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How Sweden’s gender-equal divorce law can leave women worse off

Sweden is often lauded as being gender-equal, reflected in Swedish divorce law. But that doesn't mean that Sweden is the best place for women to get divorced, as Sarah Jefford discovered following her split three years ago.

How Sweden's gender-equal divorce law can leave women worse off
File photo: Vilhelm Stokstad/TT

Moving to a new country can bring enough turmoil, stress, and culture shock to put a marriage through its paces.  Causes of divorce and separation among native Swedes and immigrant partners include emotional estrangement, loneliness, and a lack of independence in a new country. But what happens when a Swede and foreign spouse decide to split up in Sweden when they share a child?

For expats enduring a divorce to a native in Sweden, separation can be especially acrimonious if children are involved and one of the plaintiffs is financially and civically dependent on the other.

Immigrant divorce rates in Sweden are around 15 percent higher than native Swedish divorce rates and marriages between a Swede and a foreigner are between a quarter and two-and-a-half times more likely to end in divorce than those between two Swedes, according to a study by Martin Dribe, Professor of Economic History at Lund University.

British expat, Sarah Jefford, considers herself, since her split nearly three years back, to be trapped in Sweden, destitute, and fighting to be able to leave the country with her son to return back home to family and friends to rebuild a life for themselves. She would like other expats to know what they’re getting into with regards to absence of alimony and child support in Sweden.

“It’s not that good towards women”

She tells the Local that “expats should realise this because Sweden is super popular at the moment, you hear constantly in the papers that it is such a civil society–fantastic for women, the kids, and an equal society? Well, these are the disadvantages of an equal society. And the truth is that it’s not that good towards women.”

She met her Swedish husband, a pension fund CIO, in Switzerland and they married in the UK. Happy with the course their burgeoning family was on, she agreed to put her own job as a winemaker on hold and move to Sweden to follow her husband’s career together with their child in 2014.

She could never imagine it would end in divorce, let alone that she would find herself struggling to make ends meet and look after her child after her husband walked out amidst an office affair nearly three years ago.  Though they share joint custody and despite his wealthy career managing a top Swedish pension fund, her ex refuses to financially support their son, now 14, who lives with her.

Photo: Sarah Jefford

“It did not occur to me that were I to get divorced it would be the law of the country of residence that I would be subject to and not the UK, my home country, the country where I got married.”

Swedish law stipulates that joint assets (those acquired during the marriage) are split in half when a couple divorces in Sweden. Unlike in the UK or North America, there is no division of pension and alimony is not available. There is no child allowance if the children spend one week with one parent and one week with the other (regardless if one of the parties has no income).

Should a child live with one parent full-time, the other must pay child support.  The amount varies according to the child’s age. 1,673 kronor until the child becomes 11, 1,823 kronor till the child turns 15, and 2,273 after that. Försäkringskassan (the Swedish Social Insurance Agency) estimates how much the non-custodial parent must pay to Försäkringskassan. 

In Sweden, there are other options for dealing with issues regarding property partition and child custody arrangements, family mediation and constructive dialogue are advised tactics. The European e-Justice portal includes a comprehensive description of divorce law and settlement procedures in English.

In Jefford’s case she claims 1,823 kronor (about €170) a month for her 14-year-old child through the agency.

“So the Försäkringskassa pays me and then goes after my ex for the money.  As a result, there is no child support or alimony depending on the parent’s income. How should I bring up a teenager with that? I mean it it barely pays for the fancy sneakers that teenagers like so much, and definitely does not cover their food and they eat like horses at that age.”

Jefford’s business as a wine educator has suffered immensely during the pandemic, and she finds it near impossible to keep up with the price of living in Stockholm whilst supporting her child.  She has been scraping by working as a substitute teacher and doing sporadic odd jobs which she says she can’t survive off, or pay rent with, or get bank loans for a mortgage. 

Feeling completely stuck, Jefford says that had she known about Swedish divorce laws and the fact that they are legally binding in the place of residence, she would have “never moved here, or got married.”

Jefford recalls friends in France and Switzerland being gobsmacked by her predicament:

“Foreigners are envious of Sweden’s generous parental leave, and that’s talked about a lot. So the focus is on Sweden being an amazing country, because you get this parental leave, right?”

“But it blurs the fact that other problems with the system going towards total equality are actually misguided in a way. Great, you know, equal pay and opportunities for men and women. I’m all for that, of course.  But it doesn’t always work–you have to take into consideration circumstances.  I think the system of equality works if everybody is equal in life, or has the same advantages and has the same kind of life and opportunities.”

“But if you don’t have that, if you don’t come from that, then that system doesn’t work and is unfair. That’s how I see it. And I think it’s really scary.”

By Matthew Weaver

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Three things not to do as a foreign parent bringing up kids in Sweden

Are you raising children in Sweden? Here are a few very personal tips for what not to do from Alex Rodallec, who was raised in Sweden by a French Breton mother.

Three things not to do as a foreign parent bringing up kids in Sweden

Raising children is hard enough as it is without having to do it in another country. The added difficulties of being a foreigner can be taxing: grappling with the language, the cultural differences, not being well acquainted with how the system works.

So how do you get advice from someone who knows a bit about the issues your child might face growing up as the child of an immigrant in Sweden? One way is to ask someone who was raised by an immigrant parent in Sweden.  Someone like me.

I am no expert in child rearing, and have no children of my own. I can, however, tell you a few things that you should try to avoid. Here are a few of my best tips for what not to do.

Do not reject your adopted country’s culture

This does not mean that you should assimilate completely. It is, however, a good idea to try to embrace your adopted country’s culture as a positive, rather than a negative, for the sake of your children.

Why? Because your children will not have your cultural identity, at least not entirely. And this will be true no matter what you do to prevent it. They will in part become Swedish, imbued with many of the values and customs of Swedish society, with the behaviour and norms.

This might not sound so serious, but if you are someone who is resentful of Sweden, or if you ever become resentful of it, it might become a serious problem.

My mother, who was French, first came to Sweden as a tourist and then later to work, but with no plans of staying. Then she met my father, a Bolivian man, whom she would eventually divorce when I was around two years old. After that my mother went to live in France with my big sister and me, and with the intention of staying.

The next part I am not so sure about, but I believe my father might have threatened legal action if she did not return with us to Sweden. Whatever the reason for her involuntary return, I do know that my mother’s dislike of Sweden grew with her resentment of having to stay there. And sad as that may be, because of our Swedishness she eventually began seeing us children – though only intermittently – as physical manifestations of the country she hated. Or perhaps we were a constant reminder of the fact that she could not leave. Why could she not leave? Because she loved us. How complicated the twists and turns of life sometimes play out.

Growing up, my mother would often tell us that it was our fault that she was “stuck in this country”, and her most common use of the word ‘Swedish’ was as a profanity directed at us, her children. Naturally this created a dissociation with Sweden and Swedishness, primarily in myself and my big sister, and to a lesser degree in my little sister.

And even though my mother had put my big sister and I in private schools with other children of immigrants (The Catholic and English Schools in Gothenburg), coupled with the fact that we went to preschool in France, we had still committed the cardinal sin of absorbing ‘Swedishness’. My little sister had it the worst when it came to this. She went to a Swedish public school, and never had the experience of going to preschool in France, and so was the most ‘Swedish’ of us all.

To this day, the subject of Swedishness and the like or dislike of Sweden is still a topic of conversation whenever I talk to or meet my sisters. My little sister has accepted her Swedishness, and lives in Gothenburg where we grew up. But my big sister and I both live abroad, and to varying degrees have issues with the country we grew up in. I am slowly learning to love and accept my Swedishness while living in France, but my big sister lives in London and baulks at the thought of ever moving back to Sweden. We are a separated family, in part due to our varying degrees of acceptance of Swedishness.

Perhaps I should stress that my mother was not a horrible person, but she suffered greatly from the circumstances of her life.

So, do not fill your children with your resentment of the country they will grow up in, it may very well be detrimental to their well being and their integration into the society they grew up in.

Do not ignore the complexity of cultural identity

Even though cultural identity can become symbolic of underlying issues, as was the case with my mother, it can also be a great resource, albeit one that might need some help along the way.

Being half French, half Bolivian, born and raised in a Swedish multiethnic suburb, had me untangling the threads that make up my cultural identity for decades. An experience common among multi-ethnic children. Your children might eventually need your support in this, I know I could have used some help.

My advice is to promote the idea that one can be many things all at once. And that to a certain degree these things are contextual. I myself am Bolivian to a greater degree when I spend time with the Bolivian side of the family, and more French when I spend time with the French side.

Having multiple cultural backgrounds also has benefits. Your reference points are multiplied compared to someone who has only one cultural background. You can act as a sort of cultural bridge, much like Commander Spock in Star Trek, for the Trekkies out there. Beyond that, having multiple languages is an asset, children who grow up speaking multiple languages struggle a bit at first, but then tend to outdo their peers in language mastery.

Do not be intimidated by how well your children adapt to Swedish society

This one might be slightly odd, but is an experience that many of my friends of immigrant background have shared with me.

Because your children will grow up as cultural insiders they will master the ins and outs of Swedish society much better than you. Most parents want their children to outdo them, but a parent also wants to feel useful and capable in front of their children. You might have a hard time coping with the fact that your children at a certain point, and perhaps much quicker than they would if you were in your home country, will outdo you. On top of that, in many cultures there is also a more authoritarian parent role, where children ought to know their place as children, and let the parent lead and decide.

My advice is: if you have an issue with your children making you feel inadequate, try to think of yourselves as a family unit. If your children can help you do better, that is good for all of you, try to embrace that. And why not look at it as a great opportunity to learn?

What are your best tips for parents raising children in Sweden? Share your experiences of parenting in Sweden with The Local by emailing us at [email protected] 

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