“Estonia has been developing at a fast pace, but some people in the country risk being left behind. To achieve a more inclusive society, Estonia should combat discrimination and abuses against older persons, tackle the gender pay gap and violence against women, and devote more efforts to building social cohesion,” says the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, at the end of a five-day visit to the country. The Commissioner stresses that human rights provide an essential protection to all people and should guide policy-making in all areas, including when pursuing ambitious digitalisation and artificial intelligence projects.
Estonia, like many other European countries, should urgently address the human rights implications linked to an aging population. According to Eurostat, Estonia has one of the highest rates of older persons at risk of poverty and social exclusion in the European Union (EU). This situation is also prominent among older persons belonging to the Russian-speaking minority, and represents a continuation of economic disparities that exist between ethnic communities in Estonia. “The Estonian authorities should accept Article 23 of the Revised European Social Charter and ensure that social protection floors and pensions are sufficient to enable all older people to live in dignity,” says the Commissioner. She also calls on the authorities to organise public campaigns to combat ageism and prejudices against older persons, in order to counter existing discrimination and foster inter-generational solidarity.
The Commissioner visited a social care home for the elderly in Kohtla-Järve, in the eastern part of Estonia, with the capacity to accommodate up to 140 residents. “I urge the national and local authorities to work towards de-instutionalisation and invest more in home-based and community-based services for older persons who need long term care,” says the Commissioner, adding that “it is also important to increase support for informal carers.” As regards the considerable disparities between different municipalities in terms of the provision of social services for older persons, the Commissioner encourages the national authorities to harmonise the system. “Each of us might be old one day and – even if we become frail or ill – we should be able to rely on certain things: that our rights will be protected, and that our dignity and value as human beings are respected,” Commissioner Mijatović said. “The Estonian authorities should ensure high-quality standards in long-term care, monitor services and ensure that victims of abuse have access to a remedy.”
The Commissioner underscores the importance of Estonia’s ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention) last October, a landmark legal instrument providing comprehensive tools to combat such violence. The country already has a 24/7 helpline and a solid network of shelters for the protection and assistance to victims. Commissioner Mijatović visited a sexual assault treatment and counselling centre and a shelter for victims of domestic violence in the eastern part of Estonia. The prevalence of violence against women and domestic violence is a matter of serious concern, and the Commissioner calls on the Estonian authorities to ensure sufficient and sustainable funding to support quality services for victims of such violence. “Violence against women has devastating consequences for women, but also for their families and for society as a whole,” says the Commissioner. “Legal support for victims and training of police and judicial officials is needed to ensure that victims of sexual violence and domestic violence are protected and that those responsible are held to account.”
Commissioner Mijatović further calls on the Estonian authorities to step up their efforts to tackle gender stereotypes and prejudices about the role of women in society, stressing that they hinder real progress towards gender equality and foster attitudes conducive to violence against women. The Commissioner encourages the authorities to conduct more training and awareness-raising campaigns, which should include the Russian-speaking minority. Commissioner Mijatović welcomes the government’s initiative to amend the Gender Equality Act to address the gender pay gap, which is the highest in the EU. She stresses that tackling effectively the issue requires addressing all the different factors in both the public and private sector that cause such gap, including separation by fields of study or activity in education and in the labour market, the glass ceiling phenomenon, as well as insufficient sharing of family care duties.
To ensure effective monitoring of human rights at the national level, Commissioner Mijatović calls on Estonia to strengthen its national human rights structures. She welcomes the adoption by parliament on 13 June of amendments to the Chancellor of Justice Act to enable this body to function as a national human rights institution, and calls on the authorities to grant sufficient independence and resources to the Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner.
In the course of her visit, the Commissioner met with the President of the Riigikogu (Estonian Parliament), the Prime Minister, the Minister of Social Protection, the Minister of Health and Labour and several other government officials, as well as with members of parliament, including members of the delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), the Chancellor of Justice, the Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner and local officials. She also met civil society and NGO representatives.
The Commissioner’s report on her visit to Estonia is forthcoming.