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Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women considers reports of Iceland

Committee on Elimination of Discrimination
  against Women

17 February 2016

GENEVA (17 February 2016) – The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women today considered the combined seventh and eighth periodic reports of Iceland on how it implements the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. 
 
Presenting the reports, Greta Gunnarsdottir, Ambassador for Human Rights at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iceland, said that the participation by women in the labour market had increased steadily over the previous few decades, notwithstanding the 2008 financial crisis.  The latest Global Gender Gap Index by the World Economic Forum, published in November 2015, stated that Iceland was the world leader in gender equality for the seventh year in a row.  Real challenges remained, such as the closing of the gender gap, securing equal political and economic power, and eliminating all forms of gender violence.  Ms. Gunnarsdottir presented Iceland’s legislation and measures to empower women, combat discrimination in the field of labour, salaries, access to education and employment, and to combat and prevent violence against women. 
 
In the ensuing dialogue, Experts commended Iceland’s achievements to combat discrimination against women, as well as its efforts to address the financial crisis that had hit the country in 2008.  Experts regretted that, as a result of Iceland’s dualist system, the Convention did not had direct applicability within the domestic justice system.  Experts welcomed efforts by Iceland to ensure gender parity, but noted that challenges remained on that matter at the local level and within public administrations.  Discrimination against women persisted in the labour market, Experts noted, while gender stereotypes continued to fuel structural segregation.  The low number of complaints for cases of sexual violence was also a matter of concern. 
 
In concluding remarks, Ms. Gunnarsdottir thanked the Committee Members for their questions and comments, which would be very useful for the Government. 
 
Yoko Hayashi, Chairperson of the Committee, in her concluding remarks, commended the State party’s efforts, and encouraged the implementation of the recommendations which were to be formulated by the Committee.  
 
The delegation of Iceland included representatives of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Welfare, the Permanent Mission of Iceland to the United Nations Office at Geneva and the Permanent Mission of Iceland to the United Nations in New York. 
 
The Committee will next meet in public tomorrow, 18 February at 10 a.m. to examine the combined eighth and ninth periodic reports of Sweden (CEDAW/C/SWE/8-9).
 
Reports
 
The combined seventh and eighth periodic reports of Iceland can be read at: CEDAW/C/ISL/7‑8.
 
 
Presentation of the Reports
 
GRETA GUNNARSDOTTIR, Ambassador on Human Rights at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, presenting the reports of Iceland, recalled that Iceland had been hit by the international financial crisis, which had led to a sharp increase in Government and household indebtedness, followed by an economic recession and a crisis of political and social trust.  A stabilization programme conducted with international support had been successfully completed, and the economic activity had recovered steadily in recent years, returning to its pre-crisis level.  The Icelandic welfare system had created conditions for a high level of employment for both genders.  Participation by women in the labour market had increased steadily over the past few decades and notwithstanding the economic collapse of 2008 was the highest among Western countries.  Although men were still working longer than women, and more women than men were employed part-time, the gap between hours worked by men and women had been reduced.  Men continued to be more often in positions of power and influence in professional life than women.  The gender pay-gap continued to narrow.  Women accounted for 44.4 percent of the members of the Parliament.  The latest Global Gender Gap Index by the World Economic Forum, published in November 2015, stated that Iceland was the world leader in gender equality for the seventh year in a row.  Real challenges remained nonetheless, such as the closing as the gender gap, securing equal political and economic power, and eliminating all forms of gender violence. 
 
Following the recommendations made by the Committee, the Constitution was amended and now included a provision stating that “Men and women shall have equal rights in every respect”.  The 2008 Gender Equality Act defined gender-based direct and indirect discrimination on the basis of article 1 of the Convention and European legislations.  The Act also imposed a 40-percent quota on governmental committees, councils and boards of public companies.  The Act had been amended in 2014 and 2015 to better reflect European Union Directives pertaining to gender discrimination and harassment.  The Gender Equality Act also sought to improve the position of women with progressive measures, and to improve their opportunities in society.  It had established the Gender Equality Forum, which met every two years and which was expected to provide inputs for the elaboration of the Gender Equality Action Plan.  Such Plan had been approved in 2011 for the period 2011-2014, and focused on a range of thematic issues. 
 
The Maternity, Paternity and Parental Leave Act granted fathers paternity leave and greater responsibility for care-giving and family life.  A study had shown that, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, men had become less likely to avail themselves of a parental leave.  Many projects had been carried out to combat gender-based violence, including the adoption of new rules of procedure which provided the police with the power to effectively issue restraining orders in cases of domestic violence.  A plan of action against trafficking in humans had been approved in 2013, with an emphasis on awareness-raising on how to identify victims.  Further, Iceland was a signatory to the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combatting violence against women and domestic violence (the Istanbul Convention), for which a ratification bill would be presented to the Parliament in spring 2016. 
 
In addition to the Act on the Equal Status and Equal Rights of Women and Men, which required gender mainstreaming in all policy formulation and planning in education and schooling, special projects had been initiated to address gender equality in education, science and culture, including the establishment of feminist societies in schools and awareness-raising campaigns regarding stereotypes.  The Equal Pay Standard aimed at creating a system to confirm that women and men working for the same employer were paid equal wages for jobs of equal value.
 
 
 
Questions by Experts
 
Committee Members commended the important legislative changes to the Gender Equality Act, which included a new definition of discrimination and increased powers for Ministers regarding equal wages.  Iceland had impressively managed to get over the crisis, and played a leading role regionally and internationally in promoting gender equality. 
 
On the status of the Convention, an Expert referred to Iceland’s dualist system, and said that it was incomprehensible that the Convention was still not directly applicable and could not be invoked before the courts.  Another Expert noted that some countries with a dualist system had made exceptions for some international human rights instruments.  It was therefore not an impossible idea to have the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women incorporated.  An Expert noted that Iceland had already made such an exception for the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which had been incorporated with the legislation, which looked as if Iceland was making hierarchy among rights. 
 
It was noted that although Iceland had ratified the Optional Protocol a long time ago, the Committee had still not received a single case from Iceland under that instrument. 
 
Turning to the lack of a comprehensive anti-discrimination law in accordance with European Union Directives, an Expert asked whether the Government planned to introduce such legislation. 
 
With regard to access to justice, a Committee Expert expressed concerns that only several cases on gender equality had been adjudicated by the Supreme Court, and there was a low number of cases before the Complaint Committee. 
 
The absence of a national human rights institution in accordance with the Paris Principles was also a matter of concern, said an Expert. 
 
One Expert expressed surprise at the delay in the adoption of the next Action Plan for Gender Equality, and noted that the previous plan had expired in 2014.
 
Question was also asked on whether specific measures were considered to ensure that women had access to a greater number of senior positions, particularly in the police sector.  It was regrettable that the Supreme Court was only composed of men.
 
An Expert noted that the participation of women in the political life seemed to be higher at the national level than at the local level.  To achieve better parity in the civil service,  Iceland would have to overcome some barriers, including stereotypes in education. 
 
Replies by the Delegation
 
On the status of the Convention, the delegation said that Iceland had indeed a dualist system, but the Convention was fairly well-known among the society.  People in Iceland, particularly the young generation, were particularly active in combatting gender discrimination and violence.  Iceland did not make any hierarchy among rights.  
 
Four legislative proposals would be submitted to the Parliament, a delegate said, based on the European Union Directives relating to the protection against discrimination
 
At the moment, it was not possible to give a precise timeline regarding the establishment of a national human rights institution.  Iceland had been working on that issue for the previous seven years.  That project had been postponed because of the financial crisis, but was now with the Parliament. 
On access to justice, a delegate underlined the need to re-think the system in order to ensure that women felt comfortable in reporting violations of their rights and filing complaints. 
 
The delegation explained that the last Action Plan for Gender Equality had been implemented until the end of 2014, while 2015 had served to assess its achievements.  While there was no new plan at the moment, project funding had not been interrupted, assured the delegation.  Gender equality in the workplace would certainly be the pillar of the next plan, a delegate said.
 
To foster gender equality in the labour market, the Government had planned to launch campaigns to attract more men into employment sectors such as teaching.  Furthermore, binding recommendations had been issued for a better representation of women in the boards of companies, which had to publish regular statistics on their workforce disseminated by gender.  
 
The Government had requested all police offices to prepare an action plan to promote gender equality and to recruit more women among police forces.  Research done in 2014 had shown that the environment within the police forces was quite hostile to women, with cases of harassment and bullying.  Measures had been taken to redress that situation, including the adoption of a code of conduct and the organization of training programmes.  The delegation recognized, however, that the behaviour unfortunately could not change overnight.  It also acknowledged the need to achieve better balanced representation within the Supreme Court.
 
A delegate said that the gender balance with the public administration was being closely monitored.  42 percent of local councillors were women, a figure very close to that reached in the Parliament.  Quotas had been introduced in public service, and currently one high level position out of three was occupied by a woman.  Progress remained to be achieved with regard to municipal functions, especially in small towns, where elected officials were not entitled to compensation.  To redress that situation, the Government was currently contemplating compensation to municipal officials.  
 
Questions by Experts
 
A Committee Member regretted that the issue of stereotypes was not clearly developed in the report of Iceland.  She underlined the importance of impact assessment being provided to the Committee.  The Expert noted the existence of “feminist clubs” in the country, and asked how the Government supported and collaborated with civil society organizations on gender-related issues, including on the issue of stereotypes. 
 
With regard to violence against women, an Expert regretted the low number of convictions for cases of rape, despite good legislation, and noted that the National Plan against violence had expired.  Another Expert welcomed Iceland’s National Action Plan to combat human trafficking and asked whether that plan included measures for the protection of victims.  An Expert noted with concern reports that prostitution in Iceland was increasing, and asked for comments on Iceland’s experience regarding the implementation of its legislation making purchasing sex relations illegal. 
 
 
Replies by the Delegation
 
On the issue of violence against women, it was explained that Iceland was trying to adopt a holistic approach, with an emphasis on education.  Consultations with non-governmental organizations would lead to the adoption of a new action plan.  There had been an ongoing project since 2010 to strengthen the handling of rape cases within the judicial system.  An Action Plan had been drafted to address the low number of convictions for cases of sexual violence, and studies had been carried out to identify the main gaps that had led to such a situation.  To redress it, the Government had decided to undertake awareness-raising activities to encourage victims to file complaints, and to provide training to police officers.  There were two emergency units for victims of domestic violence in the country. 
 
There was a general consensus with regard to the implementation of the Swedish model of prostitution legislation, and on the need not to criminalize men and women engaged in prostitution.  The fact that the law required to preserve the anonymity of offenders had triggered debates among the public.  That legislation was also designed to cut-off the demand, the delegation said.  Human trafficking had increased with the growth of tourism.  A hotline had been put into service for the victims of trafficking.  
 
The delegation stated that the fight against gender stereotypes was a matter of concern, and efforts were made to raise awareness among the young people in that regard.  The media played a leading role in those efforts.  The authorities were also trying to sensitize men on the necessity of sharing domestic work.
 
Questions by Experts
 
On education, an Expert welcomed measures and projects aimed at balancing gender representation in the education system.  Efforts were, however, still required to address the gender segregation in jobs and education: girls tended to go towards traditional social jobs, while men tended to enrol more into science, technology and sports.  Textbooks needed to be changed to better reflect the important role of women throughout history. 
 
With regard to employment, an Expert welcomed efforts to reduce the pay gap, and encouraged further efforts on that matter.  Part-time work was very common among women, the Expert noted.  Had Iceland evaluated the impact of part-time work?  Was part-time work voluntary?  It was noted that the legislation restricted the application of the equal pay for equal work to women and men working for the same employer.  Such restriction was not provided for in the Convention.  When would that “same employer requirement” be repealed? 
 
Replies by the Delegation
 
The delegation stated that gender segregation in education was not an isolated problem and had to be addressed through comprehensive measures.  An increased number of women had been joining science and technology studies.  The Government was working with social partners on those issues.  The under-representation of women (only 30 percent) in the public media was unacceptable, a delegate said.  The Government had encouraged measures to redress the situation, and the situation would be reviewed annually.  The gender segregation in the society was also reflected in the labour market.  There had been a series of protests after the financial crisis hit the country, asking for a fairer and more equal society.  The Government had seized the opportunity to assess the gender impacts of the crisis and gender segregation in the society as a whole. 
 
In 2014, a third of women had had part-time employment, compared to 13 percent for men.  Women had mostly mentioned family reasons for taking part-time jobs, in response to a survey carried out by the Government.  Those figures reflected structural inequalities, the delegation admitted.  The requirement that the equal pay for equal work principle applied only for men and women working for the same employer would not be repealed, as that would first require consultations with the social partners.  Studies had shown that after the financial crisis, men had become more involved in domestic work, which was explained by changes of attitude, but also by higher unemployment rates.  
 
It was explained that day-care for children was provided by private parties called “day-parents”.  Disparities in the availability of “day-parents” among areas was a challenge. 
 
Questions by Experts
 
Turning to matters related to health, an Expert noted that the Committee had previously expressed concerns about increased level of smoking in the country, and asked the delegation to provide information on the impact of tobacco usage on women and men in the country.  
 
Experts also required information regarding mental health and the rate of suicide in Iceland.  Experts were worried that there was also a high rate of HIV/AIDS infections compared to similar countries.  Figures on mother-to-child transmission had unfortunately not been included in the reports.  An Expert welcomed that contraception was easily accessible, and that the population was well-educated on sexual and reproductive health.  The high level of abortion among girls was therefore concerning.  It was also concerning that abortion required a prior opinion from a third person. 
 
On women’s economic empowerment, another Expert noted that although Iceland had achieved much, there was still room for improvement.  The application of gender quotas to the board of medium-sized companies should be introduced. 
 
Would the Government review its funding policy for culture to ensure a better representation of women in that sector?
 
Another Expert pointed at the lack of public services in rural areas, including transport, which had led to discrimination in access to education facilities, for example. 
 
As for women in prisons, an Expert asked for information regarding the implementation of the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (“the Bangkok Rules”).  Did women in detention have access to work?      
 
A question was raised concerning the access to the labour market of women with disabilities.  Another question pertained to the restrictions in access to work permits by immigrant women
 
Climate change was one of the most prominent issue for the future, an Expert noted.  It was important to ensure that women participated in the creation and development of new technologies and efforts to adapt to progress in that area? 
 
It was regrettable that the report of Iceland had provided no information regarding property distribution, especially since such information had been previously required by the Committee.  The only information before the Committee pertained to a law dating from 1993, which had surely been amended since then.  How were women’s interests safeguarded in the marital regime, including in de facto relationships or in cases of divorce?  Was there a mechanism in place that compensated the disparity of economic power between men and women in the event of a divorce? 
 
On the issue of child custody, an Expert noted that Iceland was the leading country on number of joint custody, and asked whether joint custody was more often a court-ordered or a real choice by the parents.  Court-ordered joint custody did not benefit the child, an Expert commented.  In cases of shared custody, how was financial child support divided between the parents?
 
 
Replies by the Delegation
 
The prior requirement for abortion was part of an old legislation that sought only to ensure that support and advice was provided to women.  That legislation would be amended, and such requirement was likely to be repealed. 
 
There were no formal measures to help parents from remote areas bring their children to schools.  It was a problem connected with weather conditions in the country, and which did not affect only single mothers. 
 
Women in prisons were indeed allowed to work and had access to education, the delegation explained.  
 
The legislation protected equal access to all spheres of life for persons with disabilities, and campaigns had been carried out to promote their access to the labour market in the same was as anybody else. 
 
It was explained that regular migrant women did not have restricted access to work permits. 
 
Iceland was committed to combatting climate change internationally, and had pushed for the gender aspects of that phenomenon to be taken into account in international agreements.  Iceland was committed to ensuring that women benefited equally from efforts, including financial efforts, to address the climate change.  The Government was also determined to foster the role of women in the Arctic region.   More generally, Iceland was committed to mainstream gender equality throughout all aspects of international relations, and to fostering the role of men in promoting gender equality. 
 
The rule for property distribution was basically a fifty-fifty split, a delegate said.  The Supreme Court had recently ruled that, in the case when one of the party’s assets were registered under the other’s name, the fifty-fifty distribution applied nonetheless. 
 
A delegate said that she only knew of one case when a judge had ruled for joint custody.  The issue had been highly debated.  The base of a joint custody should be the mutual agreement of two people rather than a decision by a judge.  Even though the legislation provided for joint custody, the parent who had the child residing with him or her used to have the power to make decisions for the child.  The Government had reviewed the situation, and child support in those situations was now divided between both parents, who both had equal power to make decisions for their children.  It was unlikely that a judge would rule on shared custody in cases of domestic violence.  The best interest of the child was always the main concern. 
 
Concluding Remarks
 
GRETA GUNNARSDOTTIR, Ambassador on Human Rights at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, thanked the Committee Members for their questions and suggestions, which would be very useful for the Government.  The delegation looked forward to receive the concluding observations.
 
YOKO HAYASHI, Chairperson of the Committee, commended the State party’s efforts, and encouraged the implementation of the recommendations which were to be formulated by the Committee.  
 
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