29 January 2002


Press Release

Committee on Elimination of

Discrimination against Women

Twenty-sixth Session

548th Meeting (PM)



The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this afternoon to hear replies by Estonia to questions on that country’s combined initial, second and third periodic reports, which were first considered on 23 January.  During two meetings that day, the Committee’s 23 experts asked numerous questions regarding Estonia’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, to which the country acceded in 1991. 

[The Convention was adopted by the General Assembly in 1979 and came into force in 1981.  States parties to the Convention are legally bound to put its provisions into practice.  In pursuing the Convention’s goals, they are encouraged to introduce affirmative action measures to promote equality between women and men.]

In her article-by-article response today, the Estonian Foreign Ministry’s Deputy Under-Secretary for Legal and Consular Affairs, Marina Kaljurand, drew the Committee’s attention to the fact that as a former Soviet republic, Estonia had been separated from the international community for over 50 years.  Only at the beginning of the 1990s did it start to systematically address gender issues.  While much had been achieved, a lot remained to be done, but the authorities of the country were determined to fully implement the Convention.

She described the country’s national machinery for the advancement of women, as well as its recent legislative and political initiatives in that respect.  In particular, a temporary working group had been established in the country to study the gender impact of general laws, and indicators and benchmarks for change were being elaborated.  Measures were being taken to ensure equal remuneration for equal work and provide equal opportunities in the workplace.  She also touched upon such issues as education, family law, training to promote gender sensitivity, incidence of rape, prostitution, citizenship laws, domestic violence and efforts to incorporate gender issues in economic and budgetary policies. 

Addressing the experts’ concerns regarding a resurgence of traditional gender attitudes in the country, she said that lately, attitudes regarding women’s role in society had begun to change.  Two thirds of the population admitted the existence of discrimination against women in the labour market, and a special strategy was being drafted to address that matter, to be included in the action plan for 2002.  An increasing number of people expressed willingness to elect women to positions of authority.  A lot needed to be done to attract men to such

traditionally “women’s” fields as education and medicine.  Due to a recent salary raise, for the first time, teachers’ pay was now higher than the national average.

Estonia’s delegation also included its Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Merle Pajula; Heljo Pikhof of the Ministry of Social Affairs; Ulle-Marike Papp of the Ministry of Social Affairs; Mai Hion of the Foreign Ministry; and Eve Sirp of the Estonian Mission to the United Nations. 

The Committee is expected to conclude its work on Friday, 1 February.


The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this afternoon to hear responses from the Government of Estonia on its implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (see Press Release WOM/1312 of 23 January).

Country Responses

Answering numerous questions posed by the experts last week, Estonian Foreign Ministry’s Deputy Under-Secretary for Legal and Consular Affairs, MARINA KALJURAND, assured the Committee that the experts’ questions would be addressed in more detail in Estonia’s next report.  She said that a lack of manpower and experience in writing such reports was the reason for its lateness.  For more than 50 years, Estonia had been cut off from the international community.  The lateness of the report was not due to a lack of willingness to comply with the Committee’s guidelines.  In 2000, a special project by the Swedish Government had been launched to train Estonian officials about the provisions of the Convention.

On the issue of participation with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), she said the Legal Information Centre had the primary task of providing free legal counselling.  The work of the Centre was focused on the situation of non-citizens and the protection of minorities.  It also provided advocacy.  While none of the Centre’s programmes had dealt exclusively with the issue of gender equality, it did address human rights activities.  Regarding the use of statistics in reporting, special gender training courses had been launched by Sweden’s Office of Statistics.

Regarding the Optional Protocol and the amendment to article 20.1 of the Convention, she said Estonia was currently considering the issue.  It was too early, however, to predict concrete dates of accession. 

On the definition of discrimination, she said that while no specific legislation contained a definition of gender discrimination, Estonia was a modest country.  International treaties prevailed in the national system.  The Convention’s definition of discrimination was directly applicable in Estonian courts.  The concept of direct and indirect gender discrimination was outlined in the draft gender equality act.  The purpose of that act was to promote equality between the sexes by obligating local authorities and employers to further gender equality in the economic, social and other spheres of life.  It covered both the public and private sectors.  According to that act, direct or indirect discrimination on the basis of sex was prohibited.  However, some circumstances were not considered discriminatory by the law, including special protection of women during pregnancy and childbirth and compulsory military service for men. 

Regarding quotas for women’s representation in public life, there had been some discussion of including them, she said.  Opposing ideas had also been proposed, and it was for Parliament to decide.  Although some parliamentarians supported quotas, others were opposed.  The draft law foresaw gender equality in education, training and employment.  During the drafting of the act, numerous training sessions were held with female politicians, lawyers, trade unions and NGOs.  Training of labour inspectors had started last year. 

Regarding the Estonian Advertising Act, she said, different laws impacted advertising, including the criminal code and the broadcast act.  An expert committee had been created to determine whether a work of art could be considered pornography.  The question of negative stereotypes in advertising had received public attention.  Much remained to be done regarding the improvement of the application of existing laws.  Studying the gender impact of general laws was not an easy task.  A temporary working group had been organized.  The draft family act was a new instrument requiring an understanding of gender mainstreaming. 

On the definition of rape, she said the new penal code defined it as sexual intercourse with a person against his or her will, or taking advantage of a situation in which the person was not capable of resisting or comprehending the act.  Sexual intercourse under 14 was criminalized by the penal code.  Sexual intercourse with a minor was criminal in all cases, and did not depend on the willingness of the child.  The definition of rape extended to rapes within the family.

Human rights education was included in the curriculums of university law departments, she said.  Women’s human rights were taught within that context.  Since 1999, at least one seminar with the Gender Equality Ombudsman from a Nordic country had been organized.  The Estonian Law Society was also responsible for training lawyers.  All lawyers of the Ministry of Social Affairs had been trained in gender equality issues in Estonia or abroad.

She said that the family law had been applied since its adoption in 1994.  A new family act was in the process of being drafted.  Non-governmental organizations were involved in the process.  The underlying principles of the act were based on the provisions of the Convention. 

She agreed that the divorce rates in Estonia were high.  In 2000, for example, some 5,500 marriages and some 4,300 divorces had been registered.  One of the reasons for divorce was the fact that many couples did not register their partnerships.  No studies on the reasons for divorce had been carried out.  Regarding the procedure for divorce, if the spouses agreed, the proceeding was not complicated.  The Vital Statistics Office provided a divorce on the basis of a joint written petition.  The Vital Statistics Office would not grant a divorce if there were division of joint property or child support issues.  Those cases fell under the jurisdiction of the courts.  Each spouse had equal right to possess and dispose of joint property.  Failing agreement, the Court would settle disputes regarding possessions.

While Supreme Court case law did not refer to the Convention, the Court had applied the principles of other United Nations human rights conventions, she said.  One could assume that the principles of the Convention would be used.

The Legal Chancellor was an independent official who monitored legislative acts, she explained.  Today, his activities were related more to individual rights and freedoms and he was assuming the role of Ombudsman.  The new Legal Chancellor Act had entered into force in 1999.  The Act provided details on how to resolve complaints.  Although he had not received requests directly on the grounds of discrimination, related complaints had been received.  Employees had the right to demand equal pay for equal work.  Upon hiring, employers were required to inform employees of the requirement of equal remuneration by law.

Regarding national machinery, she said that a Gender Equality Bureau was established in 1996 within the Ministry of Social Affairs.  The Equality Bureau coordinated with other departments of the Ministry as well as other Government projects.  The Bureau acted as an advisory body for numerous groups, including legislators and NGOs.  The Bureau was also responsible for informing the public about equality issues.  The staff of the Bureau was very small, however.  The Bureau’s budget was part of the budget of the Ministry of Social Affairs.  Different working groups had carried out the bulk of the Bureau’s work, including benchmarks to monitor progress.

Estonia would benefit from the experiences of other countries in the field of employment, particularly in the framework of Nordic/Baltic cooperation, she said.  The aim of that cooperation was to support gender mainstreaming into the political process at all levels.  While the tools to develop gender mainstreaming had been created, ongoing research was needed.

The Government adopted an action plan every year, she added.  Gender equality had been included in action plans since 1999.  This year’s plan included the concept of equal pay for equal work, reconciliation of family and working life, and the dissemination of information. 

Attitudes had changed concerning the under-representation of women in the labour market, she said.  Some two thirds of men and women had acknowledged the presence of discrimination against women in that area.  In 2001, the first national survey of violence against women had been conducted.  A special strategy was being drafted and would be included in Estonia’s 2002 action plan.  A comparative survey would be launched in 2002.  Violence against women was still a taboo subject for the victims themselves.  Many factors had made it difficult for women to leave violent situations, including a lack of housing and income.  Only awareness-raising would help to solve the problem.

Regarding temporary special measures, recent studies indicated that Estonian society was adapting to the understanding of gender equality needed for a modern, democratic society.  The possibility of quotas had been discussed by young Estonian politicians. 

She underlined the importance of family education to eliminate negative gender stereotypes.  Most textbooks were being studied for their gender content.  While there were no professorships for women’s studies yet, Bachelors’ and Masters’ degrees on gender studies had been defended by a number of faculties. 

Regarding women’s participation in politics, she said the attitudes towards women’s participation in politics had changed in recent years.  Special programmes for women were being conducted.  A youth act was being drafted for the functioning of youth organizations at the local level.  The Estonian Youth Council was a voluntary council of some 27 youth organizations.

She said the issue of trafficking had been included in the concept of violence against women.  The problem of trafficking of women from Estonia to Western European countries had been recognized by the Estonian Government.  It was not criminalized, however, until 2001.  The new penal code criminalized trafficking as enslavement.  One reason for the small number of criminal proceedings was the reluctance of women to come forward.  Also, the social sector and the police had not been ready to approach the issue in a focused fashion.   There were no NGOs working exclusively on trafficking in women.  In May, a three-day seminar would be held for some 400 participants. 

The participation of women’s organizations in the drafting legislation was carried out informally, she said.  When a draft law was prepared, it was placed on the Web sites of the various ministries.  The law-making process could, therefore, be followed via the Internet.  A new Internet programme had been launched to involve the public in the law-making process.

On nationality issues, under the Estonian Citizenship Act, Estonian citizenship was acquired by birth or naturalization, she said.  An amendment to the Act in 1998 simplified the procedure for minors to acquire citizenship.  All aliens residing legally in Estonia were given clear legal status.  The problems of “mixed marriages” should be understood at the individual level in the context of different cultural backgrounds.  Estonia had followed a consistent policy of integration since 1991.  The integration programme was based on the goal of developing an integrated society and preserving stability.  It was not aimed at changing ethnic identity.

She said that the majority of those individuals who had a strong desire to receive citizenship, did so.  Thanks to language-training projects, most applicants passed the required language examinations.  Unemployed, retired and disabled persons received financial assistance towards language courses.  Since 1997, the cultural council of national minorities worked within the country, coordinating the cultural life and activities of all groups.

Regarding stereotypes, she said that women were encouraged to study technical sciences and get involved in research.  The media had an important role to play in that respect.  A lot needed to be done to attract men to such traditionally “women’s” fields of occupation as education and medicine.  Due to a recent salariy raise, for the first time, teachers’ pay was now higher than the national average.  The difference between the number of boys and girls involved in vocational education had been significantly reduced in recent years.  More and more women opened their own businesses.  While it was too early to determine the results of the Government’s efforts, it was trying to map the situation and determine the most effective strategies for the future.

Concrete steps had been taken in addressing the needs of older women, she added.  Turning to the suicide rate, she said that it was high, but the figure had decreased since 1994.  It was not a gender-sensitive question in Estonia.  A special lifeline had been established to provide assistance to those contemplating suicide. 

She shared the Committee’s concern over the high rate of abortions in Estonia, agreeing that abortions should not be considered a method of birth control.  Certain progress had been achieved in that area, however.  While the number of abortions 10 years ago had been twice as high as the number of births, now that proportion was smaller.  Free contraceptives (mainly condoms) and counselling were available at specialized education centres.

Estonia was proud of its breast-feeding programme, under which 67 per cent of babies were breast-fed until the age of six months.  The health reform was being carried out in Estonia to improve accessibility, quality and cost effectiveness of health institutions.  There were two specialized women’s clinics in the country.  As a result of focused efforts, the number of tuberculosis cases was beginning to decrease.  Tuberculosis treatment was free of charge for everyone, including people without insurance.

In conclusion, she once again drew the Committee’s attention to the fact that Estonia had been separated from the international community for over 50 years.  Only at the beginning of the 1990s were gender issues systematically addressed in the country.  That was a remarkably short time for a State to establish itself on the international stage.  While much had been achieved, a lot remained to be done, but the authorities of the country were determined to fully implement the Convention.

Experts’ Comments

An expert expressed concern over the fact that the age of statutory rape in Estonia was determined at 14, and child marriage was allowed at 15.  More attention should be devoted to that matter.  The country had justified early marriage by the existence of teenage pregnancies, but the Convention was very clear on that matter, and the question needed to be addressed.

In response, Ms. KARLJURAND explained that in fact, the legal age of marriage was 18, and early marriages were allowed only in exceptional cases and in cases of pregnancy.  The exceptions were made to avoid increasing the number of children born out of wedlock and provide a normal family atmosphere for the newborn.  Such marriages were allowed only with parents’ consent, with permission from relevant authorities.

In conclusion, the Committee’s Chairperson, CHARLOTTE ABAKA of Ghana, thanked the delegation for its comments, noting that further answers would be provided in the next report.  She commended the country for its intention to disseminate the report and the concluding comments to come from the dialogue in the Committee.  She hoped that soon the country would start the process of ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention. 

She added that while it was commendable that lawyers received human rights education in Estonia, she hoped that all law enforcement personnel and health-care providers would receive such instruction.  That was particularly important in countries where violence against women was rampant.  She also recommended that the country should make use of the Committee’s general recommendations on the implementation of the Convention, including those on violence and health.

On the exceptional cases of early marriage, she said that as long as exceptions were provided, people would take advantage of them.  Children born out of wedlock should have equal rights with others, and that should not be a reason for providing an exception.

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For information media. Not an official record.