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13th February 2013

Student Abroad: Why do women feel so much safer on the streets of Sweden?

Alex Maxia compares women’s safety in Manchester to that in Sweden, where safety is less of a pressing issue.

Reclaim the Night highlights how unsafe women in Manchester can feel walking home at night alone, a huge contrast to the experience of women I’ve met on my study abroad in Uppsala, Sweden. As a student ambassador, one of the most recurrent questions from anxious parents of applicants who want to study in Manchester is “how safe is the city?” or “do you feel safe here?”. The answer for me at least is “yes”, although Manchester isn’t the safest place in the world, you have to get used to it. But when I talked to a Swede studying in the city I got quite a different answer. Patrik  studies at the University of Manchester, and goes as far as saying that Manchester is one of the places in which he feels most unsafe. Even when Patrick  traveled alone around South America he felt safer, as he could spot the ‘bad people’ from a mile. In Manchester, it’s much harder to know when you can feel safe.

Do people feel the same way in beautiful, ‘gender equal’, respectful Sweden? Beyond the world renowned stereotypes, what is the reality in everyday life? Many English exchange students commented on the way they feel safer going back home late at night here than they do back in the UK. Becky, a British University of Manchester student studying in Sweden, says that in Stockholm she has gone home late at night several times and never felt threatened. In Manchester, she says that she would never dare. When I asked her why, she told me that: “The police here are really in control of the situation, as soon as drunk people start to make some noise they would be approached immediately and asked to quieten down”.

Meg, who studies in Norwich but is on her semester abroad in Sweden, talks about a difference in culture. She explains how, even in clubs, Swedish guys’ behaviour towards women is “more respectful”. In England “episodes of semi-harassment are accepted as perfectly normal, especially if drunk”. Generally gender neutrality is considerably stronger than in England as can be seen by several customs in everyday life.

For example, when paying the bill in a restaurant, in a café or buying a drink in a club it doesn’t matter what your gender is. Everyone pays for themselves. A man would not be expected to always pay for a woman, they would take it in turns. At first I could not see how Swedes could find this normal, but speaking to Hannah from the south of Sweden,I saw how she struggles to imagine it any other way. She disagreed with “the European way of doing things”, as beyond being unfair it also puts two people on a different level, and the small “indebting” could subconsciously put a certain “pressure” on the woman.

Beyond the cultural traditions, and the almost total equality in employment rates (76. 1% women and 82% men), there is a considerable social difference between England and Sweden for example in higher employment rates, less class disparity, more people who’re highly educated (education is free from nursery to PhD level) and a more controlled ‘drinking culture’ (state monopoly on all alcoholic beverages above 3.5%). These are not necessarily determining factors, but they undoubtedly play an important role in shaping Swedish society.

But it’s not perfect. Government funded studies show that statistically 85% of Swedish women “worry about being potential victims of violence walking home at night” and 56% admit having experienced some form of sexual harassment.These figures refer to the youngest part of the population (between 18 and 24) that, always according to the study, are statistically at higher risk than older members of the population. As Patrik points out, people have different ideas of safety, and although he believes Sweden is extremely safe he knows some Swedes would disagree with him. This, he says, is partly due to higher standards and expectations. Out of all the exchange students I spoke to from various parts of the world, not one of them believes they have been to a safer country than Sweden.

A month in the country is not enough to understand how things truly are, but even in the first few days I noticed the way people trust each other. The more I live here in Uppsala, the more I realise how all the ordinary precautions that we follow in England to ‘stay safe’ are not at all normal. The constraints we put on our personal freedom can only be seen clearly when you  live without those constraints. In Sweden, it is really enjoyable living in a society without having to fear the strangers on the street; for everyone, but even more so for women.


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