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Historisk arkiv

The greatest of all is love - on Norwegian family an equality policy

Historisk arkiv

Publisert under: Regjeringen Stoltenberg II

Utgiver: Barne- og likestillingsdepartementet

by State Secretary Kjell Erik Øie

The family deserves to be celebrated, primarily because it concerns so many of us. The family has been important throughout the ages and in all societies, and it continues to be so. Family patterns have changed, and there is greater diversity in family life.

State Secretary Kjell Erik Øie, Ministry of Children and Equality

The greatest of all is love – on Norwegian family and equality policy

Celebration of the International Day of the Family

Barcelona15 May 2006– Ministry of Welfare and Family Affairs at the Catalan GeneralitatPalaude la Generalitat

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Minister, delegates…

I was delighted to receive your invitation and to have this opportunity to tell a Spanish audience about some areas of Norwegian family and equality policy on the International Day of the Family. I have rarely spoken on family policy on a more appropriate day!

The family deserves to be celebrated, primarily because it concerns so many of us. The family has been important throughout the ages and in all societies, and it continues to be so. Family patterns have changed, and there is greater diversity in family life.

The family does not only consist of a man and a woman who reproduce and bring up new generations together. In addition to the standard family with mother, father and children, where the parents are either married or living together, many children grow up in single parent families with either the father or the mother as their main carer, or in newly formed family constellations with a stepfather or stepmother and half brothers and sisters, or they grow up with lesbian or homosexual parents. Children may often experience several of these constellations in the course of their childhood. Many people also live alone, either by choice, because they have not found the right partner or because their partner has died. The latter particularly applies to older women because, on average, men do not live as long as women. The extended family is valuable. It includes grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other adults who may be important in a child’s life. In most cultures, contact between grandparents and grandchildren is an important element of children’s upbringing and socialisation, and grandparents can help to give children security and wisdom, experience and values. An “extended” family can provide good support and assistance and bring joy to both children and adults in a hectic everyday life when both parents are working outside the home.

The International Day of the Family is a follow-up to the UN’s International Year of the Family in 1994. The UN’s decision to arrange a Year of the Family was based on the recognition that the family is the fundamental unit in society and that it therefore deserves special attention, protection and support. The main principles stated that the year was to include all families. The UN did not, therefore, define the family and thereby acknowledged the fact that the concept of “the family” changes according to time and place. The goal was for the process to have long-term effects, among other things through the establishment of 15 May as the International Day of the Family.

As some of you may know, Norway’s big family day is in two days’ time. The 17th of May is Norway’s Constitution Day. For us, this day has become the great spring festival after a long, cold winter. The 17th of May is also a children’s festival, and in many families several generations celebrate it together. The children’s procession has become the colourful focus of the celebrations, from the outermost islands to the capital, where tens of thousands of schoolchildren file past the Palace behind their brass bands and banners to greet the King.

The family provides unique intimacy and it entails duty and responsibility. The family represents the most binding and closest ties between human beings. The family is the future – without the family, society would lose the place where people have these very special roots and obligations to each other. The family contains the seed of society’s existence or extinction, because it is here children are born and brought up. Modern human beings need to utilise their resources, personal qualities, education and skills, regardless of gender. This means that both women and men must be able to participate in family life, working life and social life – in other words, equality.

Everyone knows that everyday life can be tough, so it is important that the conditions in which love is to be lived are good. This concerns the financial situation of parents with young children, it concerns finding enough time in a twenty-four hour day for work, children and each other. Not everyone wants to be married. Cohabiting partners must have a secure legal framework for their relationship, especially when they have children. The right to a good framework also applies to lesbians and homosexuals who live together. When Norway passed the Partnership Act in 1993 it was a milestone in social acceptance of homosexual and lesbian cohabitation. The law legitimised and focused attention on homosexual love. However, registered partners may not adopt children and same-sex couples may not marry in church. From the time the Partnership Act was introduced until the present day, 1808 partnerships have been registered in Norway. Modern society has a responsibility to promote acceptance, to provide legal security and equal rights for same-sex love. In this area, Spain has been a model and has gone even further than Norway with its gender-neutral Marriage Act. I have just spent some very instructive days in Madrid and been impressed and inspired by this Act. Norway wishes to introduce amendments to its Marriage Act which will permit marriage between two same-sex partners, giving them the same rights as in a marriage between two heterosexual partners. The Government formulated this goal in its Government Declaration, as part of its vision to ensure the rights of homosexuals and lesbians, help homosexuals and lesbians to live openly, and actively combat discrimination.

I want to put down the myth that marriage is the fundamental norm for relationship, and that same-sex marriage will weaken its position in society! I believe that same-sex marriage will strengthen the marriage and that more people want to enter into marriage can be nothing but an advantage for the institution “family”.

In a speech on family and equality policy, I am bound to start by addressing the concern felt in many European countries, including Spain, about the demographic situation and its consequences for working life. This issue has been high on the EU agenda for several years. The population is growing older. Too few children are being born. We have too few people of working age. To put it very simply, the proportion of the population that is employed is too small. A lack of manpower will be a serious problem.

Europe faces two main challenges in the years ahead. The first is to ensure that more children are born. The second is to ensure that more people work and that more people work longer. The solution to these challenges lies in viewing family and equality policy in close conjunction with labour market policy. We must both increase the birth rate and achieve an inclusive working life.

Surveys carried out in many European countries have shown that there is a connection between higher female employment rates and higher fertility rates. Ensuring a higher proportion of women in working life does not conflict with but, on the contrary, supports the desire for more children.

In Norwegian politics, the family is perhaps the unit in the welfare state that has been the subject of most reforms in recent years. These reforms have probably made a significant contribution to three important Norwegian characteristics.

Firstly: Norway is in a fairly good position compared with many other countries in terms of fertility. Our fertility rate is 1.84 children per woman (2005) while the EU average is 1.48 (2003) 1Spain has a lower fertility rate than the EU average (1.29 in 2003).. Secondly: Norway tops the list in Europe for female employment, with 75 per cent of women at work (2004) compared with 55 per cent for the EU countries (EU-25 in 2002, latest figures) 2The figure for Spain is even lower than the EU average in EU-25 (approximately 45 per cent).. Thirdly: Norwegian men are increasingly involved in child care, although still far less than women.

Norway has good public arrangements for families with small children, which have been introduced precisely to make it possible to combine work with child care. These arrangements have been developed over many years and have provided the basis for increased female employment. They have probably influenced the fertility rate and resulted in men taking greater responsibility for child care now than they have ever done before.

We have a long period of paid parental leave. It is currently 53 weeks with 80 per cent salary or 43 weeks with a full salary. In addition to this, each parent is also entitled to one year’s unpaid parental leave. This reform has a clear gender equality profile. If parents want to be at home until the child reaches the age of three, the father has to take his share.

Each parent can be at home on paid leave for ten days per year if a child (up to the age of 12) or a child carer is ill. They are entitled to flexible working hours and reduced working hours.

Substantial resources have been invested in the development of day care centres. Day care centres are both a good educational service and a good care service for children, and a key to the labour market participation of parents with small children. 72 per cent of children aged 1-5 have a place in a day care centre. The Government gives high priority to providing full day care coverage. The central government covers 80 per cent of the costs, while the rest are covered by the municipality and parents’ fees. Organised after-school activities come in addition to this.

In 1993 Norway introduced a special father’s quota in connection with parental leave. The father’s quota is a means of persuading fathers to share more in child care and of increasing equality between parents. Earmarking part of the parental leave is universally acknowledged to be a good means of making fathers take part in child care. They have five weeks now, and will have six weeks from 1 July this year. With its element of mild coercion, the father’s quota has relieved fathers of the need to negotiate individually with their employers. It is a right that focuses on the obligations of the male employee as a father.

Today, nine out of ten fathers who are entitled to the father’s quota utilise this right. One important goal of the father’s quota was for it to lead to fathers gradually taking a larger part of the parental leave as well. This has not happened to the extent that was anticipated. Approximately 18 per cent of fathers who take the father’s quota take longer leave. The longer the period of leave fathers take, the more care they provide – and the more housework they do as well.

The National Insurance Scheme, which funds paid leave for parents, is financed by contributions from employees, self-employed persons and other members, employers’ contributions and contributions from the State. Contribution rates and state grants are decided by the Parliament.

The conditions for love, measured in terms of divorce and separation rates, give grounds for concern. Last year the divorce rate was the highest ever registered, with 12.6 divorcees per 1,000 married persons. Partnership break-ups are not included in these figures. Each year, more than 11,000 children experience the divorce of their parents. These figures do not include the children of cohabiting parents, who are not covered by the official statistics. The children of cohabiting parents are more than three times as likely to experience a break-up of their parents’ partnership as the children of married parents. This means that a significant number of children experience the end of love between their parents each year. People who live in registered partnerships divorce more often than married couples.

Society should support good, lasting partnerships because they have a fundamental impact on the conditions in which children grow up. Certain measures have been implemented over a number of years aimed at preventing the break-up of marriages and partnerships.

The most recent measure is called “Getting on well as parents”. Norway is the first country in the world to offer free courses to first-time parents (since 2005). The purpose is to provide inspiration and support for new parents, enabling them to become better at dealing with relational problems and improve the quality of their life together. Preventive measures at this phase of life may help to strengthen family life in general and reduce the number of broken marriages and partnerships. The course is free of charge. In 2005 this scheme covered almost 200 municipalities. The course has received good feedback from both men and women. In May this year, courses will be offered for the first time to lesbian and homosexual couples who have children together, or who have children from previous relationships.

The assistance offered in connection with family conflicts or problems between couples is based in the Family Counselling Service. This service consists of 63 family counselling agencies all over the country. The agencies help to resolve marital conflicts and prevent divorce and the break-up of partnerships. They also offer advice and therapy when a relationship breaks up. The Government aims to strengthen the competence of the Family Counselling Service relating to lesbians and homosexuals. At some agencies, measures and projects have been implemented that are specifically designed for lesbian and homosexual couples. Some of them are methodology development projects to improve expertise relating to homosexual and lesbian couples. The offices also offer therapeutic services, such as partnership courses, for same-sex couples.

When a decision has been made to split up, the partners are still parents with the associated responsibilities. Having a child is a life-long project. Responsible, binding parenthood applies to both sexes; it means that both mother and father are important carers for the child, even when they do not live together.

The great challenge when a marriage or partnership breaks up is to make good arrangements for the children. In modern society, both parents often want custody of the children after the break-up. Children are very important in both their mother’s and their father’s lives. We should be pleased about this. The alternative would have been worse – that no-one wants to look after them. In my view, it is a good thing that fathers are making their views heard on this important issue. It is important to discuss gender roles, equality, and the role of both father and mother in relation to the child.

One means of resolving conflicts is that all parents who split up have a duty to attend a mediation session. Since 1993, all Norwegian couples with children of their relationship under the age of 16 who wish to separate or divorce have a duty to attend a mediation session and enter into agreements on parental responsibility, where the child is to live permanently and visiting rights. Parents who wish to bring legal action regarding their children must also attend a mediation session before they can file a case. From 2007, cohabiting partners must also attend a mediation session when their partnership breaks down. This will help parents to reach agreements concerning the children and prevent conflicts from developing.

Until this year, only married parents had the automatic right to parental responsibility. From this year, cohabiting parents will also have joint parental responsibility for their common children. This is important because it strengthens the legal ties between father and child in cohabiting families, and it is an important element in binding parenthood.

Family and equality policy has to do with dividing power and influence between women and men. The most important guideline in the development of family and equality policy has been that women and men must be able to participate on equal terms in society and in family life.

In Norway, 43 per cent of employed women work part-time. Men work full time, and many of them work a great deal of overtime. This means that we are a long way from full equality on the labour market, in the division of power and care and in terms of income and promotion.

It is impossible to exploit the workforce potential represented by women unless men take their share of child care. Workplaces must notice than men are parents! We will therefore continue to make efforts to improve fathers’ rights, both in terms of parental leave and in terms of strengthening the legal ties between father and child.

Equal parenthood is the key to equality at work. Equality at work, where both women and men take part in the labour force and contribute their expertise, experience and skills is, in turn, the key to increased productivity and economic growth. These are not just fine words; they are harsh realities that we must accept.

Equality is profitable! It is an important part of the explanation of the good economic performance of the Nordic region. This is stated in the report “The Nordic Region as a Global Winner”, commissioned by the Nordic Council of Ministers.

We must also find out why women earn less than men. An equal pay commission is to be established, which will have a broad mandate. It will, among other things, discuss various reasons for pay differences between women and men, including the effects of the gender-segregated labour market and the full-time/part-time issue as a dimension in unequal pay. The commission will also consider possible measures to reduce pay differences between women and men.

If we look at business and industry and the people in charge of substantial financial resources and technology, we find very few women in senior posts or positions of power. We have taken a radical step. We are the first and so far the only country in the world to have an Act on gender representation on the boards of public limited companies (from 1 January 2006).

Figures from 2006 show that 17.8 of the members of boards of directors of public limited companies are women, while 43.8 per cent of public limited companies have no women on their boards of directors.

The absence of women is primarily a problem for business and industry. It is important for the private sector development we need and the basis for our economic growth. The balance of power still benefits men – among other things because men in leading positions have a tendency to recruit other men to similar positions.

From the time the Bill was presented to Parliament in spring 2003 until the present day, the proportion of women on boards of directors has more than doubled. I am convinced that this would not have happened without the new Act.

In conclusion, I should like to outline two perspectives for the future that will hopefully support love of all kinds. The first is the importance of ensuring that men share more in child care. Investing in the man has proved to be very valuable in Norway. Many fathers are at home with their children, taking responsibility and providing care. The Norwegian equality policy needs to be revitalized. In Norway, as in other countries, men’s roles as fathers are one of the areas where we have seen a major degree of changes in the last years. It is with respect to fatherhood that men divert today most explicitly from traditional forms of masculinity. Through the experience from caring for their children, men get the opportunity to expand their repertoire of roles and develop new ways of being a man. In my view therefore, it is very important to support the development of men taking greater responsibility for their children.

The Government will (in the longer term) increase the father’s quota to ten weeks by extending the total period of paid leave. An increase in the father’s quota will be a strong incentive for fathers to take more part in the first year of the child’s life. This may (hopefully), in the longer term, promote somewhat more equal distribution of care responsibilities and more equal distribution of paid work and unpaid care between women and men.

To support the changing roles of men, we are now planning a White Paper on men and equality. The White Paper will focus on men’s roles and policies for redistribution of power and care with a view to enhancing gender equality and a richer life for all of us.

The second is to improve the conditions for homosexual and lesbian love. Surveys show that young homosexuals are ranked as the least popular among young boys. Homosexuals are harassed at work by being excluded from the community or subjected to degrading or humiliating language. Discrimination, a lack of openness and poor social support are a health risk for lesbian and homosexual employees. In Norway, discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation is a punishable offence under both civil and criminal law. The Working Environment Act prohibits discrimination and harassment on the grounds of sexual orientation in working life. This prohibition concerns all aspects of an employment relationship, from job advertisements to issues relating to pay and promotion. The Penal Code contains a special penal provision to protect homosexuals from discrimination.

Enabling lesbians and homosexuals to live their love-life with persons of the same sex without fear of sanction is an important family policy principle. This means taking the extended concept of the family seriously. With these words, I should like to thank you for your attention and give my best wishes for the family in all its forms, and for this special day!

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