Success of Iceland Lies in Unity

29. November, 2005

Foto: Solveig Petursdottir

It is interesting that Iceland has the highest percentage of women in the labour market and also has the highest birth rate in Europe. I believe Icelanders recognize the importance of women, both in the labour market, and as mothers.

Interviews Solveig Petursdottir, President of Althingi, Parliament of Iceland

I have often heard women from various countries admiring Icelandic women for their solidarity. What do you think is the secret corner stone for this social phenomenon? And do you see it yourself or it is just an outsider’s perception?

I do see it myself. Women’s solidarity is a real living thing here in Iceland. This solidarity does not mean that we do not have differences between us – there are great differences among us women in opinion and approach, both politically and otherwise. However, when it comes down to basic principles of women’s equality and rights, and putting gender issues at the forefront; we Icelandic women stick together in a profound way. It is hard to say what our secret is, but one ingredient at any rate is crucial: the shared notion that gender equality is an unquestionable human right which cuts across political lines and goes beyond questions of opinion on other issues. In order for solidarity to be felt, there needs to be an underlying agreement on certain basic principles, and it is this I believe that we Icelandic women feel very strongly: that nothing and no one can tell us that we should accept an unequal status in any way, shape or form.

Could you mention any vivid examples of this solidarity?

One vivid example of this solidarity is, of course, that historic day on 24. October 1975 when Icelandic women at all levels of society laid down their work for a day and flocked to the streets to protest with one voice, claiming that injustice done to one, was injustice done to all. 25.000 women took part in 1975. On the 30th anniversary of this day, 24 October 2005, we repeated the women’s strike. Women of Iceland left their jobs and gathered together, this time doubling their numbers to an amazing 50.000 strong, again filling the streets of central Reykjavik. Once again we emphasized that, despite all our differences, we stand together for certain core issues of gender equality, and we will not stop until the battle is fully won.

How would you describe the movement towards gender equality in Iceland, has it been a long lasting fight of minority, an ongoing revolution of the many or a peaceful transformation of society where both women and men are making joined effort?

As with most historical battles for justice and equality, ours has included a lot of steps along the way where many different actors have played their part, including individuals, women’s organizations, politicians, etc. I would say that all the elements you mention have been present at different times.

Critically, this has been a process where champions of women rights have come from across the political spectrum. This has helped the battle forward by creating a gradual peaceful trans­formation of society, where both men and women from across different sectors of society have become involved in paving the way for new and better laws to be passed and changing attitudes of what is acceptable in society.

What do you see as key problem issues of gender equality in Iceland today?

One key issue now is equal pay for women and men. It is unacceptable that, overall, there is still a pay gap that can only be explained by gender. While much has improved, we still need more women in positions of power, whether it is within the political field or in business.

Gender equality is not just a women’s issue it is obvious that it is for the benefits of the whole society. Gender analysis approach to state policies as well as state budget approves how important it is for both men and women and for healthy and substantial development of the society as a whole. Gender equality and men what is the situation and attitudes in Iceland?

If we are to arrive at full gender equality then it is crucial to have men on our side. I can proudly say that in recent years more and more men have become active in fighting for gender equality, and our male politicians are increasingly becoming sensitive to the importance of this.

It is also important to remember that in some fields it seems that boys actually have it worse than girls. They feel more insecure about themselves and their identity in different ways, and have more trouble finding their place within the school system. Here, once again, we see that gender issues are at the heart of a better society.

Just recently in Norway a radical change took place regarding parental leave – the fathers’ quota, which means that according to the law fathers have to spend at least 4 weeks with the child. What is the situation in Iceland and what do you think about Norwegian approach?

We have paternity leave in Iceland and it is already bringing about a quiet revolution. It is something that my government and Parliament as a whole can be very proud of – a monumental step towards increased gender equality. This is a perfect example of how gender equality is important for men as well as women. A lot of fathers, about 80% in fact, are making use of this, spending much more time with their infant babies and children, and shifting the balance of domestic responsibility and work within the traditional family structure. I believe this will also begin to have an impact as regards the pay gap, as both genders take time off to care for their children.

The Icelandic system gives each parent three months leave, which is not transferable to the other parent and three months in addition which either parent can take, or they can divide between themselves. A government fund pays 80% of the parent’s salaries while they are on leave, but there is a cap on the monthly salary payments, so that those with very high salaries do not get the full 80%. I think it is interesting to note that Iceland has the highest percentage of women in the labour market and also has the highest birth rate in Europe. I believe Icelanders recognize the importance of women, both in the labour market, and as mothers.

While being Minister of Justice you established committee to work out measures against pornography and prostitution. In the research carried out by committee it was found that strip clubs are connected with prostitution and also to some extent with human trafficking. In Latvia right now the strip club industry is on its height. What was the solution in Iceland?

When I was Minister of Justice I put these matters at the top of the agenda, and I will continue doing so as the Speaker of the Icelandic Parliament. The comprehensive research I initiated on prostitution in Iceland confirmed a clear link between strip clubs and prostitution. Following the presentation of the report, I appointed a committee to make proposals on measures against pornography and prostitution, which among other things resulted in regulation on the operation of strip clubs and a ban on lap dancing.

You have a strong position on these issues and an interesting proposal for dealing with trafficking, could you please tell about it?

I put forward the idea about a fund for victims of trafficking. Human trafficking is an extremely lucrative business and I believe that in order to make real progress against the criminals, we must hit them where it hurts – in their wallets. It is imperative that the financial investigation be conducted in parallel with the main investigation of these crimes, as the removal of the profit is essential. Emphasis needs to be put on the confiscation of assets after conviction. We must recognize trafficked persons as victims, and we should adopt a concept of compensation for these victims. Some years ago, I introduced a bill on compensation to victims of sexual violence, which was passed by the Parliament. I think we need to look at doing something similar with regard to victims of trafficking. I would therefore like to see a fund for victims, funded by assets confiscated from traffickers.

Let me also say that we need to further enhance international police cooperation on a broad scale, in cooperation with both Europol and Interpol. The willingness of local police authorities to share information is key, and so is the harmonization of national legislation. No country can deal with this issue in isolation: this is a global phenomenon and must be fought on a global scale.

Finally, I would like to mention the recent Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. It is unique amongst the international instruments in its human rights perspective and focus on victims´ rights. It is important that governments sign and ratify the Europe Convention as soon as possible.

Question of legalization or banning of prostitution is a live issue on public agenda in many countries (also in Latvia) and also on international level for quite some time. In many countries prostitution is neither legal nor illegal. More and more NGO activists insist that it should be illegal because it is tightly connected with human trafficking. Is there any legislative regulation regarding prostitution in Iceland?

Financial gain from the prostitution of others is punishable in Iceland, as is prostitution. I believe that prostitution should be illegal. There is definitely a connection between pornography, prostitution and human trafficking and these issues need to be addressed in their entirety. At the same time, if we are to be successful, we must fight this battle not only through legal means. We must put much more emphasis also on education and outreach, working with the media and professionals in different fields to help change attitudes and spread awareness.

In Latvia the women NGOs have published an open letter to parliament, suggesting criminalizing of buyers of prostitution, trying to follow Swedish model, also just in mid July similar law – punishing the buyer became in force in Lithuania. However there has been opinion that Swedish model has various negative aspects, for example, it increases illegal prostitution and human trafficking and many buyers satisfy their demand by going to countries were they are not threatened under law. What do you see as pros and cons for such approach?

I certainly believe that the Swedish model was adopted with the genuine intent to rid Sweden of the stain of prostitution. However, as a lawyer I am of the belief that when a crime occurs, all parties that are responsible for the crime taking place should be punishable. I am skeptical of making it illegal to purchase sexual favours while simultaneously making prostitution legal. Obviously, however, in the case of trafficking or otherwise forced prostitution, the criminals behind the prostitution should be prosecuted, and the victims helped. Since the laws in Sweden were passed, we hear some positive results, but we have also witnessed some negative effects, leading me to believe that the overall picture is still unclear. Other European nations have been hesitant in venturing into the Swedish model, and rightly so in my opinion. We need more time, more research and stronger indications before we can assess the overall success or failure of the Swedish model. Certainly, there are both pros and cons. A relatively recent survey of the Swedish law shows, for example, that better cooperation between police, social workers and prostitutes have led to some positive developments, and I by no means want to reduce the significance of these. However, there is also a very real risk of driving the problem underground and that is no solution. raksts

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