Violence Against Women in Latvia
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Population of women: 1,207,100/2,240,300
Life expectancy of women (at birth): 78
School life expectancy for women:  17
Women's adult literacy: 100%
Unemployment of women: 6.9%
Women engaged in economic activity: 54%

Source: U.N. Statistics Division, Social Indicators, updated June 2011





last updated 27 May 2011


Gender Equality and Women’s Activism

The Constitution of Latvia (Latvian) addresses the principles of equality and non-discrimination. Article 91 states: "All human beings in Latvia shall be equal before the law and courts. Human rights shall be secured without discrimination of any kind." In addition, the 2002 Labour Law [internal link] provides for equality between genders and prohibits both indirect and direct discrimination.

Latvia is an example of a post-Soviet country which still struggles with some remnants of its communist past. Gender segregation is still an inherent part of the Latvian society today. Even though there has been progress in comparison to many other post-Soviet countries, there are still issues regarding women’s rights and the representation of women in government and business.


In general, women constitute 30-40 percent of the members of Latvian political parties. However, this does not necessarily translate into high-profile posts for female members. Only twenty percent of Saeima (Latvian Parliament) members are women. They are rarely elected for positions related to finance or material resources and are often excluded from the main decision-making processes. In the current Cabinet of Ministers, only the Ministers of Culture and Welfare are women. In 1999, however, the Saeima elected a woman, Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, to the Latvian presidency making Latvia an exceptional example among the post-communist countries. Only Lithuania has followed suit, electing a female president in 2009.  Although women are underrepresented in government, they are widely involved in civil activist organizations.  One study found that roughly 62 percent of the core activists in Latvia are women, engaging in local organizational and grassroots activism.


In addition, starting in the 1990’s, increased numbers of female politicians began to appear in local government and administrative agencies.  Women’s representation in local politics rose from thirty-six percent in 1990 to forty-one percent in 2000. One explanation is that working outside the home and with local organizations during the communist era helped Latvian women develop “human capital, civic skills and network contacts, making them more likely to engage in Latvia’s present day non-communist civil society” (Lindén, 114). 


The same survey examined twelve categories of work for non-governmental organizations: health care, women’s issues, environment, education, youth, charity, recreation, politics, unions, democracy/human rights, ethnicity, and religion.  Women represent a vast majority of activists in the areas of health care (85%), women’s issues (83%), and the environment (71%).  Overall, women constitute a majority of workers in nine out of the twelve areas, with democracy/human rights, ethnicity, and religion remaining as the only areas surveyed in which men were the majority.


However, even with broad local involvement and relatively high education and literacy rates (there are fifty percent more women attending the University of Latvia than men), Latvian women are still burdened with the majority of household and domestic tasks.  Although the communist rhetoric included equal labor rights for women, the patriarchal social structure was dominant during the communist era and remains influential today. In fact, despite the proclamation of equal labor rights, women have long experienced discrimination in the work force.  In 2005, the European Industrial Relations Observatory found an eighteen percent gap in income between men and women in Latvia. 

Although Latvian women face obstacles in entering politics at the national level and attaining pay equity in the workplace, they are active at the local levels and are well-represented in non-governmental organizations, influencing policy and day-to-day activity.  This is illustrative of a common saying for women in the post-communist bloc, “The man may be the head, but I am the neck who maneuvers it” (Lindén, 119).

Domestic Violence

According to the U.S. 2009 Human Rights Report, the Latvian government generally recognizes principles of privacy, family and home. There were no reports of severe violations of these principles and the government prohibits arbitrary interference in practice. Although violence against women is against the law, there is no specific law punishing domestic violence. There are no definitions of domestic, family or emotional violence in Latvian legislation. Spousal physical abuse is prosecuted through the use of general laws against intentional bodily harm. Such crimes can also be prosecuted under other sections of the law. Criminal penalties may vary from probation to life imprisonment depending on the nature of the crime, the age of the victim, and the criminal history of the offender. Many instances of domestic violence remain unreported as general social understanding of this problem still remains at the level of “not washing dirty linen in public.”


Latvian law does not recognize the concept of spousal rape. In general, rapes were underreported in 2009 and in many cases the police showed a tendency to blame victims. There were 39 convictions on rape charges in 2009 compared to 44 in 2008.


Victims are poorly informed about their rights and are reluctant to report rape or domestic violence. The police and the judiciary tend to ignore and underestimate the importance of reports on violence against women. Police are empowered to take action only after the victim or a witness files charges or if the perpetrator was caught in the act of committing the abuse. The corruption of state institutions also negatively contributes to an unfavorable climate.


The lack of congruent governmental legal stimuli addressing this problem evoked the concern of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in a 2007 report on Latvia.


Currently, there are no dedicated shelters or hotlines for victims of domestic violence in Latvia. Women can seek assistance at family crisis centers and access a general crisis hotline. The NGO Marta Center is the head organization of the Cooperation Network of Latvian Women Organizations combating violations of women’s human rights. It has launched a web resource providing information for women in need. One of Marta Center’s goals is to create the first shelter for victims of domestic violence in Latvia. However, due to a tight budget, the center will be able to host only a limited number of women (5 persons at a time).


Governmental support for women’s NGOs is inconsistent and characterized by sporadic financing of project proposals. There is no sustainable tradition and practices of addressing women’s rights problems and the general economic downfall in the country has drastically impacted the accessibility of financial aid.

Sexual Assault

Article 159 of the Criminal Code punishes rape by a prison sentence of three to seven years. Rape is defined as an "act of sexual intercourse by means of violence, threats or taking advantage of the state of helplessness of a female victim." Accordingly, only females can be victims of rape. Aggravating factors, including gang rape, repeat offenders, or rape of a juvenile, may result in heightened sentences. Article 160 punishes sexual assault, defined as "pederastic or lesbian or other unnatural sexual acts of gratification, and committed with violence, threats or exploiting the helplessness of the victim," with a prison sentence of six to fifteen years.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is not specifically defined under Latvian law. However, according to a 2002 report by the Council of Europe, sexual harassment may be classified as another offense such as rape, threat of rape or offense against the person's honor.


According to the International Helsinki Federation, NGO and governmental sources suggest that there are about 10,000 to 15,000 prostitutes in Latvia, and approximately fifteen percent of prostitutes are believed to be under eighteen years of age. Prostitution is legal and controlled by the Regulations on the Restriction of Prostitution, which requires prostitutes to work in places determined by local authorities. Prostitutes must carry a medical card, which is to be issued by a certified venereal doctor.  While adult prostitution is legal, procuring, pimping or forcing someone into prostitution is not.  Article 164 of the Criminal Code punishes compelling someone to engage in prostitution by up to three years' imprisonment, custodial arrest, a fine, and/or confiscation of property. Article 165 punishes anyone who lives off the profits of prostitution by a sentence of up to four years and possibly confiscation of property.

Sex Trafficking

Latvia is a destination and source country for human trafficking. Women are trafficked from the country for commercial sexual exploitation and forced labor to the United Kingdom, Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Germany. Latvia’s capital, Riga, is a well-known destination for sex tourism. The number of reported instances to law enforcement officials remains low, and it is difficult to ascertain the actual number of victims of human trafficking in the country. Since the country became a member state of the European Union, travel to and from Latvia has become easier. This fact, combined with the recent economic downturn, prompted mass movements of people in search of better living conditions in more developed European countries. Some of these people may have become dependent upon criminal traffickers.

Trafficking in persons is punishable under Article 154(1) by a maximum of eight years of imprisonment. Where there are aggravating circumstances involved (offenses against property and minors) the maximum penalty increases to twelve years imprisonment, and in the most severe cases (serious consequences, organized crime, or the involvement of juveniles) the sentence varies from ten to fifteen years. Section 154 (2) defines “human trafficking” as “the recruitment, conveyance, transfer, concealment or reception of persons for the purpose of exploitation, committed by using violence or threats or by means of fraud, or by taking advantage of the dependence of the person on the offender or of his or her state of helplessness, or by the giving or obtaining of material benefits or benefits of another nature in order to procure the consent of such person, upon which the victim is dependent.” However, according to the U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons Report (2010), the Latvian Government most often uses Section 165 (1), which is a non-trafficking law, as it allows for more flexible prosecution. Section 165(2) defines "sending" as “any action that encourages legal or illegal departure from the State or entry into the State, transit or residence in a foreign state." In 2009, 34 trafficking investigations were initiated and 15 offenders were convicted.


In a new step to address the problem of human trafficking the government launched the 2009-2013 National Anti-Trafficking Program. The Law on Social Services and Social Assistance was amended in 2009, allowing Latvian and foreign victims of trafficking access to government-funded victim assistance. In 2009 the government provided $78,000 for the victims of trafficking, including such services as shelter, medical, and rehabilitative care. Victims are encouraged to assist with the investigation process, and twenty-one victims assisted in investigations in 2009. The law does not penalize victims for their criminal actions as a direct result of their being trafficked. 


The human trafficking prevention campaign spans different cities throughout the country and includes 697 Latvian schools. Air Baltic and the Latvian State Tourism Agency launched a program to inform air travelers about the Agency’s hotline and e-mail address in cases of suspected trafficking. The Marta Center for Women provided a toll free line where people could obtain extensive information about safe work opportunities abroad, general information concerning human trafficking, and assistance possibilities for victims. However, due to insufficient governmental financial support the line was closed. Nevertheless, the organization continues addressing trafficking in persons as well as other violations of women’s human rights. It organizes educational campaigns for raising public awareness of the threats and possible ways to combat them and strives to ensure government attention to the issue.


Latvian NGOs Working with Women

Marta Resource Centre
Mission: To promote the protection of women's rights and the betterment of the socioeconomic situation of women.

Latvia's Association for Family Planning and Sexual Health

Society "Skalbes"
Mission: To provide 24-hour intervention services for children and adults in crisis.

Society Association HIV.LV
Defends people living with HIV/AIDS in Latvia against discrimination and seeks to improve their quality of life.

Women's Rights Institute

Social-Democratic Women's Organization (Latvian)

University of Latvia Centre for Feminism Studies
Organizes interdisciplinary research conferences and workshops, and participates in the development, co-ordination, and implementation of research projects in Latvia and at the international level.

Latvian Association of University Women

Business and Professional Women Europe - Latvia

Latvian Business Women Association


Compiled from:
2009 Human Rights Report: Latvia (11 March 2010), U.S. Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

Addressing the Gender Pay Gap: Government and Social Partner Actions – Latvia (27 April 2010), Irina Curkina, Institute of Economics LAS.

Composition of the Cabinet of Ministers of Valdis Dombrovskis, The Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Latvia.

Explaining Civil Society Core Activism in Post-Soviet Latvia (2008), Tove Lindén, Stockholm University.
Gender-Related Statistics, Republic of Latvia, 10th Saeima.
The Criminal Law of the Republic of Latvia.

Trafficking in Persons Report (June 2010), 10th ed., U.S. Department of State.