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At the Women Against Violence Europe (WAVE) Conference “25 years of defending women’s human rights: Milestones and visions for the future”

At the Women Against Violence Europe (WAVE) Conference “25 years of defending women’s human rights: Milestones and visions for the future” © Mattias Tammet/Office of the President


Welcome to Estonia and thank you for adding your wave to our wave.

Waves tend to amplify each other. Here in Estonia we are at the top of a considerable societal wave, having finally recognized that we have a problem and we have to find ways and means that would help us to solve the problem.

We are looking into the mirror now. Yet, only a few years ago we did not. We tended to think that since we are not a rich Scandinavian country, we cannot solve these problems and thus it may be better not even to speak about them.

People like Pille Tsopp-Pagan and her colleagues had to swim against this previous wave day by day, hearing that this problem is not important. That we have to grow our economy, deal with more pressing issues, and then maybe one day, when everything else is solved, we may start looking at the weaker in this society.

In many emerging countries, Estonia included, it seems quite common that the problems of the weaker are overlooked in the hope that some day in the future we will be better off and these issues would become resolved by themselves.

Estonia is a rare example of a country that has been able to radically change its economy for the better. Therefore we are now also able to disprove that if economy does well then all the social problems would disappear. It is markedly visible that we need to make a special effort to resolve these problems, including violence against women.

We feel very much supported by you. You validate our action here. Although there are still people here who doubt if we really have to deal with these issues, we are getting there. With your help, maybe a year or 6 months quicker, and somebody will find it easier to climb over the wall that separates the society or happy and the society of desperately unhappy and not knowing how to tell the other part that they are looking for help.

The growth of your organization within these 25 years – from a small informal network to the lively coalition of 150 members, representing 46 countries – reflects well the wave of change that we see around us.

A change that is the result of the work you and your colleagues are committed to. A change that makes many societies safer, fairer, more equal and just.

Of course, situation varies a lot country by country. Despite these variations, however, we can say that the momentum is sustained and continues to grow.

Gender based violence is not so easy to ignore, it is not any more treated as a private matter, like it was for far too long. Signing and ratification of the Istanbul Convention and other international agreements is driving states’ commitment for preventing and combating violence against women, and establishing clear and measurable standards for its implementation.

I also have to add that the process of ratification of the Istanbul Convention in Estonia revealed a lot to our citizens about how our politicians think. The transcripts were an interesting reading, but also a sad reading. They are a good explanation why we need to move forward.

Violence against women and girls is major public health issue globally, affecting one third of women worldwide. We see challenges remaining, rising, and also returning.

For example, in this country abortion has been the right of every woman from 1955. Yes, it was overused in the Soviet Union due to the lack of other measures, but it was our right to decide about our bodies. I never thought that my daughter would even hear about discussion over abortion rights and yet it has happened. So, some discussions, even if you think they are long forgotten, keep coming back. This means we need to continue with vigilance.

For example, we have operated a MARAC network in one region of Estonia and this system has proved itself as a way forward. The wonderful connection MARAC makes between different actors made us realize that we don’t even need so much more resources, but we first need to put people in the same room and exchange phone numbers. MARAC will now be present everywhere in Estonia and I hope that all the participants will be as understanding and enthusiastic as the people in WAVE.

My classmate Kai Part has been standing up for 25 years for the rights of the women who have been sexually abused. From this autumn she will teach a course at the Estonian Police Academy on how to help women, who have been subjected to sexual violence.

At the same time we see in this system that we need to build our capacity. For 25 years we have operated as a network of enthusiasts, not being too much supported by the institutions. And even though the institutions are now more equipped and ready, there is a risk that we won’t be able to respond to the demand if the numbers go up. And the numbers are growing quickly when we break down this wall and the violence is not hidden any more.

I hope that you help us to put this message forward – once we have accepted that we have this problem, we need to make sure that everybody who dares to climb over that wall (or feels that it really doesn’t exist anymore) will get help quickly. This cannot rely on voluntary efforts only and has to become more systematic.

As you see we have made leaps. Now we are searching how to make the next step and be really institutionally ready to respond. We have very well informed and involved people among our police officers and in the legal system, but we also still have pockets of ignorance. And we still have people, who tend to build the wall back as high as it was before. Hearing stories from those who have past through the system, we cannot say that we are happy and comfortable. Thus the work has to continue, and we also need to continue the scientific debate and discussion, how we treat people who have been subject to violence.

I believe this is the case in many countries, because our knowledge base is growing and our empathy in the society needs to grow together with the knowledge. This is not always easy

We also have less sinister issues, like the question of kindergartens – how many children have access to kindergartens, how easy it is, etc. It is generally easy in Estonia, but there are other problems such as stigmatizing women who want to have a work-life balance that allows them to move ahead in their career. Our kindergartens are normally open until 7PM if you are lucky, but women also need to take business trips, may get back from the other end of the country later in the evening, they may have the need to keep their child in kindergarten overnight. There are two problems with this. First, we don`t have that kind of kindergartens and secondly, it would be stigmatized if you put your child into such a place. So we have two fights here – we need to find the places and then make using them totally normal.

I have been looking a lot at the situation in Europe where the ladies of my age or older were the first wave of the emancipation in the western countries. They were allowed to gain in their stance, but it was only if they agreed to give up being women. You either didn`t have children or if you did, then you parked them somewhere and never mentioned them, never took the days off when they were sick. It was the same here in the 1990ies.

It is very clear that nowadays we are not satisfied with this. We want to remain women and want to be taken seriously in the workplace. I don`t know about other countries, but here in Estonia we are partially helped by a younger generation of men, who want to participate in the lives of their children. They have obviously been brought up by my generation of women, which makes us proud of ourselves.

Nowadays an employer cannot be sure that if they hire a young man then he would not be taking a parental leave. Indeed, my own son-in-law, when it happened first time, was told by his employer: “Make sure it doesn`t happen next time.”

We also have a wonderfully generous parental leave system, normally taken by mothers. It is long term, but buys you out from the workplace, because you start loosing it when you start working. It is also not flexible – you cannot divide these 18 months to the period of 5 or 10 years. It means that women are totally out from the workforce when they have their children, while their classmates are moving up with their careers. And then we are astonished if we come up with the highest pay gap between men and women in Europe! I think it is perfectly understandable with this system, unless we radically make it more flexible and thus more fitting to the need of women who also want to be visible in the workplace.

We have a lot of women working at the caring jobs and there may even be some who feel uncomfortable when they see, for example, a male teacher in the kindergarten. So, you see, we have a long way to overcome all those rigid old understandings.

The fact that 7% of our GDP is ICT, makes it certainly easier. This creates flexibility in the job market and this sector is also traditionally full of people who are rather liberal when it comes to societal issues, including all these young women who dare to face the difficulties and point them out loud and clear. I am very proud that the start-up sector in Estonia, while they try to help our society to develop quicker in many areas, is also taking the interest of women and girls into their heart and mind. In summer Estonia is full of camps called unicorn squads, digigirls etc. that try to promote girls in the digital society.

Estonia is digitally the most transformed country and it has shown us that digital is really inclusive, because it allows us to work wherever and whenever. I think women should fight for public digital services, because it is much easier to file your tax declaration or apply for social services online, while your baby is sleeping. In Estonia, women consider their human right to name their baby while in the hospital bed without the need to go to the city office. I am sorry that almost nobody, even in the developed countries, has this luxury. How new technologies make the life better for women could also be one discussion topic here today.

With this I would like to conclude. Thinking back to my own childhood, I grew up in occupied Estonia and the life was poor. But I come from family where already my grandmother went to university. We have had voting rights for women since our country was created in 1918.

So traditionally Estonia has been a place where women have had the opportunity to stand up for themselves. Thus, when I grew up I didn`t feel there was any glass ceiling. I was already past the university age when I hit the glass ceiling first time in this society and I was most disappointed when I went to work in the European institutions and hit the glass ceiling there too. The problem is still globally there and all the young women in the European Parliament or other institutions have stories, how they were treated according to their appearances, may it be conscious or unconscious gender bias. The most common story is exiting the elevator and being kindly delegated by the ushers to the translators’ box. Because if you are a woman in your 30ies then of-course the most important meeting room cannot for you.

I want us all to remember, that it doesn`t matter how developed or rich the society is, our fight continues and it does not resolve it by itself.