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Statements Special Procedures

Statement by the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice on his visit to Iceland

23 May 2013

No room for complacency for the world’s top performer on gender equality

Reykjavík, 23 May 2013

Iceland was designated number one in the world for gender equality by the World Economic Forum precisely during the years it was dealing with the worst economic crisis in its history. This achievement reflects the consistently high priority given by the Icelandic Government to integrating gender equality throughout its policy-making, and the wide consensus among all stakeholders that gender equality is a pillar of Icelandic society. Key measures have been introduced during this period of crisis, including gender budgeting across all ministries and some municipalities, gender quotas for boards of private corporations, legislation criminalizing the purchase of sex, a ban on strip clubs and legislation on marriage equality and transgender rights. Nevertheless, there is no room for complacency regarding the gains achieved, as equality guarantees in the law are still far from being fully implemented on the ground. The Working Group calls upon the newly formed Government to sustain Iceland’s gender equality achievements and make further progress to close the remaining gaps.

The UN Working Group on discrimination against women in law and in practice, represented by Kamala Chandrakirana and Frances Raday, is the first of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Special Procedures to conduct an official visit to Iceland. In its eight-day mission, the Group focused on achievements in gender equality laws, persisting gaps in implementation and the gender dimensions of measures taken to address the economic crisis. The delegation conducted dialogues in Reykjavík and Akureyri with Government officials, the Acting Speaker and members of Parliament, the Parliamentary and the Debtor’s Ombuds, a trade union and an employers’ confederation, women’s rights and other civil society organizations, academics and journalists. The Group also visited the fishing village of Dalvik where it met with its first female Mayor and a woman CEO of a fishing company.


Iceland’s legal and policy framework on gender equality is 35 years in the making and provides a sound basis for achieving full equality between men and women. This was made possible due to the vibrancy of the women’s movement in Iceland, a high level of voluntarism and strong tradition of participatory policy making.

Policy on work life balance

Iceland is a world leader in introducing measures to balance work and family life, providing paid leave of three months for mothers, three for fathers and three shared (3;3;3).This measure gave a distinct message both within the family and within the workplace that parental care is not stereotypically female and fathers share a common responsibility in the upbringing of their children. The Working Group commends the Government for making sure that austerity measures would not disrupt this gender balance and did so by reducing the level of payment equally for both parents. The Working Group further commends the decision, in the post crisis recovery, to re-establish the original level of leave pay and increase the leave period to five months for each parent and a shared two months (5;5;2).

Positive actions in the corporate sector

The Working Group commends the quotas law passed in 2010 which extended the 40% gender quota, already in force in public committees and bodies, to the corporate world for companies with 50 employees or more. The Working Group was encouraged to hear that while this law will only take effect in September 2013, private corporations received it well and have already started to increase the representation of women on their boards. This will potentially have a transformative impact on women’s leadership in the corporate world.

Sustaining gender equality during economic crisis

The Working Group regards the Government’s activation of gender budgeting in 2009 in time of economic crisis as admirable. The budget constitutes a central and crucial policy statement and gender budgeting demonstrates deep commitment to gender equality. Gender budgeting formed part of the policy of avoiding the impact of austerity measures on gender equality. The gender budgeting program aims to become an ongoing part of public administration and good economic management.
A further economic policy decision made to avoid undermining women’s position in the job market was to preserve public service jobs. The Working Group recognizes that this was an important measure as women occupy 57% of public jobs and the public sector also provides services on which families are dependent. Gender sensitivity was also evident in the creation of the Gender Watch, which originally focused on monitoring the impact of austerity measures on women’s wellbeing and was later merged into the Welfare Watch which monitored all vulnerable groups.
The Working Group calls on the Government to further institutionalize gender budgeting and continue other gender sensitive economic policies which maintain gender equality throughout the process of economic reconstruction.


Despite these achievements, Iceland continues to face persistent gaps which are unresolved in two main areas: employment and gender based violence. In both these areas, implementation of laws is lacking and women do not have sufficient trust in the system to seek redress for violations of their rights.

Discrimination in the labour market

Despite the fact that an act on equal pay for equal work has been in force since 1961, the gender pay gap still persists. The Working Group notes joint initiatives of the VR Trade Union and the Confederation of Employers in developing a tool for monitoring payment of equal wages at the company level and hopes it will have a positive outcome in eliminating the wage gap.

The gender pay gap cannot be divorced from the highly segregated job market in Iceland. Women’s work is concentrated in public service jobs, most prominently nursing and elementary teaching which are notably low paid. Women hold a low percentage of leadership positions, especially in the private sector. This is being partially addressed with the requirement that employers with 25 or more employees formulate gender equality action plans. However, the Working Group regrets that the institution mandated to monitor this arrangement does not have the resources to fully enforce this requirement. Additionally, the Working Group calls on the Government to take proactive measures to bring about elimination of discrimination in the labour market and to close the pay gap.

Gender-based violence

There is no specific and separate provision targeting domestic violence in the Penal Code. This said, the Working Group commends the introduction of the system of protection orders. However, the Working Group notes that these orders are of short duration and have not been effectively applied. The Working Group further recalls the CEDAW Committee’s 2008 comments regarding the significant disparity between the numbers of investigated cases of sexual offences, and the numbers of prosecutions and convictions. It is alarmed that this issue has not been fully addressed and corrected five years later. The Working Group met with women who expressed their loss of trust in the criminal justice system. The Group appreciates the multi-faceted initiative by the Ministry of Interior to address these issues in the criminal justice system and urges the Government to take concrete steps to reform the criminal justice system, such as special police training, a right to appeal a prosecutor’s decision not to prosecute and judicial education projects on crimes of sexual violence.
Furthermore, professional assistance in rape crisis clinic has been severely curtailed and the Group calls on the Government to reinstitute clinic as a specialized unit.


Women of foreign origin

Iceland is undergoing an unprecedented demographic change with a steady increase of persons of foreign origin, including immigrants, migrant workers and their families, refugees, asylum seekers. The Working Group notes the report by InterCultural Iceland which recently found that around 40 percent of Icelandic residents of foreign background, feel discriminated against on an almost daily basis, particularly in the workplace. Reports also indicate that 40% of women who have sought assistance from women’s shelters were immigrant women. Women who receive residence permits on the basis of family reunion with immigrant spouses or a humanitarian residence permit after divorce, often do not receive work permits. The Working Group recommends synchronization of residence and work permits to allow the women’s social and economic integration. The Working Group considers it a matter of immediate importance to pass the anti-discrimination bill. The Group notes a sense of urgency in immigrant communities and civil society organizations working on these issues. One of the most needed provisions of such legislation would be allocation of quotas for minority women who are fully qualified for jobs in the public service. The Working Group appreciates the existence of the Multi-cultural Team which is a forum for coordination of services affecting persons of foreign origin. This team reflects the high level of voluntarism in Icelandic society. The Working Group encourages the Government to provide adequate support for organizations which enable persons of foreign origin, particularly women, to participate fully in economic, social, public and political life.


The Centre for Gender Equality is regarded by key stakeholders as an important source for advice and assistance in advancing their gender equality goals. The Working Group is concerned that this national machinery on gender equality is seriously under-resourced to carry out its broad mandate. It calls on the Government to significantly increase the Center’s capacity and resources and to improve its geographical representation.

As the new coalition Government takes office, the Working Group urges it to present a full articulation of its gender equality agenda.

The Working Group wishes to thank the Government for its cooperation prior to and during the visit and all the interlocutors for their time and openness in discussing issues related to its mandate.

The Working Group will present its final conclusions and recommendations stemming from its visit in its report to the Human Rights Council in June 2014.