The small, Northern European nation of Estonia is rarely the focus of widespread media coverage in Europe. However, its advancements in women’s rights deserve attention. In 2015, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik committed to “concentrate on women’s human rights, gender equality and the empowerment of women also in development cooperation.”
The Big Picture
Globally, Estonia ranks high on several women’s rights issues. The Global Gender Gap Report (2022) states that Estonian men and women have equal access to financial services, justice and freedom of movement, etc. Estonia also ranks first in all indicators of educational attainment and healthy life expectancy.
In 2016, Estonia’s fifth president Kersti Kaljulaid became the first female leader in the country’s history. Estonia’s first female prime minister Kaja Kallas, elected in 2021, made Estonia the first nation in the world to be entirely run by women.
Data from U.N. Women found that females in Estonia have slightly higher levels of stability compared to their male counterparts. Food insecurity for adult women is slightly lower than for adult men, at 7.7% and 8.0% respectively. There are also fewer female children falling out of primary and lower secondary education at only 1.8% to the male rate of 2.4%.
Keeping young girls in school is a powerful tool to ensure that Estonian women remain educated and prepared to obtain better jobs in the future, lowering their chances of cyclical poverty.
Estonian women are some of the most highly educated in Europe. According to the CIA World Factbook, as of 2021, the literacy rate for Estonian women stood at 99.9%, on par with that of Estonian men. The percentage of Estonian women between 25 and 64 who completed higher education in 2021 was about 53%, well above the 36% average for the European Union.
The relatively low costs of tertiary education in Estonia help make higher education more accessible to women, especially those who are low-income. In 2013, a higher education reform made full-time, tertiary education programs conducted in Estonian free at public institutions. Unfortunately, the reform does not apply to part-time students. By providing free education for part-time students, more women, such as those who are low-income, care for children or have work-related duties, would be able to attain an education.
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Estonia’s female employment rate was 72% in 2021, significantly higher than the average of 61%. However, part of improving women’s rights in Estonia means making sure women have access to all areas of the workforce. Women are still underrepresented in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields which remain dominated by men. Instead, many women in Estonia work in low-earning fields such as education and retail.
Based on The Global Gender Gap Report (2022), women make an estimated $28,880 in earned income compared with men at $42,320. With so many women concentrated in low-paying or unpaid fields, there is little opportunity to rise out of poverty.
On February 11, 2021, the University of Tartu celebrated the International Day of Women and Girls in Science for the first time in Estonia. The U.N. established the day to celebrate and encourage women’s involvement in the sciences. Professors at the university recognized that the school’s large proportion of female students was not reflected in science and research roles. In their coverage of the event, Estonian World highlighted seven Estonian female scientists making a difference for women’s rights in Estonia and the world.
The Future of Women’s Rights
Despite all of the progress the Estonian government is making, there is still work to do. Local grassroots organizations are taking on the challenge of furthering women’s rights in Estonia. The Estonian Women’s Union/League (ENL) aims to unite women and safeguard their rights. The organization collaborates with state bodies and other democratic social organizations. ENL encourages women’s involvement in politics and organizes international conferences and training.
In 2008, ENL members participated in presenting the “Estonian Human Development Report 2007” which covered school violence, increase in unemployment, etc. In 2023, the organization continued its naming of “Mother of the Year,” a series meant to shine a light on Estonian mothers and the challenges they may face in supporting their children.
Women’s rights in Estonia have visibly improved in recent years, setting up the country for further success. The Estonian Women’s League is just one of a variety of local initiatives committed to empowering women from all walks of life, ensuring Estonia’s progress continues.
– Yesenia Aguilera