Norway is offering non-European asylum seekers classes in Western sexual norms, in a bid to prevent violence against women.
The question of integration has become more urgent throughout northern Europe after New Year’s Eve, where more than 100 women were reportedly sexually assaulted or robbed in Cologne, Germany. Federal authorities have identified 18 asylum seekers within the 31 suspects linked to the attacks.
With more than a million asylum seekers arriving in Europe this year, a growing number of European politicians have leaned towards offering coaching in social mores. Many were previously reluctant to suggest that men from more conservative societies would misinterpret women’s behaviour, for fear of stigmatising migrants as potential rapists and playing into the hands of anti-immigrant politicians.
Norway, who first introduced the controversial classes, has now seen its model followed in countries across Europe.
In October, Denmark’s parliament debated efforts to teach national attitudes to sex and consent as part of compulsory language courses after three asylum seekers from Eritrea were arrested for allegedly raping a 25-year-old Eritrean woman in Hjørring in October.
On Friday, Belgium announced that courses on ‘respect for women’ for non-European migrants and refugees would become obligatory in the coming weeks.
Linda Hagen of Hero, the company that runs 40 per cent of Norway's reception centres for refugees, said the emphasis of the classes had been placed on group discussion and the exchange of ideas, rather than on a teacher instructing students. “Our aim is to help asylum seekers avoid mistakes as they discover Norwegian culture," she explained to AFP.
"There's no single cultural code to say what is good or bad behaviour because we want a free society," she said. "There has to be tolerance for attitudes that may be seen as immoral by some traditional or religious norms."
Hero first launched a course on cultural differences regarding women after what Hagen described as a “wave of rapes”, committed mostly by foreigners in the south-western town of Stavanger between 2009 and 2011.
The courses take place at reception centres as part of a wider introductory programme to Norway – aiming to address the problem of sexual assault through discussion of concrete examples.
"It could be an 18-year-old guy who says he's surprised by the interest some Norwegian girls are showing in him. He assumes they want to sleep with him," Hagen explained.
"So the group leader will ask him: Who are these girls? Where do you meet them? How do you know it is sex they want? Not all women in Norway are the same," she said. Norwegians are likely to be assigned the role of sexual predator in these scenarios: “We turn the roles around a bit because there are rapists in all ethnic groups," Hagen said.
But while many have condemned the policy for stigmatising refugees, far-right groups said the courses didn't go far enough.
"This programme can only have a short-term effect, given the attitudes abroad where women are oppressed," said Hege Storhaug of Human Rights Service, an anti-immigration group. "To put an end to these attitudes, immigration has to first be restricted, then you have to concentrate on the newly-arrived immigrants and the second generation to assimilate them to our basic values, such as gender equality," she said.
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