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Statement on the Government proposal for amending the Act on the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman (TAS 44/2021, issued on 4 March 2021)

The Ministry of Justice has requested the Ombudsman for Equality to issue a statement concerning the draft of a Government proposal (VN/547/2020) for establishing the position of an independent rapporteur on violence against women. The proposal suggests that the rapporteur would monitor violence against women, monitor and evaluate the policies and measures for preventing and combating violence against women, and monitor the effectiveness of national legislation, the realisation of the rights of victims of violence against women and the fulfillment of international obligations broadly across sectoral borders.

As a result of the Ombudsman for Equality’s report for 2018, Parliament adopted a position requiring the Government to look into measures such as appointing an independent body for the monitoring and evaluation of the implementation of the obligations imposed by the Istanbul Convention and preparing any required legislative amendments in that regard (EK 49/2018 vp). The Ombudsman for Equality considers the establishment of the position of rapporteur on violence against women to be of crucial importance.

In the Ombudsman for Equality’s opinion, violence against women has been one of Finland's most serious human rights issues. The Ombudsman for Equality addressed violence against women as a key problem for equality also in his report to Parliament (K 22/2018 vp) and considers that the proposed rapporteur’s position will enable a more effective response. It is of historic significance that, with the establishment of the rapporteur, violence against women will be recognised better as a national phenomenon, gender-based human rights violation and equality issue.

Awareness of the need to identify gender-based nature of violence and address the issue specifically from the perspective of women is crucial, since it will enhance efforts to prevent violence and protect victims. If they succeed in their duties, the rapporteur will help Finland reduce violence against women.

The Ombudsman for Equality considers it important that the rapporteur’s duties be based on human rights. Action for the elimination of violence against women is required by, e.g. the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Convention) and the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention). 

The Ombudsman for Equality also considers it important that, as proposed, the rapporteur's duties cover violence against women comprehensively and that the rapporteur have a broad selection of measures at their disposal, such as issuing proposals, recommendations, statements and advice, and commissioning or carrying out studies. Especially in the early stages of their work, the rapporteur would need to identify information needs and point out potential gaps. The Ombudsman commends the proposal that the rapporteur should issue recommendations to Parliament on how to better address violence against women, with a view to the prevention of violence and helping victims.

Insofar as the rapporteur’s duties relate to Article 10 of the Istanbul Convention, the Ombudsman for Equality agrees with the view of the expert body responsible for monitoring the implementation of the Istanbul Convention (GREVIO), according to which it is important to have the measures monitored and evaluated by a separate body independent of the Convention's implementation. 

Rapporteur's access to information

According to the proposal, the nature of the rapporteur's duties would not require access to confidential information. The Ombudsman for Equality does not consider the right of access to information suggested by the proposal to be sufficient. The Ombudsman for Equality considers that the Act on the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman should include a provision that would give the rapporteur the right to obtain information from authorities regardless of secrecy provisions.
The rapporteur's duties also cover the evaluation of the legal protection of victims. Even though the rapporteur would not process individual enquiries, they must be able to evaluate the realisation of the legal protection of victims. This could also require access to information on the handling of individual cases of violence and the realisation of legal protection in them.

In the opinion of the Ombudsman for Equality, evaluating victim support, access to services and the realisation of the perpetrators’ criminal liability generally requires evaluating the actions of the authorities. Many official documents of the health care and social services, police, prosecution and courts related to domestic and sexual violence contain confidential information. In the Ombudsman for Equality’s opinion, the rapporteur will not be able to fulfil their duties as intended if the rapporteur does not have access to such confidential documents. The Ombudsman for Equality thus considers it necessary to expand the rapporteur's proposed right of access to information for the rapporteur to be able to carry out their duties.

The proposal states that a perspective specific to women will enable a comprehensive examination of violence against women, addressing the structural issues underlying violence against women, and taking into account the special needs of female victims. Furthermore, the proposal highlights the need to assess intersectional situations. The Ombudsman for Equality also considers it important that the rapporteur be able to monitor and assess the identification of and intervention in various factors that expose people to violence and increase vulnerability.

With regard to violence against women, however, expertise in issues specific to women and awareness of violence as a gender-based phenomenon is required. Insofar as the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman will serve as the rapporteur on violence against women, the special importance of the rapporteur's position with regard to improving the status of women and gender equality should be communicated clearly.

As the rapporteur's position is gender-specific, it does not directly relate to domestic violence against men and boys. The Ombudsman for Equality nevertheless notes that all measures aimed at reducing violence benefit both victims and perpetrators of violence, as well as witnesses to violence, such as children in families suffering from violence.