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New election may strengthen Iceland’s gender equality work

Gender equality has been a frequent topic of discussion since the scandal involving a sex offender brought down the Icelandic government.
‘After this, I think gender equality issues will receive more attention regardless of who wins the election,’ says Rakel Adolphsdóttir, head of Iceland’sWomen’s History Archives.

The country’s feminist movement has participated in the election campaign with great intensity.

‘A lot of people are discussing gender equality issues at the moment, especially in relation to sexual harassment,’ says Rakel Adolphsdóttir.

However, the political parties have had an unexpectedly weak focus on gender equality, according to Silja Bára Ómarsdóttir, political science researcher at the University of Iceland.

‘Gender equality issues have not received the level of attention I expected, although I suppose the parties on the left have raised the issue of domestic violence at a fairly high level and those on the right are talking about the gender wage gap more now than in the past,’ she says.

The present government not very impressive

Neither Silja Bára Ómarsdóttir nor Rakel Adolphsdóttir is very impressed by the present government when it comes to gender equality policy.
‘It will be difficult for the new government to focus less on gender equality,’ says Silja Bára Ómarsdóttir.
The government has received a lot of attention in international media for the new law on equal pay, which was pushed through by the Reform Party. However, the law has been in the works for several years and is hardly something the current government alone can take credit for, says Rachel Adolphsdóttir. Moreover, maybe the new law, which goes into effect at the turn of the year, has also been attributed a bit too much significance, Silja Bára Ómarsdóttir believes.

‘The law prohibits employers from paying different salaries to women and men for the same job, but it won’t affect the overall gender gap since it doesn’t do anything to challenge the gender segregation in the labour market,’ she says.

In order to close the gender pay gap, it is not enough to legislate against differences in pay between women and men with the same type of job; it is also necessary to deal with the pay gap between male- and female-dominated sectors, according to Silja Bára Ómarsdóttir. She hopes that the next government will focus on improving the salaries of the lowest paid female-dominated occupational groups such as preschool teachers, nurses and teachers.

‘Another important issue for the new government to address is the launching of an action plan against sexual violence and violence in intimate relationships,’ she says.

Only a year since the last election

When the polls open next weekend, only a year will have passed since the last general election, which was also an early election caused by the so-called Panama papers scandal. Back up ten years to the global financial crisis, which led to the Icelandic bank crash. The austerity package put in place after the crash was met by major demonstrations, and the government was pointed out as irresponsible.

‘The frailness of the government is a situation we are not used to,’ says Rakel Adolphsdóttir in regard to the last decade’s political crises.

The current scandal erupted at the end of the summer, when it was revealed that Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson’s father had written a letter recommending that a convicted sex offender should have his ‘honour restored’, which would have his criminal record erased. Initially, this was kept secret by the prime minister’s Independence Party, and when the scandal finally surfaced, another party, Bright Future, chose to leave the government, making it collapse.

Rakel Adolphsdóttir feels that the political crises have strengthened rather than weakened the feminist movement and the gender equality in the country.

‘10–20 years ago, it was much harder to reach through. I think we have become increasingly vocal,’ she says.

She hopes that the next government will make major investments in the welfare sector.

‘There is a lack of resources, especially in health care and education,’ she says.

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Updated 10 August 2020