Visegrad Insight sat down with Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir director of OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iceland for a conversation about female leadership in diplomacy and security. In the early years of her political career, in 1982, Ms Gísladóttir was one of the founders of the Women’s Party, laying the ground for Iceland’s remarkable progress in gender equality. Magda Jakubowska interviews her as part of a series #WomenAreNATO.

Regarding your work at ODIHR, why is women’s engagement so essential? Are there any notable threats for women’s engagement which, if they are not overcome, could result in dire consequences?

Women’s engagement is vital for every society as they make up more than 50% of the population. Therefore, if you really want to have an inclusive society, a society where decisions are reflecting the realities of the population as a whole, then you have to have women included. How on earth should men be able to make decisions on the issues that are affecting half of the population without having their experience?

Men and women are different: they have different realities, different experiences. For this reason, it is vitally important that women participate in decision-making at all levels of society, so that our communities become more inclusive and reflect better the reality of the people that are living in them.

I have been working on this since I was 20, so for more than forty years now, because I sincerely believe that the ideas of gender equality will make our societies more prosperous, more equal and peaceful.

In some countries, women are quite well represented. Take, as an example, the Nordic countries where women are in politics, government (over 40%) and in leading positions at large companies (up to 50%).

But then you have other countries, where political participation is very low. I think on average in the OSCE region, female members of parliaments are only around 28% although this is an improvement (it was 15% in 2000).

But this is the average, so that statistic includes countries with 40%. In some countries, it is as low as 10%, and that is even within the European Union. For example, only 12% of parliamentarians in Hungary are women, which is very low.

Photo credit: OSCE/ODIHR

Consider my country [editor: Iceland], which is ranked number one when it comes to gender equality and has been so for several years. Yet, it was not like this at all when compared to 30 years ago; then, women experienced the same hindrances as in other countries.

There are several reasons for the lack of women in politics, but unfortunately, the main problem is often the political parties themselves as they are the gatekeepers to the political scene. They control who is allowed to pass through these gates and become a representative, who is allowed to be on the party lists or be a candidate for desirable seats.

There are many very traditional political parties, which are quite conservative in terms of women’s political participation.

And what about your experience? As you have made a phenomenal career establishing the Women’s Party and holding high-profile positions in Iceland’s government.

When we started in 1982, women were 6% of the parliament. Women were not well represented, and the political programmes of the parties did not reflect women’s reality at all.

That was the moment when we thought “Enough is enough! Let’s do something about this!” We decided to stop knocking on all the party doors and begging them to add women to their lists or to reflect the interests of women in their political programmes. We had been doing that for years with no results. That is why we decided to run for Parliament and compete against them.

The reaction from our opponents was mixed. Some felt quite angry, seeing us as traitors to the political parties because some of the women left their parties and moved to the Women’s Party.

But there were positive reactions as well: the media were very interested in what we were doing as well as both male and female citizens who were very receptive to our message allowing us to receive 10% of the vote during the first election we took part in. Overnight, the percentage of women in the Icelandic parliament went from 5% to 15%.

After that, the parties started to put women in better seats on the lists, and they started to have political programmes that included parental policies, maternity leave, the pay gap etc.

Photo credit: OSCE/ODIHR

After that, you were more engaged in local politics. How can local authorities have an influence on gender politics?

Yes, this was in 1982 when our party ran for the city council and for parliament in 1983. I became a member of the city council for the women’s list first in 1982. In 1991, I was elected to parliament also from the Women’s Party list, returning to local politics in 1994 when I became a mayor.

Local authorities in Iceland are very important because they provide services to families with small children as well as the elderly, etc.

Let me give one good example: ask yourself who is responsible for unpaid care work in the families? Women. This affects their ability to participate in the labour market and in politics. For example, a woman might want to participate in politics, but there is no one to take care of her ageing parents, so her choices are limited.

It is very important that the municipalities provide such services, and they have to be affordable and of good quality, but if only women are responsible for work as caregivers, then it will really affect their opportunities to participate in the decision-making processes. This was a major issue I dealt with when I was mayor of Reykjavik.

You have also served as the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iceland. Was it difficult to be equal at the meetings surrounded by male representatives?

I was quite young when I got engaged in politics since I became a member of the city council at the age of 28. Then, I continued to work as mayor, and also became a member of parliament. I have been working at different levels – and I have almost always been surrounded by men. There is nothing new for me in working in a male environment.

Sometimes, I felt that every time the topic of women’s issues was raised, there was less interest in discussing those topics in comparison to others.

Have you ever had the feeling of being detached from the group, being not equally engaged while discussing the army, military or peace-keeping topics?

It is fine as long as you are sticking to the traditional political agenda of the meeting. But let’s not forget that politics were made by men for men, and we cannot just come in and start playing according to their rules.

If we do that, I am afraid we will not win this competition. We have to push and try to change the topics and rules that apply in the political game.

Our aim must be to make politics and the whole environment better for women to work and live in.

Regarding your question, if you are talking about foreign policy or security issues, you have to also think about how these issues can affect women and men in different ways, and what different roles women and men can play in peace or reconciliation processes. Their different perspectives can offer helpful insights.

But in security, women’s interests should be much more represented because women and children are the biggest victims of war and conflicts.

Of course, it is very important to look at it from that perspective.

Look at peace negotiations, and who are the negotiators? Men, of course. Who are the ones that sign the peace agreements? Men, again. Who are the ones responsible for implementing that? Men!

Unfortunately, this is common for many states in the world. The higher in the hierarchy you get – the less women you have.

There has been some research done about peace agreements and women’s participation in peace processes. It found that if women are included in a peace negotiation, it is 60% more likely to succeed.

They even counted the number of words mentioning women in the agreements. For example, can you imagine how many times women were mentioned in the Dayton Agreement for peace in Bosnia in 1995?

Very few I suppose…

Zero. Can you imagine? In Bosnia where the rape of women was used as a weapon. Then, in Kosovo (1999) – 3% of the whole agreement text refers to women. In comparison, the Good Friday Agreement increased the references to 10% and even included two female negotiators.

Photo credit: OSCE/ODIHR

Women have to participate in decision-making at all levels. They will better reflect the reality of women as it is. That is why it is important to have women as a part of peace agreements or agreements on the labour market – everywhere.

The whole political environment is not attractive to women. Nowadays, it is a harsh culture and here women should think about how to change this.

Apart from the lack of women in public life, what are the other consequences of women’s underrepresentation?

It is important for women to be economically independent. If you want women to be politically active and participate in the decision-making process, women need to be self-sufficient and empowered.

They should be able to participate in the economic sector or the political – and if women are empowered it is more likely that violence against women can be addressed in an effective manner. It all goes hand-in-hand. Women should be active at all levels and supported by governments.

Even though women have the same skills as men, there is still a pay gap in our countries. How should we explain that?

There are two topics that are the most difficult for every country to deal with.

First of all, it is the pay gap. Even if you have great equality in a society, the pay gap is very difficult to bridge. It is an old legacy. Women entered the labour market not that long ago, so it takes some time for the market to realise that women are there and that they contribute to the economy at the same level as men do. I think it is moving in the right direction but it takes time.

The second topic is violence against women. That is something we have in all societies, even those where you have general equality. What we are seeing increasingly now is violence against women in politics; especially, online attacks (hate speech, etc). The language that is directed against them is really hateful and threatening, targeting them specifically because of their gender. Even though women are not being attacked physically, it still really affects them.

Is ODIHR engaged in some campaigns on hate speech?

We do work a lot on the topic of hate crimes in the participating states. We do not only work on hate crimes which are based on prejudices against women, but also on anti-Semitism and discrimination against the Roma, Muslims or any affected minorities. Hate speech and hate crimes are something we are working on.

To what extent is education an important aspect of ODIHR’s work?

ODIHR does a lot of training. We can, for example, educate women on how politics and political parties work as well as train them on how to campaign and network.

We also work with women’s movements. For instance, we have helped to organise large movements in Poland – the Kongres Kobiet which was last summer in Lodz as well as a similar initiative in Minsk. Bringing together all these women allows for self-empowerment and creates a network of support.

We also work with women in parliaments – bringing together women of different political parties to discuss what they can do to support gender equality. So, we use our convening power to bring together different stakeholders. Then, it is up to them to make the changes they think are needed.

I remember you have held a huge congress for women in Ukraine, which was probably the first event of this kind in the country. Is it going to be an annual event? What were the aims you wanted to achieve?

Yes, the congress took place in Kyiv, and we provided a lot of support to that event. We are not pushing them on these issues – only supporting their initiatives to organise themselves. We hope to see development there.

Earlier, you mentioned Hungary, and I am sure Poland and Ukraine could also be mentioned here regarding the sense of inequality. What challenges are Central European Countries facing?

One of the problems in Central Europe is that governments are not actively supporting women’s participation in the labour market by providing the necessary services to their families. There is also a tendency to make access to funding for women’s organisations more difficult which affects the ability of organisations and programmes to work.

Photo credit: OSCE/Micky Kroell

Another tendency in the attempt to put restrictions on women’s reproductive rights. In some countries, there is also an inclination to regard violence against women as a personal problem but not as a criminal issue. Unfortunately, we are now on a slippery slope in these respects that can lead to the rolling back of women’s rights.

We know that the birth rate in Hungary is really low. The situation is dramatic. Following that, what can we say about the Hungarian policy announced by Viktor Orbán about huge tax benefits for women raising more than four children? How should this be interpreted?

This is not only about Hungary but any country where governments choose to pay some benefits to women for raising children. That is one way to support families, but they should also give women a choice to live the lives they want. Women should be able to choose to have a career and to raise a child. They should not be directed into one channel that the government decides is beneficial for women.

To what extent can all the challenges of today – international threats and problems that we have in everyday life – be overcome if women are not engaged? For example, in terms of hate speech, disinformation, freedom of the media?

I think politics are becoming much more nationalistic, much more polarised, with a lot of animosity between political rivals which makes politics less appealing to many women.

It is very concerning if this development continues.. So, I hope that the politics of inclusion, of co-operation are something that we can strengthen. Then I think it will not only be better for women but for everybody. The other kind of politics is only for small groups of men that can feel comfortable in this kind of battle atmosphere, and this excludes lots of people and not only women.

After all these years of your career as a well-known politician, minister, mayor, what advice would you give to young women?

I would tell them to participate in politics because it is an interesting learning process. It is a privilege to participate in politics and be elected to represent other people. You do not have to do it for long but definitely try it. Get this experience! It will only be useful.

So, I encourage women to engage – although sometimes it can be quite difficult. It is not an easy thing – but it is very rewarding.


Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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