A Norwegian ombudsman on gender equality says utilizing the power of women is “the key to the development of a modern society.”

“A modern society cannot function without taking in women’s power,” Kristin Mile, deputy to Norway’s Gender Equality Ombudsman, said in an interview during a recent visit to Japan at the invitation of the House of Councilors and civic groups.

She said giving women more freedom to choose jobs as well as creating conditions that make it easier for them to combine working and child-rearing would halt the slide in Japan’s birthrate.

The average number of babies to which a Norwegian woman gives birth during her lifetime was 1.9 in 1999, compared with 1.38 for Japanese women, Mile said.

But a couple of decades ago, the situation in Norway was similar to that in Japan.

Mile, 44, said less than 20 percent of women in Norway had jobs in the 1960s, a rate lower than in other European countries at the time.

Following pressure from feminist and other social reform movements in the 1970s, Norway adopted the Equal Status Act in 1979, which stipulates equal status between men and women and gives equal opportunities to both sexes in the fields of education, employment and culture.

The Gender Equality Ombudsman was set up at the same time to serve as a national watchdog making sure that the act penetrates into every level of society.

After the Quota System — which stipulates that neither sex should account for less than 40 percent of the membership of public committees was introduced by law in the 1980s, many more women began participating in decision-making in various fields, she said.

In addition, most of Norway’s major political parties adopted a similar system, bringing many more women into politics.

Currently, women hold 59 seats in the 165-seat Parliament, accounting for about 36.4 percent of all members, compared with 8.9 percent in Japan. Eight of the 19-member Cabinet are women, compared with only one woman in Japan’s 19-member Cabinet, she said.

Mile says she feels Japanese society is currently going through a great transformation in the field of gender equality.

“I believe there is no society in which women never can make their way out of their traditional roles. In the near future, I think Japan will become an equal society for men and women,” Mile told a seminar hosted by the Norwegian Embassy and Women’s Solidarity Foundation, a Japanese civic group.

“The change may take some years, but there is no reason why Japan cannot change. Japanese people should keep trying harder and longer,” she said in the interview with Kyodo News.

The signing and ratification of international conventions on equal rights will be key, Mile said, adding, “The international society will be watching, once a country makes a vow in front of international society.”

She also said equal rights is not merely an issue between the sexes, but a matter of democratic principle.

In establishing a fair and equitable society, one should not allow a society in which one sex is treated well and the other is discriminated against, she said.

Despite its reputation for gender equality, Norway still has problems to solve, Mile said.

Educating the younger generation about gender equality is one area as younger people tend to take the issue for granted.

“Our organization must keep reminding people of our policies to be sensitive on gender issues because they may take discriminatory actions unconsciously if they become blind to discrimination still embedded in society,” Mile said.