland’s government shied from acknowledging the problem. Now, it is allocating money to study violence and to create crisis centers to deal with violence.
Critics say the official response is hesitant and underfinanced.
Homicides have soared 70% over the last 15 years, from about 100 cases a year in the 1980s to 170 in 1996, the last year for which statistics are available.
That puts Finland’s death-by-violence rate at 3.2 per 100,000 people, the highest in Western Europe, according to United Nations statistics. Although only a third the U.S. violent death rate, Finland’s is more than three times that of neighboring Norway and more than double Sweden’s.
Last year, 24,500 cases of violence--including homicide, manslaughter, assault and rape--were reported to Finnish police. It was the most ever recorded for a single year, but experts suspect the figure only hints at the scope of the problem.
“It’s just the tip of the iceberg,” said Markku Heiskanen, a researcher at the government statistics agency. “We reckon on about 200,000 unreported cases a year.”
More than 90% of the reported cases involve domestic violence.
Petteri Sveins, who works at a crisis center in central Finland, sees these statistics as a reflection of the Finns’ tendency toward taciturnity and discomfort with showing emotion.
“Finnish men resort to violence because they cannot talk about their problems,” he said.
The government also has had trouble talking about the problem. It was only this year that open acknowledgment came with the $280,000 appropriation for research into domestic violence.
Sveins, who was voted social worker of the year in December, says it is too little, too late.
“But the slow and late reaction is in a way understandable, because the prevalent attitude is that what happens within the four walls of a home is nobody else’s business,” Sveins said. “You wash your own dirty linen.”
In many cases of violent behavior, alcohol plays a major role.
“It’s not a cause; it’s a catalyst,” said Sveins, who works at a mobile crisis center in Jyvaskyla, 170 miles northeast of Helsinki.
“Men get depressed and they drink, often heavily, which makes the problem worse, and they become violent,” he said.
Workers at the mobile crisis center, one of half a dozen nationwide, accompany police officers when they intervene in family disputes.
Another reason for violence is Finns’ social isolation, researchers say.
Finland is one of the continent’s most sparsely populated countries, with vast expanses of forest and thousands of lakes. Rural residents often become alienated when they move to towns and cities, said professor Heikki Ylikangas at the University of Helsinki.
“People who cut themselves off are unable to cope with others when they come into society,” Ylikangas said. “They are forced to speak body language in a violent way.”
Finnish literature is full of examples of violent loners. The national epic, “Kalevala,” a major source of inspiration for generations of artists and musicians including composer Jean Sibelius, has knife and ax-wielding men bent on revenge and murder as some of its central heroes.
“Finland has been a top violent country for hundreds of years,” said Matti Laine at the Prison Personnel Planning Center. “Overall crime figures are falling slightly, but violent crime is on the increase.”
About 2,600 inmates are in Finnish prisons at any one time, and 600 of them are incarcerated for murder or manslaughter. In all, about 920 have been convicted of violent crimes, which is a high percentage by international standards, Laine said.
About 30% of all homicide victims are women, who are mostly killed by jealous husbands, boyfriends or lovers, and violence against women is on the increase, said Elina Haavio-Mannila, a professor of sociology.
“The homicide of women is explained by the fact that they have many more affairs than earlier generations,” Haavio-Mannila said. “The men become jealous.”
But, in a troubling trend, Finnish women are also becoming more violent, experts say. And it starts early--at school, where groups of girls not only tease but physically bully their peers.
“Girls didn’t even figure in research on bullying at school 20 years ago,” said Christina Salmivalli, a psychology researcher at Turku University. “Now they’ve also adopted violent models.”
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Rates of Violent Deaths
Rates for violent deaths per 100,000 people in selected Western European countries and the United States, Canada and Japan:
United Kingdom: 0.9
United States: 9.9
U.N. Demographic Yearbook 1995