The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women today considered the combined fifth and sixth periodic reports of Estonia on its implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
Introducing the reports, Rait Kuuse, Deputy Secretary General on Social Policy, Ministry of Social Affairs of Estonia, said that the Gender Equality Act had been in place since 2004 and that the Equal Treatment Act adopted in 2009 ensured the protection of persons against discrimination on a number of prohibited grounds. Although there was no one single gender equality plan, the Welfare Development Plan 2016-2023 foresaw a variety of activities to tackle gender inequality. A comprehensive Development Strategy for Reducing Violence 2015-2020 laid out concrete activities on reducing and preventing violence in its various forms, including domestic violence, sexual violence, violence against minors, and trafficking in human beings, including prostitution. The ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combatting violence against women and domestic violence was expected in 2017. Estonia had elected its first female President in October 2016, but achieving gender balance in decision-making remained a challenge. A priority issue was reducing the gender pay gap which was still the highest in the European Union and among the highest in the world. To address this, Estonia was amending its legislation to enable the Labour Inspectorate to exercise State supervision over the implementation of the requirement of equal pay for equal work.
Committee Experts commended Estonia for the signing of the Istanbul Convention and the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, but remained concerned about the lack of visibility and application of the Convention by the Estonian courts, the downshifting of anti-discrimination legislation, and that the existing anti-discrimination mechanism was not working very well for gender equality. In the absence of a specific gender equality action plan, Experts wondered about the implementation of the Gender Equality Act, and the monitoring of the progress on national and local governments’ levels. There was a concern about the definition of rape in the legislation and the very low rate of prosecution for domestic violence, with Experts urging the adoption of a separate law on domestic violence and violence against women which would allow the incorporation of a broader definition of violence as mandated by the Istanbul Convention. The huge gender pay gap and limited serious efforts to tackle it remained a serious concern, Experts said and asked how the impact of the pay gap on pensions would be dealt with. Finally, Estonia should consider the adoption of quotas and temporary special measures to balance the very low participation of women in politics and the economy.
In his concluding remarks, Mr. Kuuse said that this dialogue showed the efforts of Estonia to combat and prevent discrimination against women, and the structural challenges in this regard. This was also a great opportunity for Estonia to develop society and policies to tackle better the challenges Experts identified.
Yoko Hayashi, Committee Chairperson, commended Estonia for its efforts and encouraged it to address various recommendations which the Committee would issue with the purpose of the more comprehensive implementation of the Convention throughout the State party.
The delegation of Estonia included representatives of the Ministry of Social Affairs, Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner, Members of the Parliament, and the Permanent Mission of Estonia to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
The next public meeting of the Committee will be on Thursday, 10 November at 10 a.m., to review the sixth periodic report of the Netherlands (CEDAW/C/NLD/6).
The combined fifth and sixth periodic reports of Estonia can be read here: CEDAW/C/EST/5-6.
Presentation of the Reports
RAIT KUUSE, Deputy Secretary General on Social Policy, Ministry of Social Affairs of Estonia, said that the 2004 Gender Equality Act had been amended in 2009 to improve its implementation, while the Gender Equality Council had been established in 2013 as an advisory body to the Government on matters related to strategies for the promotion of gender equality, approving general objectives of gender equality policy and assessing compliance of national programmes with the obligation of gender mainstreaming. The Equal Treatment Act 2009 ensured the protection of persons against discrimination on grounds of nationality (ethnic origin), race, colour, religion or other beliefs, age, disability and sexual orientation. The mandate of the Gender Equality Commissioner had been then expanded and the office had been reorganized as the Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner. Although there was no one single plan for promoting gender equality, the Welfare Development Plan was the main action plan for gender equality and it foresaw a variety of activities to tackle gender inequality. Estonia had started to implement a project in 2013 to increase the availability of statistics on the gender pay gap in order to find the best data sources for monitoring this gap.
Turning to the national gender machinery, Mr. Kuuse said that the previous Gender Equality Bureau had been transformed in 2015 to the Equal Policies Department under the Ministry of Social Affairs. It dealt with gender equality issues, including drafting relevant legislation and policies, raising awareness, coordinating implementation of gender mainstreaming, as well as dealing with issues of domestic violence and prevention of trafficking in women. A comprehensive Development Strategy for Reducing Violence 2015-2020 laid out concrete activities on reducing and preventing violence in its various forms, including domestic violence, sexual violence, violence against minors, and trafficking in human beings, including prostitution. The Victim Support Act had been amended in 2013 to enable victims of trafficking to receive support via the Social Insurance Board, and guidelines for identification and support to victims had been in place since 2009 – they were scheduled for amendment in 2016/17. Prostitution was considered as a form of violence against women and was dealt with as a trafficking-related crime – prevention and support strategies were based on those assumptions, said Mr. Kuuse. A bill criminalizing the purchase of sexual favours had been developed in order to address male demand for prostitution, and it was expected that the Penal Code would be amended accordingly in 2017. Estonia would ratify the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combatting violence against women and domestic violence in 2017.
Estonia had elected its first female President in October 2016, but achieving gender balance in decision-making remained a challenge. One of the focus areas in the Welfare Development Plan 2016-2023 was the balanced participation of women and men at all levels of decision-making in politics, but it was felt that quotas could not be adopted before sufficient awareness in the society was raised. The Estonian labour market featured a high degree of gender segregation and traditional jobs for women and men continued to prevail, as gender stereotypes strongly affected the choice of profession. A priority issue was reducing the gender pay gap which was still the highest in the European Union and among the highest in the world. An amendment to the Gender Equality Act was being prepared to enable the Labour Inspectorate to exercise State supervision over the implementation of the requirement of equal pay for equal work.
Questions from the Experts
A Committee Expert commended Estonia for the signing of the Istanbul Convention and the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, but remained concerned about the lack of visibility and application of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women by the Estonian courts.
There were also concerns about the working together of the Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner and the Chancellor of Justice in the matter of gender inequality complaints. The existing anti-discrimination mechanism was not working very well for gender equality and there had been downsizing of anti-discrimination legislation.
Responses by the Delegation
The delegation said that the signing of the Istanbul Convention was one of key actions which had increased the visibility of domestic violence issues, in addition to new legislation governing shelters for victims of domestic violence, and the discussions in the society on gender-based violence. This was a good basis for the implementation of activities to ensure gender equality and prevent gender-based violence.
The delegation agreed that a broader concept of discrimination would give a broader mandate to investigate and address discrimination which was in many cases intersectional and involved not only gender but also nationality – this was especially true for the Russian minority – and increasingly, age. Intersectionality was a burning issue. The Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner regularly met with the Chancellor of Justice to coordinate action on complaints, both on the basis of gender and for other forms of discrimination.
In follow-up questions, Experts agreed that there was indeed an urgency to address intersectionality in discrimination and stressed that it was important not to lose the gender perspective from the analysis of all forms of gender-based discrimination, otherwise there would be an inadequate understanding of the degree of enjoyment by women of their human rights and the spirit of the Convention. How could the two institutions – the Commissioner and the Chancellor of Justice – ensure access to justice for women, including on matters of discrimination?
Responding, the delegation explained that the reform of the pensions system was currently being discussed, which would include measures to avoid future income gaps between women and men due to differences in earning and contributions today. It was hoped that legislative amendments would soon give the push to fathers to take on more parental responsibilities and would have a positive impact on the labour participation of women. The key issue in Estonia today was how to embed gender equality into the different fields of policy making and how to make it visible through very concrete policies.
The Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner and the Chancellor of Justice had a good spirit of cooperation and were seen by the society as the public voice on gender equality and discrimination issues. More than 70 per cent of the complaints were related to gender issues, and indeed, gender perspective must not be lost from examining discrimination. There was a need to modernize the wording in the Equal Treatment Act explaining how to address the Commissioner, and make it clearer for the public; this was currently being considered.
Anyone who thought he or she was discriminated against could file a complaint either to the Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner or to the Chancellor of Justice, who would then prepare a decision on whether discrimination actually took place. The decision could be then taken to court by the complainant.
Questions from the Experts
A Committee Expert recognized the important advancements made in gender equality matters in Estonia, but the lack of wide knowledge about gender equality objectives by State officials could indicate the lack of political will to tackle gender inequality comprehensively. Taking part in gender equality training was voluntary, and there was no plan of action on gender equality.
What were the measures to implement the Gender Equality Act: the strategy, plan of action, and indicators to measure and monitor progress on national and local levels?
It was the obligation of political parties to increase the participation of women in candidate lists, but very few fulfilled this responsibility. What steps had been taken to familiarise political officials about the diversity of approaches and steps that could be taken as special temporary measures to increase the political representation and participation of women?
What were the intentions to adopt quotas or impose obligations for equal gender representation in management bodies, in sectors where gender inequality was highest, or for vulnerable women such as women with disabilities or women from minorities, for example?
Responses by the Delegation
The delegation said that the Welfare Development Plan 2016-2023 focused on the balanced participation of women and men at all levels of decision-making in politics, and it had its action plan with clear targets and indicators of progress; the action plan was renewed on a yearly basis. The Government was committed in the action plan to address gender inequality. Civil society was very important and there was a need to devise a way of sustainable and substantive funding for key partners working on gender equality issues.
Estonia was combining and reducing a number of development plans and that was why it was difficult to develop a plan for gender equality only. The Gender Mainstreaming Working Group and the Gender Equality Council were funded by the Government, and they could use the money to commission research and to fund their meetings.
The issue of political quotas was very divisive among the political parties, and there was a need to raise awareness, in public and private sectors alike, prior to the adoption of any concrete quota plan.
In their follow-up questions, Committee Experts asked about the plans to adopt quotas or zipper-methods in other sectors and not only political participation, and the position concerning the adoption of gender budgeting.
The delegation said that in 2016 the office of the Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner had been downsized from eleven to five staff, which had caused great difficulties. The budget for 2017 had been nearly doubled and if it could be kept on those levels, the Office would be able to fulfil its goals and also to obtain the Paris Principles accreditation. The Commissioner had prepared a guide for gender budgeting in Estonian, which was not very popular, and this year it focused on implementing gender budgeting in sports, which was very popular in the country, to ensure equal funding for women and men. The hope was that other sectors would follow this positive example.
The issue of quotas in the private sector and in local councils was covered in the Welfare Development Plan 2016-2023, but there was a need for awareness raising first, in the public and private sectors and in the society at large, which still saw quotas as giving unfair advantage to women.
There were real problems with ensuring gender equality in Estonia, in a number of sectors, and there were current financial challenges. The Government was changing and it was hoped that gender equality would get greater prominence in the new political coalition.
Questions from the Experts
A Committee Expert recognized that gender equality was one of the key goals in the curricula, and stressed that gender sensitive training of teachers should not be left to each school but should be made mandatory by the Ministry of Education.
What were the obstacles to adopting a separate law on domestic violence and violence against women? This separate piece of legislation would allow the incorporation of broader ground of violence as mandated by the Istanbul Convention and which were not currently included in the legislation, such as psychological and emotional violence.
There were multiple issues of concern in relation with the definition of rape. Another issue of concern was the very low rate of prosecution and sentencing of perpetrators of domestic violence, while more than half of prosecuted cases ended up in conciliation, which in domestic violence meant turning a blind eye to perpetrators and forcing women back into situations of violence.
As far as human trafficking was concerned, Estonia was mainly a country of origin and transit, and it had adopted a number of provisions to deal with the phenomenon. Still, the support for victims of trafficking was not clear. The delegation was asked about steps taken to investigate and prosecute cases of trafficking, including labour exploitation, to train law enforcement and judicial officers, to fund and support non-governmental organizations running shelters for victims, and to cooperate with neighbouring countries.
Responses by the Delegation
Responding to those questions, the delegation said that Estonia had initiated many important reforms in recent years, which touched gender equality issues and had intersectional components, such as work ability reform which concerned the engagement of persons with disabilities and persons with limited capacity to participate in the labour market; pension reform; and the adoption of a new law on social security.
The aim of a law on domestic violence would be to guarantee the best protection to victims, and Estonia had decided to use and strengthen the existing legislation. Psychological abuse was criminalized, threatening was criminalized and the wording of the law referring to pain caused had been cleared since January 2014 to also include mental and psychological suffering and pain.
The Penal Code had been modified and the element of force had been removed from the definition of rape. Starting in 2017, the Social Insurance Board would start providing support to victims of sexual violence. Issues related to domestic violence, sexual violence and human trafficking were included in the police academy curricula, and there were plans to also train emergency room personnel.
It was true that most domestic violence cases ended in conciliation and women tended to prefer this method rather than go to court. Conciliation was a process through which certain issues were settled; the prosecution would use the method only if the victim agreed. Conciliation could also be less painful for the victim as there was no need to speak out publicly about violence in an open court. Women had the right to bring the case to a court, and no one was forcing them to accept the conciliation procedure. The law enforcement officers were trained in how to inform women victims of domestic violence about their rights.
Victims of trafficking were supported by the Social Insurance Board; it was financed by the State, while services were provided by specialized non-governmental organizations. The amendment to the Victim Support Act which removed the obligation of the victim to report the crime would enter into force in January 2017; a statement by a non-governmental organization that the person was a victim of trafficking was sufficient to initiate the provision of support. This measure had been taken to make the system more victim-friendly.
In terms of trafficking in persons, the focus was first on preventing and suppressing sexual exploitation, but trafficking for purposes of labour exploitation was gaining more importance. Training activities in identification of victims were ongoing for the police, customs officers and others, and there were non-governmental organizations working with victims. Judges and prosecutors also received training through their regular annual training which had included human trafficking for a long time now.
Prostitution was not regulated – buying or selling sex was not prohibited. However, everything related to the third party was criminalized, such as pimping or aiding prostitution. Those crimes had been re-qualified in 2012 from offences of public order to offences of freedom and liberty. Estonia would criminalize buying sex for victims of sexual exploitation in 2018.
There was no plan at the moment to adopt a separate law on domestic violence. Estonia considered that modifications to the Penal Code, the Criminal Procedure Code, and the establishment of a State-funded service for support to victims of domestic violence, provided sufficient legal basis for addressing domestic violence.
All child custody decisions in cases of domestic violence involved a child protection officer, and Estonia was well aware of the need to ensure that they were sufficiently aware of the impact of domestic violence on a child’s wellbeing. That was why a manual for the child protection officer was being prepared to ensure they were sufficiently aware, informed and trained to ensure the best interest of the child.
Questions from the Experts
Turning to issues of equal participation and representation of women in decision-making bodies and processes, a Committee Expert said that no temporary special measures had been adopted to balance the low participation of women in politics, or in the economy, where it was particularly low. Women were relatively well represented in the Foreign Service, and in the judiciary where women held 63 per cent of the posts.
Another Expert expressed concern about a significant number of stateless persons of Russian origin who were living rather isolated from Estonian society and urged Estonia to open up more paths to naturalization, particularly for children aged 15 to 18. Did Estonia intend to sign the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, and to incorporate into domestic laws the provisions related to nationality as per the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women?
Responses by the Delegation
The delegation stressed the need to raise awareness about the need to ensure gender balance in political representation and also to raise awareness of employers about their responsibilities under the Gender Equality Act. There were discussions about the inclusion of zipper-method of quotas in the Gender Equality Act, and the decision would be made after awareness raising activities had been conducted and the analysis of the implementation of this law had been completed.
In terms of naturalization, there was still a requirement to pass a language exam, but the rules were being eased for persons with disabilities, elderly, and children. The situation in the eastern part of Estonia was under special consideration: it was a majority Russian speaking area, with structural unemployment problems. Measures were being taken to address the structural causes of joblessness and to improve communication between the population and authorities.
The Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner had examined the discrimination complaints and had found that there were none on the basis of non-citizenship, but some were found on the basis of language demand. The solution was in education and in closing the gap in language education for Russian speakers.
Stateless persons enjoyed all the rights under the 1961 Statelessness Convention, including to participate in political life, and obtain non-citizen passports with which they could travel visa free to the European Union and Russia. It was important to say that statelessness was a result of a choice persons made not to take Estonian nationality, rather than a result of barriers in obtaining it.
Questions from the Experts
A Committee Expert recognized the progress made in the participation of girls in education, and noted that gender segregation remained in the choice of studies. What measures were being taken to encourage girls and boys to pursue non-traditional areas of study?
With regard to employment, another Expert commended the progress made in collecting data regarding the labour market and asked about the assessment of the gendered impact of the movement of workers to the European Union and the brain drain from Estonia.
The huge gender pay gap and the limited serious effort to tackle it remained a serious concern – what was the time schedule for the measures already taken and would the information about wages be more open and transparent, as an Estonian non-governmental organization had proposed? How would the impact of the pay gap be dealt with in the pension system?
What could be done to promote the participation of women in decision-making bodies and in leadership positions in the public and private sectors?
Was the legal framework adequate to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace and which mechanisms were in place to address it?
Reconciliation between family and professional lives was a challenge. What plans were in place to address the shortage of day care places, and to change “the use it or lose it” approach to parental leave for fathers?
Alcohol abuse and alcohol-related deaths, as well as tobacco use were key public health problems. Waiting times for doctor or specialist appointments were too long, while e-solutions to schedule appointments were not adequate for women with disabilities, elderly women or women in rural and remote areas. It was alarming that HIV rates were on the increase among young women, with 20 per cent of cases diagnosed during pregnancy.
Replies by the Delegation
Responding to the questions and comments made by the Committee Experts, the delegation said that annual events were organized in schools to introduce boys and girls to non-traditional occupations and careers, with the participation of gender equality advisers and representatives of the various professions. As far as training of teachers was concerned, the training sessions so far had demonstrated that it was very hard for teachers to institute any structural changes unless heads of schools were trained in gender equality and that was what was going on at the moment, in parallel with training of teachers.
The amendment to the Gender Equality Act, which would enable Labour Inspectors to ensure supervision of the implementation of the equal pay legislation, was ready and would soon be submitted to the Government. The delegation could not say when the amendment would be adopted.
There were very good gender equality materials prepared for schools and school curricula, but they were mainly prepared by non-governmental organizations and there was not much evidence of the systematic involvement of the State in this matter. The school curriculum itself did not support the principle of equal share of burden. Further, the period a woman spent taking care of children was not taken into account in the pension calculation. There were separate Russian-speaking schools and Russian-speaking kindergartens, but since Russian was not an official language, this was discriminatory and did not support equal access to education or any other field.
The Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner had issued a guidance for the implementation of the law on sexual harassment at the workplace last year, including the complaints and compensations; it had received one complaint since.
The reform of the Estonian pension system had been proposed in order to change the formula for calculation of pensions which would ensure equality between women and men in the earned wages, binding expected pensions to the expected lifetime, and there would also be support measures for single pensioners who were largely women.
The parental leave was very generous, it was 18 months with pay at the moment, and there were intentions to extend it to three years, but this would change the calculation of benefits.
The green paper on alcohol use had been adopted in 2014 and an inter-ministerial group had been established. Key measures were targeted at youth and adolescents and at identification and treatment of alcohol addiction. The tobacco policy had been adopted and a draft amendment to the law had been prepared; as in alcohol, the focus was on prevention, particularly among young girls.
In 2015, more than 75 per cent of abortions had been carried out in health institutions and were therefore safe. Most women had access to contraceptives at half price. More than 93 per cent of the population had health insurance and therefore access to the health system.
Questions from the Experts
A Committee Expert asked about specific measures to address the needs of women living under the poverty line, actions taken to deal with job losses in civil service due to government reform and its specific impact on women, and which specific temporary special measures would be adopted to increase the participation of women on boards of companies, which currently stood at eight per cent.
Another Expert took positive note of the Rural Development Plan 2012-2020 and asked about measures taken to ensure that rural women were included in decision making in rural development associations, and participated in the management board of agricultural companies, and to secure access of rural women to information and communication technology.
Responses by the Delegation
In response, the delegation said that progress was being made in reducing poverty among women, through measures such as single pensioner benefits, significant rise in child benefits, increase of minimal income to meet the costs of the monthly food basket, and others. As a result, poverty risk had been reduced by 15 per cent.
On the Child Maintenance Fund, the delegate said that about 10 million Euros were invested into the scheme annually, and that the national minimum maintenance had been set to half of the national minimum income level. The setting up of the Fund did not intend to abolish the responsibility of fathers, but to support women and their children in meeting the needs of everyday life. Other measures to tackle the issue should be taken as well to ensure the payment of child support by the other party, such as withholding drivers’ or hunting licenses until the obligation to support one’s child was met.
Access to services in rural areas was not equal throughout the country, because of the population decrease and the small size of many municipalities which then had a high burden of service delivery. The regional reform aimed to equalize access and quality of services; it set the minimum size of a municipality to 8,000 people and looked into issues of increasing funding to local municipalities.
Questions from the Experts
A Committee Expert raised the question of the implementation of the Registered Partnership Act and its negative impact on the protection of property rights of women in de facto unions. There were three matrimonial property regimes in Estonia: what information was given to people entering marriage before they made a choice of the regime, including on the implications?
Responses by the Delegation
The delegation said that the Registered Partnership Act was disputed in the society and that its implementation would depend on the political will. The main supervisory body in any dispute between spouses or cohabiting partners was the court, including in property rights.
It was encouraging that there was a very active public debate about the issues of sharing the burden of child care by divorced or separate parents, and participating in child raising, both from the point of view of time and financial support.
Since January 2016, a State team of officials had been set up in the State Social Office to follow up on the rights and protection of rights by women and men in the social system. Any complaints on unequal or unfair treatment by the social benefits system were submitted to the Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner, which would examine the case and cooperate with the specialist team.
RAIT KUUSE, Deputy Secretary General on Social Policy, Ministry of Social Affairs of Estonia, said that this dialogue showed the efforts to combat and prevent discrimination against women, and the structural challenges in this regard. It was also an opportunity to learn from the experiences of others. Discrimination against women was not a simple issue but the issue of the set-up of the society, its structures, habits and beliefs. This was a great opportunity for Estonia to develop the society and policies to tackle better the challenges Experts identified.
YOKO HAYASHI, Committee Chairperson, commended Estonia for its efforts and encouraged it to address various recommendations which the Committee would issue with the purpose of the more comprehensive implementation of the Convention throughout the State party.