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Swedish Employment Service wins award for anti-violence work

Swedish Employment Service wins award for anti-violence work

| Text: Gunhild Wallin, photo: Niklas Lehman

Over the past four years, the Swedish Public Employment Service has worked to increase awareness around violence in close relationships, which is often a hidden cause of long-term unemployment. They have trained 6,000 staff as well as suppliers and clients. Now they have been awarded the 2022 Swedish Gender Equality Award.

The award was presented at the Forum for Gender Equality conference on 8 February. In the finals, the Public Employment Service competed alongside a bank, a sports club, a university and a municipality. With traditional award ceremony pomp and circumstance, there were drum rolls and a golden envelope hiding the winner’s name.  

“It is so good that someone focuses on positive things about the Public Employment Service. We are the first authority to win this award and our staff show a lot of engagement for these issues,” says Åsa Frostfeldt, the project manager for the project. 

Four years ago the government asked the Public Employment Service to find ways of uncovering violence in close relationships, in cooperation with the Social Insurance Agency, the Migration Board, the National Board of Health and Welfare, the Gender Equality Agency and the coordination associations.

Åsa Frostfeldt has been with the project since the start. Being “project manager” often refers to people introducing new IT systems. Using the title in this project gives it a special meaning. Training to dare to highlight domestic violence was not about getting those already interested in the issue on board. It would be training for all those who deal with clients in their daily work.

This is not a project, but a new way of working that concerns the entire agency, and that also introduces existing methods to help women and men who are victims of violence.

A missing jigsaw piece

“Our evaluation shows that more women than men were positive to attending the online course, but that more men said they improved their potential for matching after attending the course and starting to ask questions about violence. To ask about violence in close relationships is a missing jigsaw piece in our work with the long-term unemployed, but one that has prevented many of our clients to move forward,” says Åsa Frostfeldt.

The question of violence in close relationships is most often relevant when there is deeper cooperation between the client and the Public Employment Service because of long-term unemployment and difficulties finding work. It becomes part of the conversation about the reasons why people struggle to enter the labour market. Many have a positive reaction. “Why has nobody asked me about this before?,” explains Åsa Frostfeldt.  

Control expresses itself in many ways

Addressing violence in close relationships when talking about poor connections to the labour market has disclosed how this has been a hidden obstacle that used to remain the client’s secret. This is control and violence that expresses itself in many different ways.  

It could be physical or psychological violence, but also financial and digital. If you do not have your own Bank ID, bank account or email address and are not digitally independent, it could be difficult to get out of a destructive relationship.

“We see this both among newly arrived and established Swedes. When you share an e-mail address with your husband or share codes for electronic ID and computer and account logins, you are vulnerable. It makes it hard to get out of a relationship if you for instance rack up debt without knowing about it, or if your partner has taken out a loan in your name,” says Åsa Frostfeldt.

Women with foreign backgrounds can also be victims of norms dictating that they should be at home and look after the children. Learning Swedish for immigrants can be OK, or having an apprenticeship, but when employers want to hire a good apprentice things sometimes come to a halt.

Families can also have strong opinions about what kind of jobs are suitable for female family members. This is not necessarily linked to honour, but it is an expression of other norms and this is more prevalent among newly arrived than established Swedes.  

“If you don’t know how society works, you are extra vulnerable, but there are many ways of being vulnerable – including poor language skills, having mental health issues, bad economy or precarious housing conditions,” says Åsa Frostfeldt. 

Caseworkers at the Public Employment Service also meet women who have been suffering from post-traumatic stress after sexual attacks, but since they have not been asked about it nor been able to tell themselves, they are wrongly diagnosed and never get the help they need to find the real reason behind their mental health problems. 

After spending years working with this, the Public Employment Service has seen that violence in close relationships is a common reason why women do not manage to find work but live their lives in periods of long-term unemployment and sick leave. Others might live in shielded accommodation and need to move if their current location is revealed, which means breaking up and looking for a new job and a place to live again.

The Public Employment Service is not allowed to record statistics for this kind of conversation, but an anonymous survey by the Public Employment Service in Skaraborg showed that 80% of those participating in work-related rehabilitation had experienced violence in close relationships. Those who struggle to do job training for more than ten hours a week can be referred to some of the over 80 coordination associations around the country.

“They confirm the image that has emerged in Skaraborg, that many who find themselves far from the labour marked suffer from trauma caused by mental health issues which impact on their ability to work,” says Åsa Frostfeldt.  

The agency as an agent of change

During the four years the Public Employment Service has worked with violence in close relationships, the agency has also changed the way it works. Caseworkers now know where to refer clients who have suffered so that they can get help. There have also been changes to how job seekers who live under threat are treated. If there is a threat linked to a town, the person is not required to look for work there. 

People with protected identities are also not required to apply for jobs where they will be visible, for instance in a check-out or in reception. The agency has created courses and information sites for victims of violence and provides information about where victims can turn for help.

The Public Employment Service’ award was justified thus:  

“Male violence against women is the ultimate expression of an unequal society. When authorities discover and act against violence, women and children get the chance to live free and secure lives. Finding a job and supporting yourself is also important in order to be able to leave a destructive relationship. This year’s winner – the Public Employment Service – has spent four years working systematically and innovatively to integrate the protection of women and gender equality in its day-to-day operations.”

Åsa Frostfeldt thinks the award cup – a hexagonal pillar made from volcanic material – symbolises the work which the Public Employment Service has undertaken.

“This is the symbol of breaking through a foundation and it happens after a volcanic eruption when nature creates a new order. It is a very nice thought and it is precisely what we have been doing. In the beginning, we faced resistance, but now – as people understand that it is relevant to highlight the issue of domestic violence and that we can make a difference – it has become part of a new order. We have created a change to our day-to-day work, and the Public Employment Service is now an agent that can act when there are issues of violence in close relations,” she says. 

The agency is now looking to develop the support in a more digitalised format. A final report will be presented to the government in March, but more money has been set aside to carry on work throughout 2022.

Åsa Frostfeldt

holding the winning cup, a hexagonal pillar made from volcanic material. Next to her is Lars  Lööw, deputy general director for the Swedish Public Employment Service


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