Ávarp á Nordic talks

Good morning.

Dear first lady of Iceland, speakers, moderators and guests attending online,

Thank you for the discussion that has taken place here today, and for highlighting the seminal intersection between gender equality and democracy in the digital context. These are important topics, not least in our ever increasingly digitised reality. I have encountered this in my role as the former Minister of Justice, and the current Minister of Higher-education, industry and innovation.

As Minister of Justice, I placed a great emphasis on actions against gender based violence. These included measures to improve the investigation and prosecution of such violations, and proposing a criminal reform to specifically target violations of sexual privacy in the online context. My proposal was enacted into law in February 2021, securing a comprehensive protection of sexual privacy under the Icelandic General Penal Code.

The proposal received broad support across party lines, recognising the importance of the issue. This was further highlighted during the parliamentary process, when the proposal gained support from institutions and NGO´s alike. I am certain the victim-centric approach of the reform played a part in uniting different stakeholders in support for the legislation, as well as its grounding in recognizing harms rather than focusing on perpetrators intent, taking into account the range of manifestations in play.

It is of utmost importance that the law keeps up with social and technological development, as a lagging legal environment can hamper progress, stifle innovation and prove counter-productive to effective protection of individual rights.

As discussed in the first talk of the day, innovation and research based efforts are powerful tools that need to be applied in the interest of improving, not hampering, the justice system. It is important we harness the powers of technology for advancing human rights and civil protection online as well as offline. In this context we must remember that the development of standard setting in the online sphere is not a single issue as we increasingly rely on an online environment for all aspects of life.

Data, statistics and research output can be helpful in mapping out issues that call for responses, as well as underpinning effective measures and actions against gender based violence. During my time in the Ministry of Justice, such projects were rolled out that are still being developed by or in cooperation with the Icelandic Police. I would like to mention two of these here, as both utilise technology to improve victim’s access to the judicial system. The first is the online service portal for victims of sexual violations. After development and successful user tests, the portal has been launched by the Reykjavík Metropolitan Police, allowing victims of sexual violence direct, remote and digital access to the progress and development of their case. This means that victims can monitor when their case moves between stages in the criminal justice system, easing some of the uncertainties that victims have described as a difficult part of seeking justice through the criminal justice system.[1]      

The other is a research project from Reykjavík University, relying on virtual reality to make the process for a sexual abuse victims less daunting. The Virtual Court-rooms are currently in a research phase in a joint venture with the National Commissioner of Police to test the efficiency for victims. First tests show promising results with positive and encouraging feedback.

I believe these are strong examples of how institutions can develop and keep up with societal changes, without compromising fundamental principles that need to be honoured. 

In the second talk, we heard speakers discuss the social and cultural aspects of online gender based abuse, and how this relates to democratic participation. As mentioned by the speakers, research indicates women that actively participate in the public discourse are faced with disproportionate amount of online abuse. As a young woman in politics I have first-hand experience with gendered online abuse directed at female politicians. This can be a challenge, but we must ensure that women of all ages, ethnicities, political stance and similar diversities, are willing and able to take an active part in our democratic discourse. This is not only important from a gendered perspective, but from a democratic perspective, as we need a range of voices and opinions in order to maintain a healthy democratic tradition that we are so proud of in the Nordic region.

In the last year, we have seen a rise in digital forms of sexual violations in Iceland, both child sexual abuse material and violations of sexual privacy. There has been a sharp increase in violations against children, with over 60% of reported victims of sexual abuse cases in Iceland under the age of 18. The cause is unclear. It could be that the recent legal amendment has sparked discussion and raised awareness, it may be the shift in social interactions from the physical to the digital in relation to the Covid-19 restrictions, and it could be caused by something else altogether.[2] What we do know is that this has to be countered.

Myself and the Minister for Education and Children tasked the National Commissioner for Police with a range of measures to respond to increased digital violations against children. This has included a targeted awareness raising campaign among Icelandic teenagers to raise the issue of consent in both sexual and digital context. This has meant that community police officers have visited nearly 1500 students across the country to educate them about the issue. This has been followed up with targeted ad-campaigns on social media platforms that are popular with young people. Further, the national anti-violence website, 112.is, has been updated with a range of resources and information for victims, and perpetrators, of sexual violence.

As indicated by the speaker, online abuse is often a translation of offline abuse and needs to be countered with a range of means. Education and awareness raising are keys in combatting online abuse, but it is also important we uphold and promote gender equality in any form, as that is a pretext for people of all genders to reach their potential.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for the invitation. The discussions today have highlighted the structural and cultural issues aligned with gender equality and protecting sexual privacy in the online context and I hope the insightful presentations we have heard will continue to echo in our continued work towards an equal and democratic online sphere. 

[1] https://www.logreglan.is/thjonustugatt-fyrir-tholendur-kynferdisbrota/

[2] https://www.logreglan.is/16-daga-atak-gegn-kynbundnu-ofbeldi/