Andra Levite
Andra Levite

Dear most honourable ambassador Mrs Hanan Al Aleeli,

Dear fellow speakers and participants,

It is a real joy and honour for me to participate in your seminar on women’s empowerment.

I will start with some dry facts, prepared and presented by official institutions, about the situation of women in Latvia concerning their involvement in the political and economic sectors.

  1. Since 1905, women in the historic Latvian territory (Latvia only became an independent state in 1918) had the right to vote at local elections. Significantly, this even came a year before Finland, which is widely recognized as the first country in Europe to give women the right to vote due to the fact that in 1906 Finnish women were allowed to vote in regional elections. In the independent state of Latvia, women immediately had both rights, the right to vote and also the right to be elected. The world’s first female member of a government was the Latvian Valērija Seile as minister of Education in 1922. And just for the record, New Zealand was the first state in the world that guaranteed women the right to vote in 1893, followed by the right to be elected in 1919.
  2. Women have been, or currently are, represented in all three of the highest-ranking posts of the Latvian State – the State President, the Speaker of the Latvian parliament, and the Prime Minister.
  3. In Latvia’s National Armed Forces, 16 % of soldiers are women (above NATO’s average rate of 10 %) while 30 % of the State Police force are also women.
  4. Women make up 56 % of managerial positions in Latvia, compared to the EU average of 36 %, with Latvia ranking first among EU countries in this regard.
  5. Women own 1/3 of all enterprises in Latvia.
  6. 82 % of judges are women.

Now let us look at international efforts to empower women.

At the beginning of the new millennium, the UN Security Council passed the Women, Peace and Security agenda to promote international peace and security with a special focus on the prevention of gender-based violence and the representation and involvement of women in military conflict resolutions and peacekeeping processes.

A serious real verification of this agenda for us Europeans has been the Covid-19 pandemic. It tested the knowledge and experiences that should have been acquired over the last two decades and posed unprecedented challenges to the rights, the inclusion and representation, and the equality and protection of women.

On July 14th, 2020, the Latvian Government approved Latvia’s National Action Plan on the Women, Peace and Security agenda for the term of 2020-2025. Amongst other issues, it foresees the elimination of gender-based violence and to share Latvia’s experience and knowledge with other countries.

The transfer of Latvia’s experience will be done in close cooperation with NGOs, the civil society in the affected countries, and the foreign partners on side.

However, this is the official and legal side of women’s life in Latvia and the world in general.

On Monday, June 28, I had a meeting with members of the Latvian Paralympic committee. Once again, they maintained that their legal status is not their main issue, but it is in fact the realisation and implementation of their rights in everyday life, and the often exclusionary or indifferent attitude of their fellow citizens that continues to disrupt their lives.

Thanks to brave women, like the five female members of the Constitutional assembly in Latvia:

  • Klāra Kalniņa (1874–1964),
  • Berta Pīpiņa (1883–1942), 
  • Zelma Cēsniece-Freidenfelde (1892–1929),
  • Apolonija Laurinoviča (1886–1967),
  • and Elza Pliekšāne, also known as Aspazija (1865–1943),

the fight for women’s rights in Latvia began more than one hundred years ago.

The personal life of these five brave women reflects like a mirror the history of Latvia.

Klāra Kalniņa and Apolonija Laurinoviča had to flee from Latvia due to the Soviet occupation in 1944, and they both died in exile, in Sweden and the USA.

Berta Pīpiņa was arrested 1940 by the Soviet regime, deported to Siberia, where she died 1942.

This generation of women had to face open hatred and often physical violence in their fight for legitimate rights, while in our times the rejection and disregard of the legitimate concerns of women is more subtle.

I strongly believe that Latvia and Latvian women should be proud of all the women in important and reputable positions in international and national institutions.

But to be honest, sadly only a small percentage of Latvian women will ever achieve these positions.

Nevertheless, there continues to be problems in lives of ordinary women that still await satisfying solutions.

I would like to mention some of the problems that women are facing in Latvia, Europe, and the world, knowing that my list is incomplete.

On a daily basis, women struggle with the dual burden of both professional life and family. This silent struggle was emphasised during the Covid-19 pandemic when many women had to shoulder the requirement to work from home as well as home-schooling their children.

Traditionally, it still is a woman’s duty to care for both, the younger and the older generations in their family, with all the physical and emotional burden this brings with it.

Nearly all victims of domestic violence are women. In nearly all European countries the legal and judicial side dealing with this crime is solved, but there is still need in educating especially the police and other emergency services to clearly recognize an affected woman’s cry for help.

Nearly all victims of stalking are women, a crime that in the beginning may seem to be committed for romantic reasons (“oh, he loves her so very much”), but in nearly all cases this crime ends with psychological trauma for the victim and in some cases even with the victim’s death.

Women who fearlessly present their well-founded opinions in public very often face unqualified and insulting comments.

In place of substantial arguments, the criticisms women receive tend to be crude and imbecile.

In this context I would like to quote Michelle Obama, the former First Lady of the United States of America, who said: ‘When they go low, we go high.’

Women’s empowerment depends on the support of other women. For centuries men have had brotherhoods that support other men in furthering their positions in work and society. Women, in turn, need a sisterhood. Sisterhood means solidarity, empathy, and a willingness to share experience, knowledge, and time.

An extraordinarily positive example for sisterhood was realized by the initiative Riga TechGirls, who created the first platform in Latvia dedicated to educating and inspiring girls and women about technology. And I am honoured that they chose me to be their Patroness.

Undoubtedly, money is necessary to solve the mentioned problems, just as well, may be even more, a change of male thought patterns.

No woman deserves to be beaten by her husband, partner, brother, father or any other person.

No woman deserves to be raped because her shoulders were naked, she walked alone in the dark or she belongs to a different ethnic group (currently, Ethiopian conflict-hit Tigray region).

Dear fellow participants,

No doubt, there has been remarkable success in the fight for the legitimate rights of Latvian women, and this success can often be seen at the highest level.

However, there is still work to be done on grievances that occur in the shadows and in an everyday capacity.

Thank you!