NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–At a small but exuberant sideline event of the U.N.’s big annual gathering on the status of global women’s rights, panelists from Iceland reflected on their tiny country’s outsized leadership in women-friendly reforms.

The panel, "#CoolFeminism: Exploring Ideas from the North," lined up five female speakers and gathered about 100 attendees in the auditorium during this year’s U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, taking place March 9-20. It drew quite a few high school students, some of whom had questions during the Q&A session.

One teen, who identified herself as being with Girls Learn International, a program of the Feminist Majority Foundation based in Arlington, Va., asked how to get her U.S. school to add gender studies to the curriculum.

The obvious person to answer was Hanna Bjorg Vilhjalmsdottir, a panelist who describes herself as a "mother, teacher and feminist" and who spoke about her involvement with "Revolution in the Classroom," a push to incorporate more information about girls and women into school curricula.

Vilhjalmsdottir suggested that the student start a petition and cite Iceland as an example of success.

In 2007, on her own initiative, Vilhjalmsdottir added gender studies to her curriculum at the junior college where she teaches a range of subjects. Since then 17 out of the country’s 33 junior colleges have integrated gender studies into their curricula and made them mandatory. Some high schools are also following the lead, Vilhjalmsdottir said.

In addition, 12 feminist clubs have opened in junior colleges.

Vilhjalmsdottir encourages her students to have "bold" discussions and take stances on domestic and global issues. She creates time and opportunity for debate and uncensored speech. She and her students analyze media narratives and watch music videos to reflect on women’s objectification and the possible pornification of women in these videos.

As a teacher she is more of a facilitator than a figure of authority. Her students organize and initiate discussions so they will "take ownership" of the conversation and the thoughts that are being exchanged.

Outside of the classroom, Vilhjalmsdottir stays connected with her students through social media such as Facebook, which provides an ongoing forum for debate online.

Vilhjalmsdottir believes in discussing any and every topic and holds that such discussions are key to empowering all her students. "It would be wrong to look at my boys as if they are bad guys and it would also be wrong to look at my girls as if they were victims," she said.

Fighting Prostitution After It’s Outlawed

Gudrun Jonsdottir is an activist and director of Stigamot, a women’s crisis center in Reykjavik. During her presentation she talked about the role of ongoing activism on behalf of the government’s 2010 ban on strip clubs, passed to help uphold Iceland‘s 2009 ban on prostitution

Both bans followed relentless activism pressure from Icelandic women and Stigamot. But the struggle did not end there, Jonsdottir said.

"Champagne clubs" emerged in the strip club district and provided a private area in the back where clients could purchase 10 minutes of privacy to "chat" with a female worker.

When Stigamot accused the clubs of trafficking and prostitution they received threats meant to silent them. It didn’t work. In August 2013, Stigamot opened a mock "champagne club" and organized an opening party. They produced an ad that read: "Interesting Women for Sale at Stigamot." They invited prominent politicians in Reykjavik as well as the head of the police to come to an event. They issued a press statement about the event.

Many on the guest list showed up and during the evening, "clients" were sold 10 minutes of time with one of the club’s "interesting women" and all the champagne you could drink for $145.

During the sessions some of the "interesting women" talked about why Stigamot wanted to close the champagne clubs. Some read the Declaration of Human Rights. Others talked about rape and other forms of violence they had suffered.

Despite a plethora of positive indicators for girls and women in Iceland, violence against women persists. Forty-two percent of women over 16 have experienced some form of violence and 22 percent have suffered violence from an intimate partner, according to government survey carried out in 2008 and distributed during the panel.

All in all, Jonsdottir said, the awareness effort started a public conversation that led to a crackdown and closure of the "champagne clubs."

Enjoying the Struggle

The spirited and prankish quality of the campaign underscored a sentiment widely encouraged by the panelists: to have fun while fighting for the cause of women.

Jonsdottir treated the audience to a quick review of how Iceland, a country of about 162, 000 women and 163, 000 men, has taken the global lead on women’s equality.

A pivotal date was Oct. 24, 1975. To protest earning less money than men for the same amount of work, some Icelandic women left their work stations and walked away from their responsibilities to show the importance of women’s contribution to businesses and the economy. Many joined a protest in the capital. At first it was called the "long Friday" and later became known as "Women’s Day Off."

Ten years later it recurred on a larger scale. The walkout began at 2:08 p.m., a time chosen to symbolize the point at which women, due to lower pay, start working for free compared to male counterparts. Close to 50, 000 people–twice the size of the 1975 protest–rallied in the capital, according to media estimates.

During the most recent action on Oct. 24, 2010, the action was called "Women Strike Back." Women left work slightly later this time–at 2:25 p.m.–and once again rallied in Reykjavik. Despite storm warnings and freezing rain the rally once again drew about 50,000 people, according to media estimates.

In 1980, Iceland broke a double barrier when it elected Vigdís Finnbogadóttir as president, a first in Europe as well as the country itself. After 16 years in office, Finnbogadóttir retired in 1996, but remains the longest-serving, elected female head of state of any country to date.

Since 2009, Iceland has topped the list of Global Gender Gap report published annually by the World Economic Forum. In 2014, the country had the highest score with a gender gap index of 0.859, with 1.0 indicating perfect equality.

In 2009, the country also appointed its first female prime minister and first openly lesbian head of government, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, and, for the first time, seated a government with an equal number of women and men.

Narrowest Pay Gap

The Nordic country has the narrowest gender pay gap in the world. Women’s income is about 80 percent of men’s. Sixty-six percent of female workers have a full-time job (working 35 or more hours a week) versus 87 percent of men. Thirty-four percent of working women have part-time jobs versus 13 percent of men. The jobless rate is narrowly lower for women; 4.9 percent versus 5.1 percent.

Icelandic women participate in both the workforce and education at rates that bring them near parity with men. Eighty-two percent of women are in the labor force in Iceland against 86 percent of men. Nearly 100 percent of the school-age population–male and female–attend schools from primary to university.

One profession highly dominated by women; office clerks. Over 80 percent of clerks in Iceland are women, according data of the Ministry of Welfare.

Women’s hold on parliament has fallen in recent years; down to 40 percent from 42 percent in 2009 and 50 percent in 1995, a high-water year when equal rights of women and men were enshrined in the Constitution.

Women’s leadership posts in businesses decline as the size of the company grows. In 2013, only 10 percent of women were chairpersons of companies with more than 250 employees, while 36 percent seated in the board of directors of companies with 250 or more employees.

Since 2013, a law has required companies with more than 50 employees to have at least 40 percent of both genders represented on their boards.

Pre-schooling is widespread, with 95 percent of children aged 3-5 enrolled in daycare in 2009.

It’s also become easier for parents to continue their career when welcoming a new family member. Icelanders have a parental leave scheme that is unique. Both parents are allowed to nine months leave in all. Each parent gets three months each, for a total of six months. After that, for the final three months of leave, parents can divide the time as they like. During their leave, parents who have been working full time receive 80 percent of their former salary up to a certain ceiling. Fathers are certainly not missing the opportunity and around 90 percent use their paternal leave.

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