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In dialogue with Latvia, Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women calls for specific gender equality legislation

Committee on Elimination of Discrimination
against Women

11 February 2020

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women today considered the combined fourth to seventh periodic reports of Latvia on how it implements the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.  Experts urged Latvia to adopt specific gender equality law in line with its obligations to combat stereotypes and multiple discrimination and expressed concern about the high rates of violence against women, including domestic violence.

The Committee Experts queried the delegation about the lack of a legal definition of discrimination based on article 1 of the Convention and the vagueness on how the legal principles of equality and non-discrimination were applied to protect women from intersectional discrimination. 

Prejudice and gender stereotypes continued to prevail, highlighting the need to change the attitudes in favour of women’s rights and equality.  Given the high rate of violence against women, Latvia should expedite the ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combatting violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention), the Experts urged.

The delegation of Latvia, led by Inese Lībiņa-Egnere, Deputy Speaker of the Latvian Parliament, explained that the Constitution was linked to the country’s international obligations and that international human rights norms were applicable in domestic courts. 

Administrative courts and the Constitutional Court had, on several occasions, reaffirmed a strong application of the prohibition of discrimination and the principle of equality through the provisions of the Constitution.  The Constitution therefore provided the definition of discrimination and the principle of equality.

Latvia had taken several legislative steps to prevent domestic violence and protect women victims of violence, and the Government it was working on getting Parliamentary authorization to ratify the Istanbul Convention. 

In her concluding remarks, Ms. Lībiņa-Egnere thanked the Committee Experts for their very important questions, which pinpointed the challenges Latvia had to address to eliminate discrimination against women.

Hilary Gbedemah, Committee Chairperson, thanked the delegation for the succinct answers and the constructive dialogue.

The delegation of Latvia was comprised of representatives of the Parliament of the Republic of Latvia, Ministry of Education and Science, Ministry of Welfare, Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Justice, State Police, the National Centre for Education and the Permanent Mission of Latvia to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The Committee will issue the concluding observations on the report of Latvia at the end of its seventy-fifth session on 28 February.  Those, and other documents relating to the Committee’s work, including reports submitted by States parties, can be found on the session’s webpage.

The webcast of the Committee’s public meetings can be accessed at http://webtv.un.org/.

The Committee will next meet in public at 10 a.m.  tomorrow, 12 February, to consider the fifth periodic report of Pakistan (CEDAW/C/PAK/5).

The Committee is considering the combined fourth to seventh periodic reports of Latvia (CEDAW/C/LVA/4-7).

Presentation of the Report

INESE LĪBIŅA-EGNERE, Deputy Speaker of the Parliament of Latvia, said 2020 was a significant year for gender equality, as it marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.  Latvia had excellent experts in the field of gender equality and women from Latvia, in particular, were very successful in shaping the international agenda on human rights.  They prove their ambition and professional excellence and held some of the highest posts in international organizations.  Women in leading positions were no longer the exception in Latvia, but rather a regular occurrence.  Women had held both the post of President and Prime Minister.

When developing draft laws, including those that might have implications for the protection and promotion of human rights, the respective ministry gathered information about a range of issues, for example, the requirements of international legal instruments.  Parliament’s committees analysed the compliance of the draft law with Latvia’s international obligations in the area of human rights.  During this process, the Ombudsperson and non-governmental organizations had the right to express their views.  Latvia’s national human rights institution, the Ombudsperson’s Office, had an influential role in the promotion and protection of human rights.  The functions of the Ombudsperson included the examination of individual complaints related to different human rights issues, including those concerning discrimination against women and gender equality.  The Ombudsperson’s Office also carried out independent research, prepared reports and informed the society about different issues, such as the prohibition of discrimination. 

Since 2014, Latvia had made significant progress in creating the legal framework to prevent domestic violence and protect the victims.  Public awareness had increased and there was a growing tendency not to tolerate domestic violence.  Amendments to the Criminal Procedure Law had strengthened the procedural safeguards and opportunities for victims of domestic violence to report the perpetrators.  The Criminal Law had been amended to include an aggravating element, namely, cases when actions were committed against a person to whom the perpetrator was related in the first or second degree of kinship.   The next priority was to introduce an effective prevention mechanism for domestic violence and abuse.  Interdisciplinary discussions were ongoing to allow preventive intervention in families.

Latvia had taken steps internationally and domestically to prevent human trafficking, including the participation in the transnational project HESTIA, financed by the European Commission.  The project examined the phenomenon of human trafficking and sham marriages and initiated comprehensive action for their prevention.

Latvia believed that a full realization of women’s economic rights was essential for the achievement of commitments under the Beijing Platform for Action and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  The Government focused its resources on achieving gender equality in the areas of education, labour market participation and pay, which was essential for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.  

Recent reports by the World Bank on “Women, Business and the Law” named Latvia as one of only six countries worldwide to fully guarantee legal equality between women and men in employment and business.  Since the end of the economic crisis in 2010, Latvia had achieved remarkable results in the area of women’s economic participation and leadership.  Female labour market participation was on the increase and in 2018, almost 75 per cent of women in the age group 20 to 64 were employed. 

Furthermore, comprehensive education reform was underway.  On 2 April 2018, amendments to the Law on Education and the Law on General Education had entered into force, introducing significant changes in the approach to general education in Latvia.

Ms. Lībiņa-Egnere underlined that the health care system in Latvia was based on the universal coverage principle.  Persons with disabilities had access to a wide range of State-funded health care services of the same quantity, quality and standard as anyone else, including in the area of mental, sexual and reproductive health.  Particular attention was devoted to the promotion of healthy lifestyle and the prevention of diseases.  Latvia followed global vaccination and improved its vaccination calendar.  In 2019, Latvia had introduced additional support services for HIV-infected persons to ensure early and effective access to treatment.

Questions from the Experts

At the beginning of the interactive dialogue, Committee Experts took positive note of the significant advancements in the implementation of the Convention.  Pointing out that the last dialogue had taken place some 15 years ago, they asked the delegation to explain such a lengthy delay in reporting.

The legislation lacked a definition of discrimination based on article 1 of the Convention and it was not clear how the legal principles of equality and non-discrimination were applied in protecting women from intersectional discrimination, especially for women linguistic minorities and women who did not hold Latvian citizenship.  Given the reluctance in adopting an integrated approach to gender equality in policies, how did Latvia guarantee intersectional approach and the inclusion of the principle of equality in legislation?

Noting Latvia’s reluctance to ratify the Optional Protocol, the Experts asked whether it would ratify the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combatting violence against women and domestic violence or Istanbul Convention, and so strengthen women’s access to justice.  The Committee was concerned by the restrictions in accessing justice for certain categories of people and asked how Latvia would ensure effective gender equality throughout the society.

Responses by the Delegation

The delegation acknowledged there had been a long gap in reporting, which was in part due to the lack of resources in the public administration due to the financial crisis.  However, it should be noted that Latvia did not have any outstanding reports to human rights treaty bodies. 

Even though it had not ratified the Optional Protocol, Latvia was a party to regional human rights instruments, which allowed individuals to file complaints with the European Court of Human Rights.  Several legislative steps had been taken to introduce measures to prevent domestic violence and protect women victims of violence, and it was working on getting Parliamentary authorization to ratify the Istanbul Convention. 

Regarding the definition of discrimination, the delegation explained that the Constitution was linked to international obligations and that international human rights norms could be applied in domestic courts.  Administrative courts and the Constitutional Court had, on several occasions, reaffirmed a strong application of the prohibition of discrimination and the principle of equality through the provisions of the Constitution.  The Constitution, therefore, defined discrimination and the principle of equality.

In 2016, the administration of the courts had launched a large-scale training programme for judges, prosecutors and lawyers, which covered a wide range of different subjects in the human rights, particularly non-discrimination and principle of equality.
On the intersectional approach, the non-discrimination principle was guaranteed by law for administrative, civil and criminal proceedings.  There was no difference between nationals and non-nationals in access to justice, education, health and social and cultural rights.  The only difference between the two groups existed in the area of political rights: citizenship was required to exercise the right to vote and hold certain positions, notably some posts pertaining to national security.

The law guaranteed legal aid in civil or criminal matters, regardless of gender, to Latvian nationals, legal residents or asylum seekers whose income was below the threshold.  In 2018, Latvia commenced the application of special circumstances which granted legal aid to victims of violence regardless of income level, especially for women who had requested temporary protection.

Turning to the integrated approach to gender equality in policy-making, the delegation said that Latvia had developed a special form to be used by all ministries to evaluate the impact of policies and draft legislation on gender equality and discrimination. 

Questions by Committee Experts

As far as national gender machinery was concerned, the Experts remarked on the lack of authority of the coordinating body for gender equality and asked about steps taken to ensure effective inter-ministerial coordination.  They also inquired about the system in place to ensure effective monitoring of the implementation of the Convention and the role of the Ombudsperson’s Office in the national machinery for gender equality.

How did Latvia envisage a new gender equality framework to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and what measures it was taking to foster inclusive economic growth?

Temporary special measures were lacking from policy documents, Experts noted and asked about the efforts to address this gap.

Responses by the Delegation

The delegation explained that there was not a single ministry in charge of gender equality and that the coordinating task was assigned to a department within the Ministry of Welfare.  It had set up a Gender Equality Committee to coordinate the ministries and liaise with non-governmental organizations.  Individuals who comprised this committee acted as focal points for their ministries; they were responsible for disseminating information on gender equality within their respective ministries.

During the last election, various parties had highlighted women during the nomination process, which had been a positive change.  Women represented 31 per cent of elected Members of Parliament.  The majority of draft laws were devised by ministries and scrutinized by various bodies, parliamentary and otherwise, including from a gender equality perspective.  Members of Parliament had shown their interest in gender equality, which had been taken up at the political level. 

Surveys on the issue of quotas had shown that the majority of respondents were not in favour of such a measure; students, in particular, did not accept it as a solution.  While most of those who were opposed were male, Latvians were not in favour of quotas in general, to advance gender equality or in any other issue.  The lack of social acceptance was the main reason why the Government did not adopt this temporary special measure.  Efforts were being made to increase the percentage of women in the national armed forces, from the current 15 to 25 per cent.

The Ministry of Culture was in charge of Roma integration.  It maintained a dialogue with Roma civil society, developed programmes targeting the Roma population, including to increase the participation of Roma women, and conducted awareness-raising campaigns.  To improve Roma people’s understanding of their rights, the Ministry also collaborated with the Ombudsman’ Office.

Questions by Committee Experts

Committee Experts noted the continued concern about gender stereotypes in Latvia.  Women were still portrayed in the media as sexual objects and no legislation had been adopted to deal with this serious situation.  There has to be a change of attitude in favour of women's rights and equality, they stressed, urging Latvia to ensure that the campaigns promoting the role of fathers should also encourage life-work balance for both genders.   

Elderly, disabled, or minority women in Latvia, in particular, were victims of prejudice and stereotypes, which increased their vulnerability to various forms of violence against women, more so than in other European countries: 39 per cent of women aged 15 and above experienced physical or sexual violence and there was a very high number of femicides.  Worryingly, Latvia had not adopted specific measures for the protection of women and very few removal decisions were taken in the context of domestic violence.

Was the Government considering adopting special gender equality legislation in line with its obligation under the Convention to combat stereotypes and multiple discrimination and what was it doing to ratify the Istanbul Convention?

Experts flagged the issue of human trafficking, notably from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Ukraine and asked how the legislation on prostitution impacted the efforts to deal with this issue.  There was a risk that victims of trafficking were considered as prostitutes under the law, something which could restrict their access to governmental support.

Responses by the Delegation

The delegations said that, when tackling gender stereotyping, the Government sought to address issues affecting both genders and to include men.  Since 2008, Latvia was celebrating Fathers’ Day, which had become an increasingly popular celebration, and this illustrated that societal attitudes were evolving.  The Government had launched a campaign which featured four men sharing their experience as fathers, including their experience taking parental leave.

A lot of progress in recent years had been achieved in combatting violence against women.  The penal code was a solid basis for combating violence against women and domestic violence and Latvia also planned to criminalize harassment.  The provisions of the criminal law related to violence against women and domestic violence were comparable to the Istanbul Convention, said the delegation.

The National Development Plan included a gender-based violence component, and, as it envisaged budgetary allocations for years to come, the Government would have funds to continue working on this issue.

Temporary protection measures were enshrined in the law, said the delegation.  If the victim so wished, civil proceedings could be launched and a court could order a temporary protection measure of maximum 30 days, renewable.  Since 2015, the State was funding a programme in various municipalities to support the representation of victims, in collaboration with social services and non-governmental organizations.  It was indeed more difficult for vulnerable groups to seek protection under the law.  Between 2016 and 2018, statistics showed that women of all ages had been granted protective measures due to domestic violence. 

In the context of violence against children, measures had been put in place to protect victims by isolating violent fathers.  Prohibiting an abusive father from meeting his child was a measure taken on a case-by-case basis.  Authorities planned to take additional steps this year to further protect victims, such as mandatory reinsertion of the perpetrator.  While useful, measures seeking to isolate the perpetrators from the victims did not address the need for prevention.  The Government would allocate funds and bolster prevention.

A plan had been adopted for 2014-2020 to support victims of trafficking in persons.  Human trafficking and sexual exploitation crimes carried a sentence of up to 15 years in prison.

While not illegal, prostitution was strictly regulated in Latvia, and prostitution-related activities, such as the establishment and management of brothels, were criminalized.  The provision of sexual service was not criminalized nor was the reception of such services.  Last year, there had been eight convictions related to prostitution and five in 2018.  The legislation enabled the Government to control the situation and allowed for combatting prostitution of minors. 

Questions from the Experts
As for women’s participation in political and public life, the Committee Experts inquired about the ministerial portfolios held by women, presence of women in management positions in sports, and the political representation of women from vulnerable groups, including in Parliament.  Experts also requested information on the right of women to acquire, change or retain Latvian nationality and requested data on non-citizens.

Responses by the Delegation

The delegation explained that women in Latvia had held ministerial positions such as finance, defence, foreign affairs, as well as the post of Prime Minister.  There were no “women’s ministries” in Latvia, delegates assured.

Further information on non-citizens, including data disaggregated by gender, would be provided in writing.  Last year, there had been 52 female applicants and 44 male applicants.  The Government did not have any gender disaggregated data on successful applicants.
Questions from the Experts
Turning to education, the Experts noted the lack of special laws on gender equality and gender-based discrimination and asked the delegation to comment on how this lack affected the right to education.  There were still obstacles to girls’ access to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  How did Latvia address this situation?

Experts expressed concerns about the 2015 education law which obliged schools to provide “virtuous” and “values-based” approach to education.  How did such an approach ensure the respect of the rights of girls and women?

Experts drew the delegation’s attention to vertical and horizontal discrimination in the labour market.  They asked about the outcome of the Government’s policy addressing this issue and inquired about its efforts to close the gender pay gap.  What steps would the Government take to ensure equal pay for work of equal value and to combat sexual harassment in the workplace?

Experts asked if the reforms ongoing in the healthcare system envisaged additional investment in health.  Currently, funds equivalent to 3.7 per cent of the gross national product were allocated to health, which was not sufficient.  They also asked about the inclusiveness of the new “e-health” system, regulations preventing excessively intrusive medical treatments and the provision of adequate sexual and reproductive healthcare services, notably to adolescent girls.

Responses by the Delegation

Latvia had put in place incentives to encourage women to go into technical professions.  A recent study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development had shown that the gender pay gap was narrowing and was close to the European Union average.  The problem was structural and more must be done to tackle it.  Latvia had taken steps to ensure that equal ​​remuneration in the public sector, in particular by increasing wages in areas where women were more represented. 

The wage-setting system in Latvia took place at a company level.  The Labour Inspectorate was responsible for enforcing the provisions of the Labour Code and for receiving complaints of unequal treatment.  In the past few years, the number of complaints had gone up and in 2017, the Inspectorate had received 60 complaints.  This upward trend showed that people were more aware of the possibility of recourse. 

Gender education was part of all education programs and gender equality figured prominently in the education law.  The delegation said that 52 per cent of secondary science students and 30 per cent of the university science students were girls and women.  Various initiatives brought together the private sector, schools and non-governmental organizations around promoting the participation of girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  "Values-based education" was not about children but about teachers who must promote democratic values, explained the delegation.

The provision of healthcare in Latvia was based on the universality principle: everybody had access to it.  Mother and child health was a priority and reforms in this domain had already been initiated, including the adoption of the 2018-2020 action plan to improve access to and the quality of health care for women, children and infants.

The Ministry of Health launched campaigns on sexual and reproductive health and provided information on HIV/AIDS.  Condoms and syringes were provided free of charge in health centres and awareness-raising campaigns were conducted to promote healthy and respectful relationships.

Questions from the Experts

Experts pointed out that some women living in rural areas did not have access to healthcare on an equal footing with other women.  Had the State party taken measures to ensure adequate access to sexual and reproductive healthcare in rural areas?  They also expressed concerns about the situation of rural women with disabilities, who suffered from almost total dependence on their careers.  Was there a specific programme to remedy the situation of disadvantaged women, especially women from ethnic minorities?

Experts asked about the social protection strategy and how it addressed the needs of vulnerable groups sustainably and systematically.  Or was that social protection system set up only at certain points in time, such as after the financial crisis?

The delegation was asked about the amendments to the Civil Code to remove discriminatory provisions, whether same-sex marriages concluded abroad were recognized and if same-sex partners were allowed to adopt, and how persons with disabilities living in institutions could exercise their parental rights.

Responses by the Delegation

The delegation explained that health care in rural areas was provided also through mobile health teams, which offered breast cancer screening services or dental care.  Regional differences were a concern for the Government, especially when it came to unemployment, and it made efforts to equalize economic development on the territory.  The Government was also working to ensure social services were available across the country, irrespective of where individuals lived.

Latvia did not recognize same-sex marriages concluded abroad, but it fully respected the rights of the European Union citizens to move freely as a family, in line with the guarantees of the freedom of movement.  If a child arrived in Latvia and had parents, the authorities did not check who the parents were or their gender.

The marriage of children aged 16 to 18 was extremely rare.  Such marriages could be concluded with parental consent.  The Government realized that it had to make changes to give the full legal capacity to persons with disabilities.

Concluding Remarks

INESE LĪBIŅA-EGNERE, Deputy Speaker of the Parliament of Latvia, thanked the Committee Experts for their very important questions, which pinpointed the challenges Latvia had to address to eliminate discrimination against women.

HILARY GBEDEMAH, Committee Chairperson, thanked the delegation for the succinct answers and the constructive dialogue.


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