57. Following the collapse of Iceland’s three major banks, the Government imposed strict austerity measures with a view to remedy state finances. This holds true for almost all areas of the public sector, but the families in the country who have suffered a substantial rise in housing loans carry a particularly heavy burden and extreme cuts to various benefits with detrimental effects, not only for the people but also for the progress made in welfare matters prior to the crisis.
58. One of the most pressing concerns is repeated cuts to the right to childbirth leave payments. Since the crisis, the roof on maximum payments from the Childbirth Leave Fund (CLF) has been reduced three times by substantial amounts. Four years ago the roof was established at 535.000 ISK, today however, the roof on maximum payments has been dropped to a mere 300.000 ISK at the same time commodity prices have been rising, resulting in dire discrepancy. Further pertinent restrictions have been implemented as regards the percentage of parents’ monthly income to which they are entitled each month from the CLF. Parents were entitled to 80% of their monthly salary in 2008, but today this percentage applies only to the first 200.000 ISK a parent earns and 75% of the amount exceeding that amount, but never more than the above mentioned maximum.27
59. ICEHR is concerned about this development since such a low roof on maximum payments arguably contravenes the purpose of the Childbirth Leave Act no. 95/2000 purposes, namely to ensure children's access to both parents as well as giving both parents the opportunity to coordinate family life and to participate in the labour market.28 In 2004 the maximum roof comprised of total 600.000 ISK and even then concerns were raised on possible harmful effects on parents taking childbirth leave should the amount be any lower, especially as regards fathers who generally have higher income than mothers in Iceland.29 The roof has nevertheless been lowered to such an extent that higher income parents, in particular fathers, are taking less advantage of their right to childbirth leave than before. This development is likely to continue because the most recent amendments made to the Act in 2009 have yet to be effectuated.30 This is caused by the long period of time – up to 36 months – parents have to exercise their right to parental leave, meaning that complete statistics on children born in 2009-2011 will not be available until 2012-2013. Preliminary data nevertheless implies negative effect on the possibility and/or willingness of fathers to go on paternal leave31 which is in line with studies showing that a high roof on maximum payments is the cornerstone for ensuring that fathers exercise their right to childbirth leave.32
60. Parents with higher income than 300.000 ISK are expected to exercise their rights to parental leave to a much lesser extent than in previous years.33 Due to gender wage inequalities, 45,7% of men can be expected to reach that maximum payment roof while 19% of women are. This raises serious concerns regarding gender equality, both in terms of participation in the labour market as well as in providing opportunity for equal sharing of parental responsibilities and assuring equal access for children to both parents. This constitutes a great leap backwards in the progress made towards greater equality between men and women since the fundamental amendments were made to the relevant Act in 2000.34 This is moreover a step backwards in the fight against the gender pay gap in Iceland and is, as such, regrettable. Therefore it is important that the Government revisit the Act and reinstate higher maximum payments as soon as possible in order to further encourage equality between parents.
61. In the light of the foregoing, ICEHR encourages the Government to plan and/or set specific time frames for reversing this regrettable development, by means of reinstating a roof on the CLF’s maximum payments that conforms to the Act rather than contravenes it.
62. ICEHR welcomes the amendments to the Act on Foreigners no. 96/2002, which removed the requirement that the foreign spouse be at least 24 years old to be eligible for residence permits based on marriage. However, the Centre finds the new paragraph, stipulating an investigation of all married couples, falling under the Act on Foreigners, if the foreign spouse is 24 years of age or younger, to be overly onerous, raising questions in relation to discrimination, the right to marriage and respect for private and family life. The provision also stipulates that if there is reason to believe that a marriage has been entered into for the sole purpose of obtaining a residence permit and it is not conclusively demonstrated that this is not the case, a family reunification permit will not be issued. The same applies if there is reason to believe that the marriage has not been entered into with the consent of both spouses. The Act does not clarify what these ‘reasons’ could be or how it is ‘conclusively demonstrated’ that the marriage is not one of convenience. An investigation should only take place if there is reason to believe that both partners have not entered into marriage willingly.
63. It is of concern that not enough resources have been alotted to the child welfare and protection services. Fewer employees with greater caseloads has been common practice in social services over the years and although service providers work in a responsible and conscientious manner, in the end they are only human. Therefore something is likely to go wrong and that is not acceptable when the welfare of children is at stake.
64. There has been a steady rise in the number of cases reported to the child welfare authorities since 2005 with an exception of 2008 when the numbers fell. However, there does not seem to be any indication that the rise in 2009 was attributable to economic difficulties or the increase in unemployment following the economic crisis. It rather seemed that people were more alert to childrens‘ circumstances and prone to err on the side of caution. This does not mean that the economic crisis will not have any effect in the future as was the case in Finland after the economic crisis there. In Finland the effects of the economic difficulties did not appear until 5-7 years after the crisis. The effects were in the form of an increase in the number of children needing assistance from child welfare authorities.35 This year, there has already been an increase in reported cases of neglect so it is evident that the Government must be alert and ready with solutions and measures to assist these children and their parents.36 It is also the opinion of many child protection staff members that many cases are more complicated, serious and difficult than before.
65. Domestic violence is a serious concern in Iceland and by nature and social structure not a very visible problem. There still exists a culture of silencing and considering domestic violence to be a private matter, even if there has been considerable progress in later years through awareness raising as well as more open debate. In the case of children living in violent conditions, the police protocol on reporting only applies to those who are being physically abused and does not apply to a children witnessing such abuse. The interests of the adult are placed before the interests of the child, which not only violates the Convention on the Rights of the Child but also goes against the general consensus among professionals that domestic violence has an adverse affect on a child who witnesses it, regardless of whether they suffer any physical abuse. These findings are in accordance with Save the Children Iceland research on children witnessesing domestic violence (Pub. Feb. 2011). On this basis, it is of great importance that those working with children have sufficient knowledge so as to be able handle these situations. IECHR recommends that the Icelandic Government secure adequate education and training for all professionals working with children that include compulsory curricula on dealing with children in crises.
66. According to a child protection agency staff member there are about 200 cases annually where suspicion of a sexual abuse of children is reported to child protection services. Sexual abuse is confirmed in approximately half of the cases. This is a relatively higher number of cases than in neighbouring countries. It is not to be concluded from these figures that sexual abuse of children in Iceland is more common than elsewhere, there is no indication of that, but rather that Icelandic society is more aware of and sensitive towards the problem.37 Of the 100 cases reported to child protection agencies, very few lead to prosecution and even fewer to conviction.
67. ICEHR is concerned that the Government, regarding sexual abuse of children, coordinates no preventive measures. The preventive measures are limited to non-governmental organisations usually with limited or no support from the Government. While there is precedence when it comes to drug, alcohol and smoking prevention education and campaigns, this is not the case with sexual abuse prevention.
68. In 2010 the Act on Artificial Insemination no. 55/1996 was amended as to permit single women with fertility problems to utilize donor eggs as well as donor sperm for purposes of artificial insemination. This amendment moreover applies to couples where both individuals have fertility problems, regardless of their sexuality. The Act thus promotes greater equality among individuals living with impaired fertility, now permitting women not only to get donor eggs but donor sperm as well, but before the Act was amended women were only permitted to undergo artificial insemination by donor sperm. ICEHR is therefore content with these changes as they conform to the fundamental principle of equality enshrined both in the Constitution and various international conventions that Iceland is party to.
69. Current laws in Iceland automatically prescribe a woman giving birth to a child as its mother. Accordingly, law does not permit surrogacy. Recently, the Parliament assigned to the Minister of Welfare to convene a working group with the task of drafting a bill on altruistic surrogacy, keeping in mind at all times the best interests of the child as stipulated in article 3 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This topic has been subject to a hot debate in Iceland where society seems to be split in two groups of opposing views. Many have claimed it to be unethical to permit a woman to waive her right to the liberty of her own body by undergoing contractual obligations of surrogacy, as protected by articles 71 of the Icelandic Constitution, 3 of the UDHR and 8 ECHR. Also, many questions arise as to the rights of the child born by means of surrogacy. It has also been pointed out that permitting surrogacy would be problematic when it comes to the undisputable right of the child to know both parents, as enshrined in article 7 of the CRC.
70. In light of the foregoing the Government is encouraged to carefully consider all ethical and legal aspects of permitting surrogacy in light of the child’s best interests. Moreover it is pointed out that very little experience has been gained worldwide on the implementation of surrogacy, which is prohibited in most European countries and all Nordic countries.