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July 21, 2011

The World's Best Country for Women

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The timing of the couple's second baby works well: "Our allotted leave for Melvin will finish just before the new baby is born. After, Anna and I will swap places again with another round of paid leave," says Henrik. The unmarried couple, who plan to wed "one day," will continue sharing responsibilities. "The system here is great for both sexes. Dads can watch their kids grow up, too," says Henrik.

This principle of equality extends to many other areas of life in Sweden. Women's sports are given as much TV airtime as men's, sometimes with higher ratings — 4 million Swedes watched the 2003 Women's World Cup soccer final. In shopping malls, Sweden's pay-to-pee public toilets are often unisex to minimize those infamously long lines for women's bathrooms (a minus: men still leave the seat up!). One Stockholm nightclub also tried unisex bathrooms, but quickly had to change them after staff discovered amorous couples getting hot-and-heavy in locked stalls. Then there are innovations such as the world's first "female-friendly car," unveiled in 2004 by Swedish auto giant Volvo. Created by an all-female lead team, the car is packed with woman-specific features: seats that auto-adjust to a female body shape, a special groove in the headrest for ponytails, and a high-heel rest near the foot pedals.

But for all the benefits, how sweet are Swedish women's lives, really? A glaring inequality persists in the wage gap — women earn 83 percent of the average male salary. And Amnesty International recently criticized Sweden for not doing enough to tackle domestic violence and discrimination against ethnic minorities.

Some Swedish feminists have even more complaints. A new female-run political party, Feminist Initiative, was launched in 2005 on such platforms as abolishing marriage laws — thereby granting any two (or three, or four!) people cohabiting the same rights as a husband and wife — and legally requiring fathers to take as much time off for child care as mothers. While the party was initially touted as "the way for women's future," its support plummeted after its convention several months ago, during which members sang a rowdy song about "chopping men to bits."

So is Sweden the ultimate sisterhood heaven? The verdict, of course, depends on your point of view: Japanese women live longer, American women earn higher salaries, Greek women have lower rates of breast cancer, and according to one poll, Italian men are better kissers. Overall, though, Swedish women seem happy with their lot. "I've traveled to many countries," says magazine editor Ebba. "But life in Sweden is truly special for women. There's nowhere else I'd rather live."


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