Committee on Economic, Social
and Cultural Rights
16 November 2011
The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has considered the second periodic report of Estonia on that country’s implementation of the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Introducing the report of Estonia, Lauri Bambus, Undersecretary for Legal and Consular Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, gave a brief overview of the developments in employment, social policy, health care, education and culture since the last report of Estonia. Legislative reform included the new Employment Contract Act, the Equal Treatment Act and the creation of a Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner. In 2008 Estonia adopted a National Health Plan which aimed to reduce mortality and morbidity rates. There were awareness-raising campaigns on HIV, substance abuse and alcohol, rates of which had subsequently decreased. There was a development plan to reduce violence against children, domestic violence and human trafficking, and a children’s ombudsman had been established, as well as a new national curriculum aimed at resolving issues in general education. In 2011 Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, was the European Capital of Culture; Estonia spends more and employs more persons in the field of culture than any other European Union Member State. The Estonian Integration Strategy aimed to support residents’ sense of belonging in Estonian society, through sharing common values and language training.
Among the questions and issues raised by Committee Experts were issues surrounding alcohol and drug consumption in Estonia, high rates of violence, including domestic violence and violence and bullying in schools, child labour and child marriage age, the rights of the large Russian minority in the country, and possible language discrimination. Committee members asked about the gender pay gap, discrimination against and stereotyping of women, and the status of women in public life. The delegation was also asked about specific legislation on trafficking in humans and domestic violence, provisions for pensioners, measures to improve health care, including sexual and reproductive healthcare and education, and prevention of and treatment for depression and mental illness.
In concluding remarks, Mr. Bambus noted that in the last year unemployment fell in 14 European Union Member States, and increased in 13: the largest fall was in Estonia, which was a good achievement. Social policy continued to prioritize the most vulnerable groups, including persons with disabilities and elderly persons, women and children. The Development Plan to reduce violence and the Health Action Plan were also major strategies for coming years, as was the ‘e-Estonia’ success story.
The Estonian delegation consisted of representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Education and Research and the Permanent Mission of Estonia to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
The next public meeting of the Committee will be at 3 p.m. this afternoon when it will begin its consideration of the third periodic report of Israel (E/C.12/ISR/3).
The second periodic report of Estonia (E/C.12/EST/2) notes that the Republic of Estonia acceded to the United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural
Rights on 21 October 1991, and the report covered the period from 2000 to April 2007. The Gender Equality Act entered into effect on 1 May 2004, and guarantees equal treatment of the sexes and promotes equality of women and men. Women’s participation in decision making has increased, and 24.8 per cent of Members of Parliament are women, as well as 50 per cent of Members of the European Parliament. In 2007 there were 116,248 persons with undetermined citizenship living in Estonia, eight per cent of the population. Now the figure is under 100 000. However absence of Estonian citizenship was not an obstacle to enjoying economic, social and cultural rights. The Equal Treatment Act protects persons from discrimination, particularly in the fields of employment and education. Furthermore the Penal Code provides for punishment of several offences involving discrimination, including incitement of hatred or violence. Amendments to the Child Protection Act in 2004 provide for children with special needs, while the Social Welfare Act regulates child-minding, which supports women’s ability to work. The Maintenance Allowance Act provides for maintenance from either a non-resident parent or the State. The Employment Contracts Act provides that a person under 18 years cannot be an employee, apart from in exceptional cases. The sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography are all prohibited. Measures are being taken to reduce juvenile crime and also violence against children.
The State has long-term objectives to reduce poverty and improve the standard of living, particularly for families with children, children with special needs, elderly people and people with disabilities. New housing has been built, although one third of Estonian dwellings were at the time of reporting in need of renovations. Then Estonia could be characterized by a concentrated HIV/AIDS epidemic, particularly among intravenous drug users, and although new cases were decreasing there was an increase in HIV infections acquired through sexual contact. Slightly less than half of the population do not engage in any sports, and while there was a shortage of sports facilities, measures are being taken to develop the habit of physical exercise in school children and a school health care system was being developed. Eating habits of Estonians have improved, with a large increase in the daily consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables. Although the average life expectancy in Estonia has risen (71,6 years in 2003), the difference between life expectancy of men and women is still more than 10 years. In 2010 the life expectancy is 75.8. However both infant mortality and the number of stillbirths have decreased in recent years.
Presentation of the Report
LAURI BAMBUS, Undersecretary for Legal and Consular Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia, gave a brief overview of the developments in employment, social policy, health care, education and culture that had taken place since the last report of Estonia. Legislative reform included the new Employment Contract Act, which regulates employment relations. Due to the changes in the economic climate, the supply of active labour market measures was adjusted with emphasis on services that supported employment placement and job creation. Estonia had seen the largest decrease in unemployment rates in the European Union (from 17.9 per cent in 2010 to 12.8 per cent in 2011). The Equal Treatment Act entered into force in 2009 to protect persons against discrimination on grounds of nationality (ethnic origin), race, colour, religion or other beliefs, age, disability or sexual orientation. Several measures to promote gender equality had been taken, including the expansion of the competence of the Gender Equality Commissioner, creating the Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner, training, media campaigns, seminars and studies on work and family life.
Most Government funding between 2008 and 2010 concentrated on reducing expenditure rather than enhancing revenue, but despite those financial pressures the main social protection schemes, including family benefits and social services, were retained. In 2008 Estonia adopted a National Health Plan which aimed to reduce mortality and morbidity rates. Several new and renovated health centres and sports hall had been opened, in addition to the development of sports for disabled people. There were awareness-raising campaigns on HIV, substance abuse and alcohol, and HIV rates and alcohol consumption had both decreased. A development plan to reduce violence against children, violence committed by children, violence against women and trafficking in human beings had been accepted by parliament in April 2010, and a ‘Children and Families Development Plan for 2012 to 2020’ had recently been adopted and a children’s ombudsman established.
A new national curriculum aimed at resolving several issues in general education was being implemented, while a new Vocational Educational Institutions Act provided opportunities to combine work experience with study. Funding for work-related adult education had been increased, particularly for vulnerable groups, as well as financial and technical support for adult students to learn the Estonian language, to participate in the Estonian labour market. In 2011 Tallinn - the capital of Estonia - is the European Capital of Culture, which is an excellent opportunity for the country to introduce itself through culture in all of Europe and beyond. Estonia spends more and employs more persons in culture fields than any other European Union Member State. The introduction of cultural heritage in a virtual and digital environment, through archives, museums, libraries and translation services had made national culture more easily available to residents of Estonia, including the visually impaired. The Estonian Integration Strategy for 2008 to 2013 aimed to support residents’ sense of belonging in Estonian society, through sharing common values and being proficient in the State language; a 2010 survey consequently showed improvements in the Estonian language skills of the non-Estonian speaking population, particularly among young people.
Questions from Experts
A Committee Expert congratulated the State party on their detailed, clear and concise report but noted there was neither a National Institution for Human Rights or a National Human Rights Plan, following the Paris Principles.
There were reports that some racist organization had harassed or attacked ethnic minorities – was there a specific law on the rights of minorities? The Estonian Integration Strategy was more to do with Estonian culture. Gender discrimination was another problem, especially strong gender stereotyping, the salary divide, scant participation of women in decision-making spheres and violence – both against women and in general.
While the State party spoke about language training in education, in political and legal fields much work remained to be done. Language training undoubtedly helped integration but what was the political participation of the non-Estonian population? What awareness-raising of social integration was in place?
An Expert asked how the State party regarded past recommendations from the Committee. He also asked whether the Government intended to have a general law on discrimination. The Russian-speaking minority, who constituted one third of the total population – a very large minority – were discriminated against by the language and citizenship requirements of employers. The unemployment rate of persons with disabilities was very high – were there plans to deal with that issue head on?
The report referred to the protection and promotion of human rights, particularly gender inequality. Nevertheless, there were still issues; for instance women spent at least two hours more per day than men in housework and child rearing. There was also strong sexual separation in the fields of education – many disciplines had either 100 per cent male, or 100 per cent female students.
Estonia had the greatest gap between men’s and women’s salaries of any European Union country, 30 per cent, although that was said to have been decreased to 20 per cent. That was not only gender discrimination but labour discrimination. Could the delegation provide more information on what was being done to narrow, or even close that gap?
An Expert congratulated the State party on the impressive reforms they had taken: not only legislative, but specific actions. Could the delegation provide information as to whether a qualitative assessment of the impact of all the reforms had been taken or was planned?
Response by the Delegation
In response to the questions and comments, the delegation said that Estonia had a Gender Equality Act but no specific law on gender discrimination. However the Estonian constitution regulated equal treatment and non-discrimination, and the Public Service Act provided against discrimination of anyone working, or who wished to work in, the public service – both of those included all types of gender discrimination.
Measures taken to promote gender equality included a campaign to eradicate gender stereotypes. However campaigns are usually very short term and it was difficult to measure how they influenced society, so training was provided for employers and employees, including legal professionals, on the Gender Equality Act and promoting gender equality in the workplace. Help was provided to women to reconcile work and family life, for instance flexible and affordable childcare possibilities, and to show employers and families that children usually had two parents – to promote the participation of fathers in child rearing – which would give women more opportunities to participate in the labour market. The Government believed that the promotion of gender equality (in education) should start early in life, so materials and projects to help teachers understand gender equality concerns in their work were available. Estonia was working to diminish the pay gap between women and men. A survey about causes of the gender pay gap in Estonia was conducted as the Government needed to know more about the causes in order to take targeted measures. A delegate mentioned a recent poll which showed that, compared with statistics from ten years ago, men were working slightly less than women, men were doing more childcare, housework, cooking, and working from home. The Government was working on gender equality, and there was evidence that the situation was improving.
There was no discrimination against Russian-speaking minorities in education, as there was an opportunity to study in Russian from pre-school up to secondary level, and 25 per cent of the Estonian population did so. The Government had no intention of closing Russian-speaking primary schools. In private schools the language of instruction was chosen by the owner of the school. Russian-speaking State schools were given the same amount of funding as Estonian-speaking schools.
Research into the Roma people showed that less than 100 Roma children currently attended State schools. Of those, 18 children had Roma as their mother tongue. Roma students did not have language problems because linguistically they were very talented, although they often repeated classes because they had problems with written language. Over half of those children were studying in special needs schools, and there were training programmes to teach teachers how to recognize the needs of Roma children.
There were integration strategies for young people with different mother tongues, and there were activities which aimed to build better cooperation and understanding between Estonians and Russians, and other mother tongue students.
Only public sector employers had set mandatory language requirements, they were not compulsory in other employment sectors.
The low employment rate of persons with disabilities – currently 13 per cent – was a concern of the Government. The Government had taken steps to improve the situation since the last report in 2008, such as the 2009 Equal Treatment Act which prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability. A new social benefit was available to help people pay additional costs related to their disability: for example transportation costs, for technical equipment or for personal support. A person with disabilities had the right to take longer holidays and rest time from their job, which was paid for by the State. Recently Estonia had widened the scope of the labour market including for persons with disabilities, , a wage subsidy for employers of persons with disabilities, support for job interviews or provision of a support person in the workplace. Any person employing a person with disabilities could claim back 100 per cent of the costs of adapting the workplace with special equipment. A handbook of good practice for employers was available. A Government priority was to ratify the United Nations Convention on Persons with Disabilities.
The Government had decided that, as a small country, it was not purposeful for Estonia to have too many separate institutions, so it was decided that instead of creating a new National Human Rights Office under the Paris Principles, the Office of the Chancellor of Justice would act as an NHRI for Estonia, which had independent financing. However due to political and staffing issues this arrangement had not yet been created.
A member of the delegation said he was not aware of any racist organizations in Estonia, but if any organizations did have racist elements the police were dealing with them, although there were sensitivities with regard to freedom of speech.
During the last 17 years, Estonian citizenship had been granted to over 150,000 persons, which (15 percent) was unprecedented in the world. Around 94,000 persons with undetermined citizenship living in Estonia did not have Estonian citizenship, a number that was decreasing. All persons with Estonian citizenship had the possibility of full political participation, especially the Members of Parliament. .
Concerning overseas development, the Millennium Development Goals were very ambitious targets. Despite the severe economic crisis, Estonian contributions – two thirds of which were given via the European Union - had largely not decreased. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) ranked Estonia among its top 35 donors. There was room for improvement but Estonia had to be compared to similarly-sized countries.
Estonian courts did not apply international conventions because it was not the competence of national courts to apply general provisions of international law, where corresponding specific domestic regulation was already in place: national law should be in line with international law.
The development plan to reduce violence against women and trafficking in human beings included dissemination of information on those issues, for example in school textbooks. Teachers were expected to discuss human rights and gender equality in the classroom and materials were available. Local authorities were expected to provide information on human trafficking and support for victims, there was research into the needs of victims of domestic violence, and funding was being raised for shelters. Although there was no specific legislation on domestic violence, the Government believed existing legislation was appropriate, but they needed to concentrate on its implementation.
Follow-Up Questions from Experts
A Committee Expert asked about the UNHCR list which ranked Estonia in the top 35 donor countries. The Millennium Development Goals (MDG) target was not the only source of the figure: the MDG target was only a recent target.
Was there any connection between the Chancellor of Justice and the Ombudsman for Children? Were they separate institutions?
Estonia was in the same situation as many European countries which had not wanted to modify their legislation to deal with trafficking in humans. However, new legislation to make trafficking in humans, and domestic violence, crimes under the penal code was needed.
Response from the Delegation
With a population of 1.3 million, Estonia was a small country, and their development aid was 0.10 per cent of GDP, with the European Union-aligned aim of reaching 0.17 per cent by 2015. However with unemployment and the economic crisis it was difficult to convince the population why overseas aid was necessary, so Estonia was proud they had maintained the 0.10 per cent.
Questions from Experts
An Expert noted that despite the difficult period Estonia had an impressive record of economic transformation, which was welcomed by the Committee. However the employment rates of ethnic minorities, down to 9.7 per cent from almost 16 per cent, was a deceptive figure. The rate of 9.7 per cent was 2.5 times higher for ethnic minorities in Estonia than for the general population. Unemployment in the north-east of the country was twice as high as elsewhere in the country. Comparatively speaking the problem not only existed but was aggravated. What did the State party intend to do to improve its efforts in that field?
He also noted that almost 10 per cent of persons in Estonia did not have citizenship. Why did Estonia not ratify the Council of Europe’s 2009 Convention on Avoidance of Statelessness?
Unemployment benefit in Estonia was a matter of concern, as it continued to be 50 per cent of the previous wage, for 100 days, then 40 per cent afterwards. Persons who had been accused of ‘loss of confidence’ or an ‘indecent act’ were exempt from claiming unemployment benefit - those exceptions seemed wide and easily abused by employers.
Estonia considered that mandatory work in prison was not contrary to the Convention. Were prisoners paid for the work they did, and if so, was it a market wage? Did they get any social protection?
The monthly minimum wage had changed greatly, from the equivalent of €118 in 2002 to the equivalent of €278 in 2011. What information was available on women’s careers and job prospects? Women were usually the first to be laid off in redundancy rounds, more often worked part time and often did not have a career as such. Were there a sufficient number of labour inspectors?
Could the delegation provide additional information on the employment situation of older women and single mothers? What day-care facilities were available for children from one to five years of age? The report said to reduce age-related discrimination in work, employers could no longer terminate employment contracts just because a person turned 65 years – how did that work and what was the effect of that 2006 provision?
Could the delegation comment on the difficulties encountered in cleaning ground water, and also with regard to sanitation, especially under the new Waste Act?
An Expert said that Estonia was a small country, so why did it have such high rates of domestic violence? Statistics showed that 49 per cent of Estonians, women and men aged 15 to 54, had suffered either physical or emotional abuse. Estonia seemed a very peaceful country and poverty was not the reason, so why did it have such high rates? Bullying in schools was also an issue, as one third of school pupils said they had been victim of mental violence and one quarter victims of physical violence.
What was the minimum age for children to work, and also what was the minimum age of marriage?
How were older women, particularly widows, looked after especially in respect to health coverage?
Family doctors frequently had to fill the role of nurses because there was a shortage of nurses, particularly in rural areas. What was the State party doing to rectify that?
Tuberculosis rates had deceased, but were still high among certain groups, including ethnic minorities and HIV/AIDS sufferers. Had the World Health Organization been helpful in that respect?
What steps had the State party taken to combat alcohol and tobacco abuse? While tobacco abuse had been reduced following effective national campaigns, alcoholism was a particular problem in Estonia – although not specific to Estonia – were the figures related to alcoholism indicative of the human rights situation of people involved?
What was being done to reduce the suicide rate? Some reports say it could be due to the climate and long winters, as seen in Finland, but there could be other causes. There was an institute of suicideology, particularly for children and young adults, what were the institute’s findings so far?
The report gave statistics on psychiatric healthcare, but was there any information on psychiatric healthcare for prison inmates?
Estonia’s sexual health education in schools was an example of best practices, and other States should look at it. What was the State party doing to build on that, particularly in the context of reproductive rights? There were an enormous number of abortions in Estonia, despite having sex education in schools. Were the sexual health services responsive enough, to prevent abortion being used as a form of contraception?
The State party was very candid to say six to seven per cent of the Estonian work-age labour force was inactive due to disease or inefficiency; what was being done about this?
Drug use was increasing in Estonia: for example in 1995 eight per cent of school students between 15 and 18 had experimented with drugs, in 2007 the percentage of students experimenting with drugs was 30 per cent. What system was used to provide methadone to drug addicts, particularly to prevent HIV/AIDS infection from shared syringes? A UNAIDS report stated that in 2004, 502,000 syringes were distributed but in 2009, 2,000,000 syringes were given out – in a country with a population of 1.3 million. What was Estonia doing about that, and also about drug trafficking and the sale of drugs?
The health system in Estonia appeared to be a public one, although there was discussion about having a private health system. Could the delegation provide up to date information on the health system and current issues?
What was being done to address the acute shortage of housing in Estonia, not just in the capital city of Tallinn – half the rural municipalities had housing shortages. In view of those shortages, was the practice of forced eviction for debtors fair? What circumstances allowed evictions to take place without due legal process, which would be in contravention of the Convention?
Response by the Delegation
In response to the questions and comments, the delegation said a lot of recommendations were made in Estonia’s last Universal Period Review, some on citizenship, and not all were accepted by Estonia. The problem began in 1991, following the 50 years of Soviet occupation. Now Estonia had advanced well; it did not believe it had the right to force its citizenship on anyone, and that was why numbers of citizenship-less people were high, particularly among older people. However younger generations were adapting to the situation.
Organizations with racist tendencies were dealt with by the Security Police Board, which took measures against both left and right wing extremists, and terrorists, for example by combating their recruitment procedures or cutting off funding.
There was a Development Plan to combat trafficking in persons, which in particular included training for legal personnel – including judges and prosecutors – on the issue. Specific provisions of the Penal Code on human trafficking had been drafted and should reach the Parliament before the end of the year.
Unemployment had decreased for both men and women, and the minimum wage had indeed increased, as had the average amount of unemployment benefits, both of which helped to prevent the risk of poverty. Some cuts had been made to social benefits, such as school allowance, made at the start of the year, and also the student loan compensation for parents, but all other benefits remained. During the economic crisis the Government had even managed to increase pensions by five per cent. Estonia had a strict budgetary and fiscal policy, which enabled pensions to be preserved and even raised.
Labour in prisons was not compulsory for prisoners in certain circumstances, such as ill-health, pregnancy, raising a child under three years, etcetera. If a prisoner worked, he or she had to work for the so-called State Works, meaning it was organized by the prison. If the prison signed a contract with a private company then the prisoner could decide whether or not to work. Working prisoners were paid a salary, which was paid into a prisoner’s personal account, but could only be spent within the prison (for example in the prison shop). Prisoners salaries were 20 per cent of the minimum wage, currently €95 per month, and also all the benefits they were entitled to, including unemployment insurance benefit upon release from prison. If the prisoner had a family, they would receive a survivor’s pension according to the Pension Insurance Act.
Children’s working age was related to their age and their school obligations: an employer could enter into a contract with a child from the age of 13, if the duties were simple and did not require any major physical or mental effort. Children aged seven to 11 were allowed to do very light work in the fields of culture, art, sports and advertising. The Labour Inspectorate had to approve the contracts, and of course minors had shortened work times and restrictions, such as no work before school or at night.
If a person had their employment contract terminated because of ‘loss of confidence’ they were not entitled to unemployment benefit. ‘Loss of confidence’ could be applied if an employee, for example, breached their duties following a warning, appeared at work in a state of intoxication, committed theft, fraud or breached their employers trust, or violated or threatened to violate their employers property.
Estonia currently had enough Labour Inspectors: there were 63 Inspectors working out of four centres. Their remit included overseeing health and safety provisions on building and other work sites, in schools, training employers in health and safety and evaluating the quality of occupational health services.
Under the Prohibition of Discrimination in Professional Life, sexual harassment was defined, and employers had a duty of care if they were aware, or should reasonably have been aware, that sexual harassment occurred and did nothing to stop it.
There had been Supreme Court judgements on the issue of older women in the labour market, specifically in public service.
The strategy of ‘Safe Schools’, launched in 2008, addressed the issue of violence. The Strategy was based on the results of research from both children and adults. One reason for the violence was the lack of social skills: children were lacking problem-solving strategies and skills on how to resolve difficult situations. The new curriculum included ways to give school children those social skills. Violence from teachers – particularly verbal or mental abuse – had been complained about by students. Violent behaviour was part of a social model, especially for boys, was accepted by their peers and so ran very deeply. Estonian students were very good at using information technology, but their parents were unable to protect their children from violence on social media and other online platforms. E-police had been established to care for children and protect them from potential dangers on the internet. Family violence and quarrels had to be considered very carefully, as the answers to surveys were often ambiguous or subjective.
As a rule the legal age of marriage starts at 18. The minimum age for marriage in Estonia was 15 years, but if a person was between 15 and 17 years a judge had to give them permission to get married, taking into account the best interests of the child and parental approval. If one parent did not want the child go get married it was up to a judge to decide.
The main reason Estonia had not ratified the European Union Convention on Nationality was that the Act would have to allow duel citizenship to persons who had another citizenship from birth; under the Estonian Citizenship Act one of the principles was to avoid dual or triple citizenship. While the proportion of Russian-speakers was high, most were Estonian citizens and only seven per cent had undetermined citizenship: approximately 85 per cent of the Estonian population were Estonian citizens.
Estonia used the term ‘undetermined citizenship’ instead of ‘stateless’ deliberately because the Government wanted to allow the persons who arrived in Estonia during the Soviet occupation a choice of citizenship, whether Russian or Estonian. Regarding their freedom of movement, Estonia supplied those persons with a so-called ‘grey passport’, travel documents which allowed free travel into both Russia and the European Union, without a visa. Most of those persons were Russian speaking, but not all were Russian: some were Ukrainian, Latvian and so on.
Health education was a continuous part of formal education, and the topic was included in the curriculum. There were many sub-topics, one of which was sexual education, and the main aim was to teach students to live a healthy life, to teach them about risks, and prevention of alcohol and drug abuse. Health and non-governmental organizations helped by staging informal awareness-raising events targeted at students.
The tremendous growth of drug use in Estonia, particularly by students, was possibly due to the travel experiences abroad of Estonians, who experienced drugs outside of the country then brought them back home. There were several agencies and drug units that were working on the issue, particularly awareness-raising of the dangers among students. It was a global problem that must be tackled.
Follow-Up Questions from Committee Experts
An Expert said he was surprised about the explanation for rising drug use among students, and said he struggled to believe it was simply a consequence of young people travelling. It was indeed a global problem, but that was not an adequate reply. How did the State confront the issue?
An Expert said she had raised several questions on the health service without reply, including about supply of methadone for drug addicts – was it free of charge? Did therapeutic abortion exist and what were the restrictions on abortion? Could the population freely access abortion? What about the debate on public versus private healthcare and its sustainability?
Was there any relation between domestic violence and the high consumption of alcohol in Estonia? Was the high rate of violence in schools related to divorce? An Expert said he was trying to find the real causes of the exceptionally high rate of violence in schools.
The current general age limit for participation in pornographic work was 18, but for erotic work the age limit was 14. That children should be allowed to work in erotic work at such a young age needed to be revised – what was the difference between erotic work and pornography? That was very surprising.
Given that cardiovascular disease was one of the major causes of death in Estonia, what was the Government doing to combat it?
Response by the Delegation
A delegate said he did not intend to trivialise drug abuse: the authorities took the issue very seriously, and police operations were quite efficient at catching drug dealers.
It was difficult to directly answer the question about children working in erotic and pornographic fields, but it was referred to in the report. Since February 2010 the legal provision had been amended as two separate provisions to say that the use of a person less than 14 years of age, or a helpless person of less than 18 years of age in an erotic film, photo or performance was prohibited. So just as before the amendment, the current age limit for participation in pornographic work was 18 years, and for erotic work was 14 years old.
A delegate said he agreed that alcohol was a related issue to domestic violence, but recent statistics showed that the consumption of alcohol in Estonia was fortunately reducing, and the current campaigns were taking effect. Large-scale alcohol especially affected young persons, particularly in summertime, for example if they got drunk then went swimming, and ended up drowning.
The high suicide rate was also related to the high rate of alcohol consumption. Estonia cooperated closely with its northern neighbours, Finland and Sweden, where the suicide rate was also high. There were programmes and a special hotline for persons to talk and get counselling, particularly aimed at young people. The Government hoped that the recent increase of tax on alcohol would help reduce its consumption.
Questions from Committee Experts
A Committee member said he found the report quite detailed. On the whole Estonia did respect the principles of the right to education and the school population, from nursery school to higher education, seemed to have all of their rights quite well respected, in particular in the main languages of instruction (Estonian and Russian). However the statistics provided on the gender break-down of enrolment in study programmes were too detailed and difficult to understand. How many adults benefitted from adult education?
An Expert asked about the school drop-out rate, did the delegation think it would be possible to reduce drop-out rate at the secondary level, and could they explain their plans for the future? According to the last census of 2000 there were 2,852 illiterate persons in Estonia – ten years on, what were the figures for illiteracy – had they increased or decreased?
Regarding cultural issues, how did the State party make the best use of scientific progress? Going beyond tangible heritage, such as museums and libraries, what did Estonia do to guarantee access by the population, including minorities, to those cultural resources? The Ministry of Culture had entrusted to a private company a survey on access, titled ‘Cultural Consumption’. Culture should be more than just a commodity – there should be access for all people regardless of the purchasing power. It should not be the case that the more you earn, the more access you have to culture. The State needed to ensure equal access to cultural goods for all the population, including low-income families, rural communities and ethnic minorities.
Response from Delegation
Almost half of students in vocational school studied after finishing upper secondary school, and the second half attended vocational school after finishing their basic, nine-year education.
Drop-out rates were not very high, but as a small country every person was important. Fortunately those drop-out numbers had already fallen, and were continuing to fall. Adult education participation rate had fortunately increased, to 10.9 per cent of adult people in education or training. That number was below the European Union average, and the Government aimed to reach, by 2013, 13 per cent participation.
Regarding illiteracy rates, the next census was due to take place in 2012. Estonia was a participant in an international study on illiteracy, so would have data from that next year. As Estonian language was an official language of the European Union, Estonia was very interested in promoting it.
There were cultural and social programmes aimed at elderly, retired or disabled people, particularly in participation with non-governmental organizations. A special programme supported the travelling costs of theatres taking stage performances around the country. Ticket prices were half price for students and retired people, and there were special days when museums or theatre companies had free entrance. Library buses took books around the regions, although a lot of effort and money had gone into virtual solutions. Free Internet was available for all in libraries. Another programme ran in cinemas, where municipalities could buy the technical equipment to show films in different locations.
The Government took great care to ensure access to culture for all, including ethnic minorities: cultural exhibitions were not always just about Estonian culture. For instance a Russian minority group ‘Russian Old Believers’ had an interesting and rich culture and dialogue and were supported by a special programme. Websites and newspapers also got involved. The Ministry of Culture was planning to compose a Programming document to develop and promote the cultural heritage of Estonian Swedes. Sunday schools were available to ethnic groups, who could hire a language teacher to give lessons, and they were Government funded. There were many television programmes aimed at ethnic minorities and they covered cultural issues as well.
Health insurance in Estonia relied on the principle of solidarity, and covered the costs of health services required by a person, regardless of the amount of tax paid by an individual. Health insurance was compulsory for all persons with economic activity, while a large group of non-economically active persons, for example children and pensioners, were covered by solidarity. There was no qualifying period to get health insurance services or benefits. Insurance covered doctor’s care, hospital care, dental care for under 19 year olds, HIV and Tuberculosis treatment, and certain vaccinations. The insurance also provided sickness benefits for the temporarily incapacitated, including maternity benefit. It did not cover some hospital accommodation and dental care of adults. Health insurance was automatically given to elderly persons receiving pensions, injured persons’ spouses with less than five years left before retirement age, and carers of persons with disabilities, including carers of children with disabilities. Since May 2009, for the first time all registered unemployed persons were also covered, as were pregnant women.
Government strategies to reduce HIV/AIDS and drug addiction focused on primary prevention, treatment and monitoring, with emphasis on awareness-raising campaigns and training. Within the framework of the school curriculum, HIV/AIDS and drug addiction were discussed from a young age. Sexual and reproductive health education was offered in youth centres, while counselling and information websites run by the Government, which included free and anonymous advice from specialists, were also available. There had been recent campaigns on the use of condoms; offering free HIV tests with counselling; and International AIDS Day was celebrated annually with a concert and national TV coverage. There were estimated to be 13,000 intravenous drug users in Estonia, and needle-exchange services were well used, financed by both the State and also taxes from gambling, for example. Methadone treatment was provided in nine different locations, and in the last year over 1,500 people benefitted: however the Government would like that coverage to be higher.
To reduce tobacco and alcohol abuse there was a five per cent rise in duty tax on tobacco in 2010, and free counselling and awareness-raising campaigns, such as an annual ‘Smoke-Free Classrooms’ campaign in schools. Last year the same campaign ran on the topic of alcohol use, with an ‘Alcohol-Free Classroom’ theme. The Estonian alcohol policy included a 10 per cent raise in duty tax, and a ban on the sale of alcohol from 10 p.m. to 10 a.m.
The number of abortions had declined in all age groups by 16 per cent in 2010, compared to 2008 figures. Measures to reduce abortions focused on counselling, Family Therapy Services, Pregnancy Crisis Councelling, information campaigns on contraception and improvements to sexual education in schools. Information on myths connected with pregnancy had been widely disseminated, while the availability of contraception had improved – consequently the use of contraception had risen.
Life expectancy in Estonia had substantially increased, from 71.6 years in 2003 to 75.8 years today, mostly because of the reduction in risk behaviour, improvements in personal health behaviour and also medical progress.
All prisoners had access to healthcare services, including free dental care, as every prison had a health department providing services including psychiatric counselling and treatment.
A recent health survey found that depression was higher among women, the elderly and persons with low income. Since 2007 there had been a 9.2 per cent decrease in the number of persons with depression. A possible cause of the high suicide rate in Estonia was the high alcohol and drug consumption; 51 per cent of persons who committed suicide had consumed alcohol prior to killing themselves. It was important to note a decrease in the Estonian suicide rate from 24 suicides per 100,000 in 2003 to 15 per 100,000 today. The Ministry of Health continued to work to reduce the suicide rate and enhance preventative strategies, such as better diagnosis of depression. Children’s mental health clinics were being established through a special collaboration with the Government of Norway.
The delegation said a Committee Expert had raised concerns about family practitioners (doctors) performing the work of nurses, because of a shortage of nurses. There was a project to bring nurses back to work in primary healthcare and to double the amount of nurses working with family practitioners, from one to two.
Many injuries or risk behaviour in Estonia were a result of alcohol consumption. To tackle the problem the Government had banned the sale of alcohol after 10 p.m. There were awareness-raising campaigns about drink-driving and being careful after consuming alcohol, such as when crossing railway lines or swimming. A national programme, Estonia 2020, aimed to reduce accidents, for instance by teaching health awareness and risky behaviour in schools.
In answer to a question about the future of State health insurance, Estonia was worried about the financial sustainability not only of healthcare but of the entire social security system. Just last week a report on the topic was released which concluded that the healthcare and social security system were directly influenced by tax payers. The report’s analysis included suggestions for areas where private healthcare insurance could be introduced, and where voluntary contributions to State health insurance could be increased over coming years. Currently there were few privately owned hospitals and private health insurance was little used.
Regarding women’s opportunities in decision-making roles, all the largest political parties in Estonia had women’s associations, although no party leaders were women. Almost 30 per cent of Estonian candidates were women in the 2009 European Parliament elections, which was an increase from the 2004 elections. The 2007 Estonian parliamentary elections saw women voted in to be 24 per cent of Members of Parliament, although in the recent 2011 parliamentary elections that percentage fell to 20 per cent. In 2003 the first female Speaker of the Parliament was elected and there was a cross-party women’s committee. In the 2009 local elections 38 per cent of candidates were women, and approximately 30 per cent of women were elected to local councils. There was currently only one woman Minister at Cabinet level. In the Supreme Court of Estonia only two out of 19 judges were women. In the private sector women made up 34 per cent of business leaders and seven per cent of company directors.
Direct measures taken by the Government to enhance women’s presence in decision-making roles included campaigns such as the 2007 Gender Equality Competition Project which aimed to get more women into politics. It featured radio programmes, a film, TV debates, conferences, seminars, press articles and events aimed specifically at young students. Consequently the 2007 elections saw the highest number of women ever elected to parliament. Activities to promote women’s entrepreneurship included projects to finance small companies, especially to reintegrate long-term unemployed women or mothers of large families back into the labour market. As well as providing financial support those projects also offered training and counselling.
A gender equality monitoring survey was in place, there was a gender equality employment network, and there had been studies into the gender pay gap. A media campaign aimed at reducing discrimination, and included not only ‘outdoor media’ such as TV and radio adverts, but also competitions and support for job seekers, particularly young women. Training had been given to private employers, through workshops, conferences and seminars, on how to promote gender equality in their businesses.
Minors only married in exceptional cases. A court could allow a 15 year old to marry, upon consideration of many factors, most of all what was in the best interest of the minor. The marriages of minors made up only 0.4 per cent of all marriages: in 2010 no persons aged 15 were married, seven women aged 16 did marry and five women aged 17 married.
In 2010 only 65 work permits were given to minors; there were two complaints related to those about the working time restrictions given the minors. In 2012 the Government would start drafting a new Child Protection Act; it was hoped that would meet the Committee’s requirements the next time Estonia presented their report.
“e-Estonia” was the term commonly used to describe Estonia’s emergence as one of the most advanced e-societies in the world. Over 1.1 million people in Estonia – 90 per cent of inhabitants – had an electronic ID card which could be used to access every innovative e-service in Estonia. Other e-services included voting in elections, paying income taxes, dealing with police issues, healthcare, digital prescriptions and access to personal health records, education (for children, their parents and teachers), banking (98 per cent of all bank transactions took place on the Internet) and even buying public transport tickets. All of Estonia was covered by free wireless internet access – from forests to beaches to towns.
It was in the interest of all Governments to have healthy food and water supplies. With closer cooperation with the European Union countries, the local governments of Estonia had improved the quality of ground water in almost all regions of Estonia, although there were still improvements to be made.
Follow-Up Questions by Experts
A Committee Expert stated that although the numbers provided on marriage of minors, which was actually called ‘child marriage’, were small, work still needed to be done: it was not right to allow minors, under the age of 18, to marry. The main reason for those marriages was usually pregnancy, so there was a need to improve sexual and reproductive health education. Those girls needed to be prevented from dropping out of school as well.
An Expert also asked for more specific information on the financing of the general culture budget, museums and other cultural institutions, and the Ministry of Culture’s policy.
Response by the Delegation
A delegate noted that the follow-up questions were more comments than questions, but said by the next report more detailed information on child marriages and educational programmes in schools would be made available.
The Ministry of Culture gave financial support to both high level fine arts and the folk culture of all nationalities who were living in Estonia. The policy included supporting cultural autonomy and ethnic heritage of all persons living in Estonia, and to increase the possibilities of all members of society to participate in cultural decision making, and to harmonize Estonian cultural policies with those of the European Union. Until 2008 the budget for culture had increased, but funding also came from structural funds, endowment, annually-collected gambling taxes and the budgets of other ministries in addition to the Ministry of Culture.
LAURI BAMBUS, Undersecretary for Legal and Consular Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, recalled that since 2008 Estonia had made many legislative reforms, such as the 2009 Employment Contracts Act and the unemployment insurance fund. He noted that in the last year unemployment fell in 14 European Union Member States, and increased in 13: the largest fall was in Estonia, which was a good achievement. Social policy continued to prioritize the most vulnerable groups, including persons with disabilities and elderly persons, women and children. The Development Plan to reduce violence and the Health Action Plan were also major strategies for coming years, as was the ‘e-Estonia’ success story. Next time Estonia presented their report to the Committee they hoped to have more recent information; in the meantime Estonia took the Committee’s recommendations very seriously, and would publish them on the national website.
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