Saturday, November 12, 2011

Iceland closest to gender equality, but still fighting

Iceland is known as the most feminist country in the world.

...that the country is, in fact, the closest the world has to a feminist paradise. For the last two years it has topped the World Economic Forum's report on equality between the sexes, and last month Newsweek named it the best place in the world for women. The Newsweek survey looked at health, education, economics, politics and justice, and found that in all areas, and the last one in particular, Iceland is about as good as it gets. The prime minister, Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir, tells me via email that she's proud of the survey's outcome, "and not only for women, [but because] we know that gender equality is one of the best indicators for the overall quality of societies."

In its two and a half years in power, the government – a coalition of social democrats and left-greens – has been impressively active. It has criminalised the purchase of sex, introduced an action plan on the trafficking of women, and banned all strip clubs. When it comes to domestic violence, Katrin tells me, they have moved towards "the Austrian way", in which whoever committed the violence has to leave the home, rather than the victim going to a refuge. They have also introduced a law to take force in 2013, obliging corporations to have at least 40% of each gender on their boards.

Iceland has a history of progressive female politicians. Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the country's president from 1980 to 1996, was the world's first democratically elected female head of state. At the time of her initial victory, the number of female politicians in the country was very low – just 5% of MPs – and so in 1983 the Women's Alliance was formed, an explicitly feminist party, which at its highest point, in 1987, held six seats, out of a total of 63. They fought for better wages for women, and, says Thorunn, who was a member, "spent the 1980s talking about all the taboos – rape, incest, domestic violence, putting in place legislation to protect women and children. All those issues are mainstream now, but it took a lot of courage."


Jóhanna is the world's first openly gay prime minister, while Vigdís, who seems universally beloved, was famously a single mother. Single motherhood isn't unusual in politics here; Katrin had her first child at 23, and raised him alone for 11 years, while building an impressive career. Parents here talk strongly of community support, of collective care for children, and there is no sense that motherhood precludes work or study, which effectively changes the whole structure of women's lives. "You are not forced to organise your life in the 'college-work-maybe children later' way," says Thorunn, who is a single mother to a young daughter. Andrea says when she had her first child, on her own, at 19, she took him with her to school, "and the teacher would hold him while I was studying".

Joanna Dominiczak, a teacher and chair of the Women of Multicultural Ethnicity Network, says that "having a child here is seen as a gift. You don't have to think, Oh my God, am I going to be able to afford one, two, or three?" The country has progressive rights regarding parental leave after a child is born, with "the mother having three months, which is untransferable," says Joanna, "the father having the same, and then the parents having three months they can share." This sets up the importance of both parents from the start, and skewers the discrimination endemic in many societies, including the UK, where women of child-bearing age are less likely to get jobs for fear they might at some point need maternity leave. (If companies chose to discriminate against both men and women of child-bearing age it would rule out most of the workforce.)

Sigrídur, Eva and Andrea are all single mothers, and while they have some grumbles, all are positive about the nurseries and schools their children attend. Annadís Rudolfsdóttir, studies director of the gender equality studies and training programme hosted by the University of Iceland, lived in the UK until recently, and says it's much easier to be a mother in Iceland. "It costs a fortune to put your children in a nursery in the UK," she says, "but here, as a single mother in Reykjavik, with your child in a nursery eight hours a day, you pay about £70 a month … If you're part of a couple, married or co-habiting, it's about £118 a month. You can imagine how much easier it is when you've got those facilities behind you." That includes breakfast and lunch. (It was recently reported that 32,000 women left their jobs in the UK last year, in large part due to the rising cost of childcare.)

But there are still issues they are working on, for example, sexual violence.

Clearly, we in Australia could do much better. Lets look to Iceland for inspiration.

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