In March 2018, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (the Committee), ruled in the matter of J.I., finding violations of the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (the Convention). J.I. is a Finnish national who presented her case and request for interim measures to the Committee on behalf of herself and her minor son, E.A. She outlined a history of abuse by J.A., her ex-husband and son’s father and claimed the Finnish authorities did not sufficiently address the pattern of violence. Furthermore, she claimed her treatment at the hands of the Finnish law enforcement and court systems constituted a violation of multiple articles of the Convention. She asked the Committee for two things: first, require Finland take steps to give relief to herself and her son and second, make reforms regarding the prejudicial attitudes by national systems. The Committee agreed with her and ordered Finland to take certain steps to ensure the safety of E.A. and J.I., grant J.I. the proper reparations, and adopt measures to eliminate pervasive stereotypes against women in Finland. J.I.’s case highlights domestic stereotypes, which punish women who are perceived as not being able to fulfill their assigned roles as mothers and caregivers.
J.I. was able to bring her case to the Committee because Finland is party to the Convention and to the Optional Protocol, which authorizes the Committee to hear and rule on cases. The Convention aims to protect and bolster women’s rights internationally by addressing the pervasive ways in which discrimination affects women’s lives. The Convention established the Committee to oversee the Convention’s implementation and enforcement. Finland has been cooperative with the Convention’s reporting and evaluation structures which require the state parties periodically report to the Secretary-General on all of the measures they have employed to implement the Convention. A state party must submit an initial report within a year after the Convention enters into force in that state, and every four years after that. The Committee examined Finland’s last three reports in 2001, 2008, and 2014.
J.I.’s Complaint paints a troubling history of abuse at the hands of J.A. When she became pregnant with the couple’s child in 2011, he told her to get an abortion, but she refused and gave birth to their son, E.A. After a particularly brutal incident that sent J.I. to the hospital, child welfare authorities placed E.A. in protective care based on concerns about “the ability of the parents to provide for the safety and age-appropriate care of the child against the background of their continual disagreements.” Law enforcement framed the incident as a situation of equal violence between partners. When J.I. was released from the hospital, child welfare authorities did not release E.A. to J.I.’s care because of concerns about her mental state, though no psychological evaluation was performed. At the end of 2012, J.I. filed for sole custody of her son, a social services report was completed and, ultimately, custody of the child went to the J.A.
During this time, a state prosecutor filed an indictment against J.A. for the incident which sent J.I. to the hospital. The Varsinais-Suomi District Court convicted J.A. and ordered him to pay restitution to J.I. for pain and cosmetic harm. Despite his conviction, the Turku Court of Appeals upheld the decision to award sole custody of E.A. to J.A. The Supreme Court denied J.I. leave to appeal this decision. Following E.A. entering his father’s custody, he has repeatedly reported to his mother that his father is physically and emotionally abusive toward him. J.I. and child welfare authorities filed criminal reports throughout 2015 and 2016, but nothing has resulted. Additionally, in July 2015, J.A again assaulted J.I. while she was visiting their child.
Based on her experiences, in J.I.’s present case before the Committee, she argued Finland violated multiple articles of the Convention by failing to address the violence inflicted by J.A. Specifically, she pointed to violations of Articles 1; 2 (a), (c), (d), and (f); 15 (1); and 16 (1) (d), (e), and (f), which condemn discrimination against women in national law, marriage, and family life. She argued that Finland’s failure to prevent domestic violence and effectively prosecute perpetuators is disproportionality harming women over men. Existing domestic legislation aimed at protecting children in Finland is ineffectively applied to protect victims of domestic violence when these victims interact with child welfare authorities. She further claimed Finland’s judicial system failed to do enough to protect her and her child against violence from her partner, especially in the decision to award custody to J.A., despite his conviction for domestic abuse.
Finland’s legal process in this case constituted gender-based discrimination because stereotypes about the role of a mother permeated the government’s decisions in regard to J.I. Finnish society holds traditional ideas about the woman’s role as a mother and caregiver, which permeates both the home and the type of jobs seen to be appropriate for women. Oftentimes, women are punished if they are considered unable to effectively fulfill these roles by maintaining a peaceful household with their spouse. The culture perceives violence in intimate partner relationships as private and concerning only the parties involved. This perception leads the government to treat victims of domestic abuse as if they are equally culpable for the violence as the perpetrator. Authorities regularly pose mediation between parties as an alternative to prosecuting abusers, which assumes equality of power between the victim and her abuser, rather than acknowledging the reality.
Finland argued that J.I.’s case is preempted by her pending domestic appeals for visitation rights. Until that appeal is decided, they argued, there is still a domestic remedy available to J.I. They also stated that she sought to use the Committee as a fourth instance to challenge a final decision by the Supreme Court on the custody matter. Fourth instance doctrine states that international law bodies should not address errors of fact or law made by national courts, unless the errors constitute a violation of the Convention. Finland suggested that its domestic procedures properly investigated J.I.’s complaints. At every stage of J.I.’s her interaction with authorities, Finland suggested that law enforcement agencies did their best to protect E.A. from the violence between his parents.
The Committee considered whether Finland performed due diligence to protect J.I. from violence by J.A. and took reasonable steps to ensure, without gender-based discrimination, that J.I. and E.A. were safe. The Committee noted the plethora of legislation Finland has passed to protect women and children. However, it found that law enforcement implemented these laws in a discriminatory manner. Finally, they noted concern regarding child protective authorities’ repeatedly questioning of the mental state of a victim of domestic violence. The Committee was concerned that despite J.A.’s record of violence against J.I., his mental state was never questioned.
Though Finland has a reputation as an extremely gender equitable country, it has struggled to control domestic violence and combat the negative stereotypes which have allowed such violence to flourish. Through legislation reform, the government strengthened the protections available to victims of violent abuse and restricted the use of conciliation in regard to violence in close relationships. In a parallel report to the Committee in 2010, eighteen Finnish NGOs outlined some of the issues they saw in Finland. They argued that the government focuses on cases individually rather than looking at the structural issues. By focusing on a case-by-case approach, the legal system justifies punishing abusers less severely without recognizing their patterns of violence.
J.I.’s case fits squarely in this context, caught in the struggle between individualized and structural concerns. Finland tried to focus on all the ways her case was heard and supported in the judicial system, without considering all the stereotypes which permeate that system. The courts viewed J.I. solely as a mother incapable of maintaining a peaceful home and punished her instead of holding her abuser accountable for instigating violence. Law enforcement questioned her sanity and competence throughout the proceedings, though no consideration was given as to the competence or mental state of her abuser. The Committee made recommendations at the end of their report which target these structural issues in Finland and encourage better support and protection for women like J.I. when they interact with law enforcement agencies and the judicial system,
The Committee ruled that Finland violated multiple provisions of the Convention by failing to protect J.I. and her son from violence perpetuated by J.A. The national systems allowed stereotypes to control how J.I. was viewed in the justice system, which constituted discrimination on the basis of gender. After fighting for justice for herself and protection for her son for more than seven years, J.I. will hopefully see some relief in her case following the Committee’s ruling. However, without effective domestic structural changes, the kinds of harmful cultural norms which caused the issue will continue to permeate Finland’s system. Finland must take the Committee’s recommendations seriously and move forward to create a truly equitable society.