No Increase in Pregnancy Terminations Following Law Change

Iceland's Althing

Changes to Iceland’s abortion law that took effect in 2019 did not impact the number of pregnancies terminated in the country, according to a newly published report from the Directorate of Health. The law was heavily debated when it was introduced to Alþingi, Iceland’s Parliament, and criticised by the Bishop of Iceland, among others. The changes appear to have shortened the time between the decision to terminate a pregnancy and the procedure itself. RÚV reported first.

According to the latest figures from the Directorate of Health, the frequency of pregnancy termination in 2022 was similar to what it was before the law was changed in 2019. The number of terminations was slightly lower in 2020 and 2021, which may be explained by gathering restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Termination of pregnancy permitted until 22nd week

Under the new law, it is legal to request a termination of pregnancy up to the end of the 22nd week of pregnancy, instead of the 16th week, as the law previously allowed. However, the law still indicates that the procedure should be carried out as soon as possible, preferably before the 12th week of pregnancy.

The previous law in Iceland also permitted termination of pregnancy after the 16th week, but only due to unequivocal medical reasons. Such terminations required written authorisation from a Directorate of Health committee. This is no longer the case under the new law.

The old law was changed in part due its violation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, as it allowed the termination of pregnancy after the 16th week if there was “a high likelihood of malformation, genetic defects or damage to the fetus.” The law was first put under review in 2016, culminating with the introduction of the now-approved bill in 2019, by then-Minister of Health Svandís Svavarsdóttir.

Supported by medical professionals

Professional medical associations expressed support for the new law when it was introduced. These included the Association of Icelandic Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Association of Icelandic Nurses, the National University Hospital of Iceland, the Directorate of Health, and the Icelandic Social Workers’ Association. The Bishop of Iceland Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir wrote an op-ed in Morgunblaðið newspaper opposing the changes, and People’s Party MP Inga Sæland also vocally opposed them at the time. Bjarni Benediktsson, chairman of the Independence Party and now Prime Minister, was the only government minister to vote against the bill.

Despite the legislation being relaxed in 2019, there is no evidence that the number of pregnancy terminations after the 16th week has increased in Iceland. On the other hand, a larger proportion of terminations are carried out earlier in the pregnancy, with nearly 90% carried out before the ninth week.

Reports of Sexual Violence Decreased by 15% in Iceland

police station Hlemmur

The number of reported incidents of sexual violence in Iceland has decreased significantly, according to a newly-published report from the National Police Commissioner’s Office. In 2023, a total of 521 offences were reported to police, a decrease of 15% compared to the average over the last three years. About 45% of victims were children.

Sexual offences against children decrease

There have not been so few reports of sexual offences to police in Iceland since 2017. In 2018, 570 sexual offences were reported, an increase of 18% from the previous year. Over 600 offences were reported in 2019, 2021, and 2022. The number of reports of rape and sexual violence against children decreased significantly last year, according to the report, while reports of rape decreased by 13% compared to the average over the previous three years.

While reports of child abuse increased by 21% compared to the three-year average, reports of sexual offences against children decreased by 20%.

Only 10.3% of victims report to police

In the 2019-2023 Law Enforcement Plan, Icelandic Police have made it a goal to decrease the rate of sexual violence while increasing the rate of reporting. In a victim survey conducted in 2023 which asked about respondents’ experiences from the year 2022, 1.9% stated they had been sexually assaulted and only 10.3% of those victims had reported the incidents to police.

Survivors call for shorter processing times and harsher sentences

Those who do report sexual abuse in Iceland have complained of long processing times: sexual assault cases take around two years to go through the justice system in Iceland. A new organised interest group for sexual abuse survivors was established in Iceland last year with the aim of improving survivors’ legal standing. The group has called for shortening case processing times for sexual offences as well as less lenient sentencing for perpetrators.

Help and support through 112

Sexual violence and abuse in Iceland can always be reported via the emergency phone line 112 or on the 112 webchat. The 112 website has extensive information on how to recognise abuse and ways to get help and support in Iceland. Support is available to all, regardless of immigration or legal status in Iceland.

Women in Iceland Still Bear the Brunt of Domestic Labour

Women in Iceland are more likely than men to reduce their paid work hours in order to do unpaid work within the household. Women are also more likely to extend their parental leave than men and bear more responsibility when it comes to communicating with their children’s schools. Eight per cent of men never worry about household chores or childcare.

These findings are from a recent study conducted by Varða, a labour market research institute in Iceland. The study examines how couples balance work and family life and is based on a survey of parents with children 1-12 years old. Heimildin reported first.

Women more likely to work part-time

The study shows that women are more likely to work part-time than men: 68% of mothers were working full-time compared to 96% of fathers. The main reason mothers were working part-time was to make it easier to balance work and family duties. Women bore more responsibility for childcare after parental leave, did more of the communication with schools and after-school centres than men, and were more likely to worry about household tasks and childcare while at work than men. Women had also chosen their careers in order to facilitate balancing family and professional life to a greater extent than men.

Despite having one of the highest women’s employment rates in the world and scoring highly on many measures of gender equality, women in Iceland are more likely to reduce their paid working hours than men in Iceland. Women also bear the brunt of household chores and child-rearing and household management, or the so-called second and third shift.

Balance between work and family affects health

The survey asked parents how often they worry about household tasks and childcare when they are at work. A much higher percentage of women than men reported having such worries on a daily basis (43%) compared to men (27.7%). A higher percentage of men reported never having such worries (8%) compared to women (4.8%).

Varða’s report points to research showing that a balance between family and professional life, or a lack thereof, can have a decisive impact on health, both mental and physical. Studies have also shown that a good work-family balance increases people’s job satisfaction and work capacity.

Read more about the women’s rights movement in Iceland and Iceland’s recent shortening of the work week.

Government to Establish Independent Human Rights Office

The Icelandic government hopes to soon establish an independent Human Rights Agency, a watchdog organization that will have the broad mandate of monitoring, promoting, and protecting human rights in Iceland, RÚV reports. It will also develop a national plan on human rights issues, which will be used as the basis for future policymaking. This was announced in the newly published draft of the so-called Green Book on Human Rights.

Once the purview of the Ministry of Justice, human rights issues were transferred to the Office of the Prime Minister last year. It was then that Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir decided that a Green Book on human rights should be prepared. As it notes in its introduction, the Green Book “deals with the status and development of human rights in Iceland and gives an overview of key issues ahead and the best solutions for […] resolving them.” An independent agency was one such proffered solution.

New agency will operate alongside existing Human Rights Centre

The new agency will be separate from the existing Icelandic Human Rights Centre, which was founded in 1995, receives ISK 41.1 million [$289,000; €266,427] in government funding each year, and includes sixteen different member organizations, each of which “deals with human rights in one way or another.” These members include Samtökin ’78, the national LGBTQIA+ organization of Iceland, the Icelandic Women’s Rights Association, Red Cross Iceland, the Icelandic chapters of Amnesty International and Save the Children, among others.

The Centre’s goal is to “work towards the advancement of human rights by collecting information on domestic human rights issues, providing information to the public, supporting research and education, and promoting discussion and raising awareness about human rights in Iceland,” and in this way, it already “operates to a large extent like a national human rights office.” However, as it does not have a legal basis, the office doesn’t meet the Paris-aligned benchmarks, thereby necessitating the establishment of a new agency. The existing Human Rights Centre will continue its work alongside the new agency.

Building on solid ground

As part of the Green Book drafting process, the government conducted a survey in which it asked Icelanders if they believe that human rights are effectively monitored in Iceland. Just under half of respondents, or 45.2%, said that current human rights’ oversight in Iceland is average, while 26.1% said that the current oversight is handled “pretty well,” 19% responded “pretty poorly.” Four percent of respondents said current oversight is handled “very well,” 4.6% said “very poorly,” and 1% responded “not at all.”

“We’re building on really good and solid ground,” said Katrín, remarking on the results of the survey. “In recent years, which I want to include in this, a lot has been done, for instance, in regards to the rights of LGBTQIA+ people. We’ve also made extensive legislative changes to ensure equal treatment and prevent discrimination. So there’s been a lot going on, but what we’ve been trying to do is map the overall situation, which hadn’t been done before.”

Katrín also said that she believed the establishment of an independent human rights agency was “definitely a prerequisite if we’re ever going to legislate the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which has been in the works for a long time. So we look at this work as a solid foundation for everything that is to come.”

Asked when Icelanders could expect the new Human Rights Office to start its work, Katrín said that she would probably present a bill about it in parliament’s upcoming winter session. “So I hope that it would be able to get started shortly after, probably in 2024.”

Icelandic Government to Research Gender Distribution of Unpaid Work

ungbarnasund baby swimming

While research suggests that women do much more unpaid work in Iceland than men, concrete data on the issue is lacking. Last Friday, the Icelandic government approved Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s proposal to conduct a study on what is often called the “second shift” or “third shift;” unpaid housework and caretaking work; and its distribution between genders in Iceland. The results will be used to shape government policy.

“In neighbouring countries, time use studies have been carried out that have been used in policy making, and an Icelandic study on this topic could give clear and easily understandable results and manage to capture the gendered reality in a different way than has previously been done,” a government notice states. The study will be carried out in collaboration with Statistics Iceland.

Majority of Icelandic State’s shift workers are women

The Icelandic government recently published its third report on mapping gender perspectives, a joint ministry initiative that maps gender perspectives in relation to government work as well as presents proposals for action. The report’s findings include that women make up the vast majority of shift workers employed by the state. These female shift workers are much more likely to work part-time than other women employed by the state.

Women in Iceland are also much more likely to be granted disability status due to musculoskeletal disorders than men. The rates of musculoskeletal disorders have decreased among both women and men, however, in recent years.

The government has also approved a proposal that each ministry define at least one specific gender equality goal for the 2024-2028 budget and work systematically towards it, with defined actions in the budget proposal.

Today is Women’s Rights Day

Today, June 19, is Women’s Rights Day in Iceland. The holiday commemorates the day, in 1915, when all Icelandic women aged 40 and older, were first given the right to vote in parliamentary elections and also run for parliament.

A brief history of women’s suffrage in Iceland

“As early as 1882, widows and women of independent means had received the right to vote in municipal elections, and in 1907, this right was extended to all women,” writes Stefan Jonasson, editor of Lögberg-Heimskringla. Alþingi voted to extend women’s voting and candidacy rights to parliamentary elections in 1911, but this was struck down—twice—by the Danish king, until Kristján X relented in 1915. Iceland became an independent state under the Danish crown in 1918, and two years later, all age and income restrictions were lifted, giving all Icelandic women equal voting rights in 1920.

Statue of Ingibjörg H. Bjarnason in front of Alþingi, Image by Anna Kudryavtseva (CC 3.0)

The Icelandic suffrage movement was driven by the Icelandic Women’s Association, which was founded in 1894, as well as the Women’s Rights Association, which was started by Kvennablaðið (‘The Women’s Paper’) founder Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir in 1907. Bríet and three fellow suffragettes were elected to the Reykjavík Town Council in 1908. Bríet held the seat until 1911 and then again from 1913 – 1919. She then became the first woman to run for parliament in 1916, but was not elected. Ingibjörg H. Bjarnason, the principal of Kvennaskólinn (‘The Women’s School’) became the first woman to hold a seat in Alþingi in 1922. A statue in her honour stands in front of parliament today.

Women’s Rights Day celebrations in Reykjavík this year

The celebrations will start at 11:00 AM in Hólavallagarður Cemetery with a musical performance by Una Torfadóttir. Afterwards, Vice President of the Reykjavík City Council Magnea Gná Jóhannsdóttir will deliver a speech and lay the wreath on Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir’s grave, in honour of her contributions to the suffrage movement.

Later in the day, Kvennaheimilið Hallveigarstaðir, which has served as the home for women’s organizations in the capital area since 1967, will celebrate its 55th anniversary. Guests are invited to join festivities at Túngata 14 from 2:00 pm – 4:00 pm. Refreshments will be served and guest of honour Eliza Reid, First Lady of Iceland, will give a speech. Rakel Adolphsdóttir from the Women’s History Museum will give a short lecture on the history of the building and the event will be rounded out with a performance by the Hrynjandi Women’s Chorus.

“Is Everything Alright?”

is everything alright

Iceland’s Justice Minister, National Police Commissioner, and Emergency Response Service 112 launched a sexual assault prevention campaign today, with the first phase specifically aimed at nightclubs. The campaign asks the public to be on the lookout for violence when taking part in nightlife, ask “Is everything alright?” if they suspect it may not be, and call 112 if necessary. Some locals have criticised the campaign for focusing on bystanders rather than the perpetrators of sexual offences.

Decrease in reported rapes during periods of social restrictions

A press release from the campaign states that reports of rape decreased by 43% in 2020, a statistic authorities relate to the social restrictions that were in place that year, closing bars and nightclubs for some periods and limiting their operational hours during others. According to the Police Commissioner’s Office, a large proportion of reported rapes take place between Friday and Sunday, between the hours of midnight and 6:00 AM. While the police registered 114 cases of rape in 2020, the average number between 2017 and 2019 was 201. Reports increased once more when restrictions were relaxed in 2021. “Changes to restrictions therefore had a clear impact on the frequency of rape,” the press release states.

“I have emphasised that in order to reduce sexual offences, we need to mobilise all of society. We must all be vigilant and our responsibility to eradicate this evil in Icelandic society cannot be ignored,” Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson stated. “Our experience throughout the pandemic shows that rape and other forms of violence are not inevitable. We all want a life without infection prevention restrictions again but we also want a life without violence. To that end, we are raising awareness about sexual assault.”

“Educate perpetrators”

Some locals have criticised the campaign for not placing responsibility on the perpetrators of sexual assault. “Seems at first glance that this is yet another campaign where the responsibility is shifted to everyone other than the perpetrators,” one Icelandic woman tweeted. “This is so ridiculous,” another wrote. “Almost as ridiculous as when the Icelandic Travel Industry Association launched the project ‘Protection against prostitution’. Put the money into something useful. Educate perpetrators. Don’t place the responsibility on victims or bystanders.”

Jón Gunnarsson and his assistant Brynjar Níelsson have previously been criticised for their voting record on women’s issues. MP and Reform Party Chairperson stated last December that she did not trust the two when it came to supporting issues of gender equality.

New Minister of Justice and Assistant ‘Not to be Trusted’ with Women’s Issues, Critics Say

Halldóra Mogensen, MP for the Pirate Party, and Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir, Chairperson of the Reform Party, have expressed strong misgivings about the way in which incoming Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarssson and his newly appointed assistant, Independence Party MP Brynjar Níelsson, will handle issues related to the rights of women, RÚV reports. Jón has said that he will focus on reviewing the status and treatment of sexual offenses in Iceland, but both Jón and Brynjar’s voting record has been called into question, with Þorgerður Katrín saying that when it comes to “women’s liberation issues,” she does not trust either man’s politics.

Halldóra and Þorgerður Katrín’s critique cited Jón and Brynjar’s vote on a specific bill from 2019. The bill in question extended the window within which pregnant individuals are allowed to obtain an abortion for any reason to 22 weeks. Previously, abortions were only allowed after 16 weeks under specific circumstances. The abortion bill was presented by former Minister of Health Svandís Svavarsdóttir and passed in 2019 by a margin of 40 to 18. Both Brynjar and Jón voted against the bill.

“I find this strange,” said Halldóra. “I can’t imagine that the Left-Greens are very enthusiastic about this appointment either. Jón is taking on an enormous and important set of issues and he’s hiring an assistant who has, in the course of his entire parliamentary career, only submitted one parliamentary issue, he’s only submitted a single parliamentary issue, and that was the bill that revolved around imprisoning parents who restrict custody access. It says an incredible amount about a person’s politics I think it’s dangerous to know that these two men are going to work together to take on sexual violence issues and I don’t believe that properly addressing these issues is really in the cards.”

When asked if she trusted Jón and Brynjar on such issues as improving the position of victims of sexual offenses, Þorgerður Katrín responded: “No, not when it comes to these sorts of issues, although I’ve had good collaborations with Jón and Brynjar over the years. I’m fond of these men, I admit, but on the other hand, their politics cannot be overlooked when it comes, for instance, to women’s liberation issues. The abortion bill that Svandís put forward—who was it that did not support that? The Independence Party leadership, Jón Gunnarsson, Brynjar Níelsson. They voted against it.”

Pressure groups and activists have also been vocal in their displeasure at Brynjar’s appointment. For his part, however, Jón stuck by the decision, saying, “I’m not worried about this discussion, it isn’t bothering me. Much of what has been said is not worth responding to and not objective nor balanced. I let such things fall on deaf ears and don’t let them bother me. We’re going to let our actions speak.”

46 Years Since First Women’s Day Off in Iceland

2018 Women's Day off Protest kvennafrídagurinn

Yesterday marked 46 years since Iceland’s first “Women’s Day Off,” when women left their workplaces and took to the streets to protest the gender pay gap. Around 25,000 women attended that first protest in Lækjartorg square, which sparked similar movements around the world. Women’s average salary in Iceland is still just 77.2% of men’s average salary, according to the newest figures from Statistics Iceland.

The first Women’s Day Off was held in 1975, and five more protests have been organised in Iceland since then: in 1985, 2005, 2010, 2016, and 2018. No public protest was held this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, though the Women’s History Archives held a feminist history walk yesterday in downtown Reykjavík.

Despite legislation intended to ensure equal pay, Iceland’s gender pay gap persists. As of last year, women still filled less than 25% of CEO and chair positions in Icelandic businesses and the proportion of women on boards for companies with more than 50 employees was just under 35% in 2019.

Iceland Must Shoulder Responsibility for Afghanistan, Prime Minister Says

Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir stated it was unbelievable to see how quickly the Taliban has seized power across Afghanistan in recent weeks. Katrín stated it was clear the development would have an impact on the status of women in the country. As a member of NATO, Iceland must shoulder its responsibility to the international community.

“It’s important that we Icelanders shoulder our responsibility in this both as members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and members of the international community and representatives in the UN human rights council,” Katrín stated in an interview with RÚV. “We are all very concerned that there is an impending human rights crisis in Afghanistan.”

Iceland’s Refugee Committee will review the situation in Afghanistan this week, at the request Iceland’s Minister of Social Affairs and Children Ásmundur Einar Daðason. Katrín says it’s especially important to take into account the women that have fought for human rights in Afghanistan.

The Prime Minister stated that Iceland would take part in the international discussion on the crisis in Afghanistan, as well as within NATO and the Nordic countries. The government would also consider accepting additional refugees from the country. Iceland’s quota refugees for the years 2020 and 2021 have yet to arrive in the country due to delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Authorities have stated that the delays will be made up and will not lead to Iceland accepting fewer refugees than planned.