International Women’s Day 2010 – We can Do Better

 Internationl Women’s Rights Day 2010

We can do better

Good day people. And Happy International Women’s Rights Day.

There are many jokes going around that all the foreigners have left Iceland. But the fact is there are still 22,644 immigrants in Iceland or 9% of the country‘s population. 13,145 of them are women.

In recent years Iceland has come a long way and made many changes for the positive in immigrant issues. Iceland now has a policy regarding immigrants, an Immigrant council, spends money on Icelandic lessons, and supports diverse projects in the field of research and integration, just to name a few off the many positive things that are ongoing. However, we can do better. The Icelandic government and local governments, must do better. And there are a few issues that must be addressed immediatly. Too many foreign women sit home unemployed, 582 in the capital area alone, to be exact, or 13% of the total unemployment for women. For many of these women going out to work every day was the limit of their involvement in Icelandic society. Iceland has been working hard the past few years towards assuring the successful integration of immigrants and Icelandic society, but we cannot let that progress slip away. Unemployment threatens and limits the integration process. During my many years as a counsellor I talked to more than a few women in bad marriages who were only allowed to leave the house to go to work. We know from our European neighbours and history, that during times of increased unemployment there is increased resentment towards immigrants, and increased competition for jobs and training placement programs. The sooner we do something to nip this in the bud the better. For those women who do not yet speak fluent Icelandic there are still very few solutions on offer and even fewer for those who do not yet speak any Icelandic. To the best of my knowledge the only thing on offer for them is Icelandic lessons. But, the increased isolation, interrupted integration process and social tensions that can occur from immigrant unemployment call for special solutions that are not solely organised around lessons in language, but also culture, politics, building job skills, social studies and civics training. We must nurture the resources that they have to give Iceland, we can do better.

I have observed that women frequently serve as the front line of political change. Women are willing to break with established traditions and accepted wisdom to advocate for reforms. We need to have more seats at the decison-making tables and need to raise our voices when policy is developed. We, immigrant women must participate and work with our Icelandic sisters in demanding a seat at the table and we must make our voices heard. 5199 immigrants have the right to vote in national elections, I am not sure how many of them are women, but if we assume it is a similar percentage than around 3,000 of us have the right to vote. We can make change happen.

I believe that Iceland should develop a comprehensive plan to achieving integration which details what systems need to be in place in order to ensure successful integration. We should compose a list of good practices and make a step-by-step guideline that municipalities should follow when developing services for immigrants. And then we should make a law stating what services municipalities are obliged to offer.

In the ECRI’s (European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance) last report on Iceland it was suggested that the Icelandic authorities strengthen their efforts to reach out to immigrant women, inform them or their rights and provide them with opportunities to learn the Icelandic language and to participate in society. The report strongly recommended that the government ensure, by introducing the necessary changes to legislation, that foreign women who are victims of domestic violence are not forced to stay in violent relationships to avoid deportation. The government has spent more money on developing and subsidizing Icelandic lessons but have they really reached out to inform women of their rights? There has been information translated but it has not been updated and it is out of print. I am certain that foreign women do not always have access to this information.
And what about the changes in legislation? Well there have been changes in the law, and The Directorate of Immigration may now issue a residence permit to victims of domestic violence. In the Act on Foreigners, in article 13 is states: “Furthermore if a marriage, registered partnership or cohabitational relationship is dissolved because the foreign national or his or her child has met with abuse or violence in the relationship, then under special circumstances and if cogent consideration of fairness favour such a course of action, a temporary residence permit issued under this Article may be extended even though the premises for residence in Iceland have changed…” The problem lies in the words “under special circumstances and if cogent consideration of fairness favour such a course of action”. There is a lot of room for translation there and the directorate demands proof of domestic violence. As we know domestic violence isn’t always easy to prove. For instance it is very difficult to prove emotional and psychological violence. It is difficult to proof that your husband only lets you out of the house with his permission, does not allow you to have friends, or forces you to have sex with him. The regulations regarding proof should not be so strict.

It is my opinion and it is shared by many of the women, both Icelandic and foreign, who I have worked with, that it should be obligatory to offer all immigrants information and courses about their rights and obligations in Iceland. Just as an immigrant is obliged learn the Icelandic language if they want to achieve permanent residency or citizenship, they should be obliged to attend civics lessons. Currently, if an immigrant knows where to look, knows the correct helpful people or is lucky enough to have a good boss or Icelandic teacher they may receive some of this information. But we can do better. The government should provide appropriate mechanisms, in the language of origin when possible, to ensure that immigrants, especially immigrant women who are victims of domestic violence, are fully informed of their rights.
We should promote the participation of immigrant women in public, political and economic life. I am white and of western European descent, but even so I never see myself represented in the media. Just imagine how those immigrant women who are visibly foreign feel? They are supposed to be working at being a part of society but yet they never see themselves reflected in that societies media, art, advertisements and so on. In a recent research paper done by Helga Ólafs it was surprisingly clear that Polish immigrants use Icelandic media, especially the newspapers. But are they represented in that media? Immigrant women must be allowed into the public sphere and must take part in the discussion, not only about immigrant issues but
about all aspects of life in Iceland. This public discussion takes place for the most part in the media and we need to start insisting that we be involved.

We need to stop being victims and start being leaders. We need to help our sisters find their way. We need to ask for help and we have to accept it. We must point out the problems, and we must offer solutions. We need to stop being invisible and be visible, we need to have a voice and we must insist that it be heard. We can do better!

Barbara Kristvínsson

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