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Gender equality leader Iceland criticised over sexual abuse statistics

Iceland's reputation as a world leader on gender equality has been tarnished by alarming figures for sexual assaults including rape.

The World Economic Forum has ranked Iceland as having the world's smallest gender-equality gap for nine years in a row.

It has a female prime minister and some of the world's strongest laws on workplace equality and equal pay.

It also has one of Europe's highest per-capita levels of reported rapes, according to statistics agency Eurostat, although legal definitions differ from country to country, complicating comparisons.

A 2010 University of Iceland study found that 30% of Icelandic women aged 18 to 80 reported having been physically attacked by a man at least once, including 13% who reported suffering rape or attempted rape.

Gender studies professor Gyda Margret Petursdottir, asked how the Nordic island nation became such a paradise for women, replied: "It isn't."

Ms Petursdottir said the "myth" that Iceland's record on gender equality makes it a safe haven for women is a distraction from the steps needed to fight systematic abuse.

"Men need to find ways to change their ideas about masculinity," Ms Petursdottir said.

"That's the biggest challenge now."

The sexual misconduct allegations against powerful men in Hollywood, politics and beyond have reached the volcanic island below the Arctic Circle.

Hundreds of women in Icelandic politics, entertainment and academia recently signed a pledge against sexual harassment and urged male colleagues to change their behaviour.

More than 40% of politicians in Iceland's parliament, the Althingi, are women.

Last month left-wing leader Katrin Jakobsdottir became prime minister in a coalition government, Iceland's second female leader in the last decade.

Her appointment is another point on the Global Gender Gap index for a country regarded as a champion of gender equality.

The index measures life expectancy, educational opportunities, political representation, equal pay and other factors but not gender-based violence.

Iceland may be far from perfect, but its politicians have taken gender equality seriously.

Icelandic law requires private companies to have at least 40% women on their boards and offers men parental leave equal to women.

Starting next year, the Equal Pay Law will audit companies to prove that they are paying men and women the same for comparable work.

There are indications of a change in social attitudes and an unwillingness to turn a blind eye toward sexual harassment.

Iceland's capital, Reykjavik, has a vibrant nightlife scene, and dozens of bars and clubs have tried to create a safer atmosphere by putting up posters urging guests to notify staff if they feel harassed.

Activist Helga Lind Mar said the scene has changed noticeably from a few years ago.

"We still have creeps," she said, sitting by Reykjavik's bar- and-restaurant-lined Laugavegur Street, famous for its long party nights.

"But they are more afraid to be called out on their behaviour."

AP

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