1. August 2011, the Equality and Anti-discrimination Ombud of Norway, Sunniva Ørstavik

Dear Committee members – a very good morning to you all!

My name is Sunniva Ørstavik, and I am the Equality and Anti-discrimination Ombud of Norway.  It is an honour for me and my colleagues to be present here today. I thank you all for your time and efforts. 

Our written report shows that in spite of the generally held notion of Norway as a gender equal society, discrimination against women and girls still prevails. The overall Norwegian gender equality policy is based on a double strategy, combining gender mainstreaming and gender specific actions. The goals of the policy however, are not being realized despite its potential to deliver substantive equality for women and girls. We wish to note that the persistence of violence against women in our society is a clear indication of the failure of the gender equality policy. I would like to give you examples of the gaps or pitfalls in the overall gender equality policy of Norway.

Certain Gender Neutral Measures Fail to Address the Specific Needs of Women and Girls

First, certain gender equality measures are being designed and implemented in a gender-blind manner.

For example, a number of measures with the intention of combating violence against women have been designed from a gender neutral perspective, such as the provision of shelters for battered persons and the penal code on domestic violence.

Although women are often the most affected, we recognize the need for measures directed at correcting discrimination experienced also by men. However, we wish to note here that a gender-neutral approach often has the male perspective as the norm. As a consequence, women in general may not benefit from measures that neglect to consider the specific needs of women and girls.

For example, when shelters for battered women have to start receiving men in addition to women, it will be at the cost of real protection for women in general, whose protection needs are different from those of men’s.

Lack of Intersectional Considerations in Gender Equality Policy Excludes Groups of Women and Girls from Achieving Equality

Second, we are concerned that women in Norway who experience intersectional discrimination – based on factors such as, ethnicity, religion, age, disability, class, and sexual orientation - do not necessarily benefit from measures to promote gender equality. That is to say, the very tools for the implementation of the gender equality policy could produce inequality between groups of women.

For example, reports of sexual abuse of women with intellectual disabilities are sometimes given low priority by the police, and often their cases are dropped.

Today’s legislation contains no separate provisions on multiple or intersectional discrimination. An explicit prohibition would remove any doubts about the legal basis for considering several grounds together, in enforcement. At the same time, it would send a strong message that multiple and intersectional discrimination requires targeted measures.

The Government has Failed to Sufficiently Address Prevention and the Root Causes of Gender Inequality –Stereotypes and Prejudice

Third, unequal power relations between women and men are manifested by gender stereotypes and prejudices. Therefore, we are seriously concerned about the lack of good preventive measures addressing these in public policies, programs and institutional frameworks. We are especially concerned that gender stereotypes and prejudice are not addressed in the current Gender Equality Act.

Moreover, a major concern is  the absence of measures designed to address gender stereotypes in the public space. For example, gender stereotypes in advertising, film and music videos are often marked by polarized sexualized roles of women and men.

Stereotypical perceptions also have negative consequences for violence against women and girls. I shall give three examples:

  1. A Norwegian study among young people found a widespread acceptance of sexual relations without consent of the girls. Such attitudes point to cultural conceptions of women and men, and can contribute to violence against women and girls.
  2. Other studies show that young girls do not define abuse committed against them as rape, even though the law defines such abuse as rape. This applies in particular where the abuse is drug-related or committed by a former or current partner. Stereotypical perceptions about what constitutes culpable rape may therefore contribute to the unusually low number of reported rape cases. The Rape Committee estimated in 2006 that only 6 - 12% of all rapes and attempted rapes are reported to the police.
  3. Stereotypical perceptions can also influence the courts in their consideration of rape cases. A report from the Public Prosecutions’ office, showed a commonly held view among jury members that rape is primarily perceived as committed by unknown persons and through the use of extensive force, despite the clear wording of the rape provision. We are concerned that such attitudes may lead to unjust acquittals and that the rape provision is not used to its full potential.

The Weaknesses in the Positive Duty Contribute to Public Authorities Failing to Promote Gender Equality

Fourth, we are concerned that the Government’s mainstreaming of gender equality in theory and law is failing to be implemented by public authorities in practice. Here, we  are particularly concerned with the role of public authorities as policy makers and service providers.

In theory, the Gender Equality Act requires all government authorities to make active, targeted and systematic efforts to promote gender equality in all aspects of society. Unfortunately, the Act does not sufficiently specify the contents of this positive duty.  That is to say, the general wording of the duty does not specify any particular action that public authorities must carry out.

Our impression is that the equality work of public authorities is at best adhoc and lacking in systematic effort. In compliance reviews of 86 local authorities, we found in general that the promotion of gender equality had low priority.

Although this finding was related to the local authorities’ role as public employers, our impressions from the reports indicate the same in their role as policy makers and service providers.

We  believe that with greater specification, the positive duty could be more effective in combating structural discrimination and in implementing in practice the obligations to respect, protect and fulfil equality for women.

The Government is Failing to Create an Enabling Environment for Civil Society Participation

Lastly, during the last two decades, there has been a movement away from state-feminism, characterised by a dynamic relationship between the state and civil society. We are concerned that the  present situation is characterised by a more top-down development of gender equality policies, on the one hand, and a marginalisation of the women’s movement, on the other. In our opinion, this results in a poorly informed gender equality policy, that is not anchored in women’s lived realities, thereby diminishing its chances for sucess. We are especially concerned about the lack of a real inclusion of the voices of vulnerable groups of women in the design, implementation and evaluation of policies.

In conclusion, we have a few questions related to the 5 issues of concern that we have raised. I will hand them out in written form for your consideration.

Our suggestions for questions that the Committee could address to the Government of Norway:

  1. How does the Government ensure that gender-neutral measures will in reality benefit women and girls? 
  2. How does the Government ensure legal mechanisms and programmes addressing intersecting forms of discrimination and its compounded negative impact on women?
  3. How does the Government intend to address more directly and specifically the root causes of gender inequality in general, and harmful stereotypes in particular? Furthermore, how does the government intend to address the sexualisation and objectification of  women and girls?
  4. Does the Government intend to specify in greater detail the contents of the positive duty that public authorities have in their role as service providers and policy makers? Furthermore, in light of the persistence of violence against women and the prevalence of harmful gender stereotypes, the question is whether the positive duty would function better if it explicitly  addressed these issues? 
  5. What measures will the Government put in place to compensate for the lack of an effective bottom-up process with the real participation of civil society, including measures for improving existing financing and consultation mechanisms?