Approaches to Gender Equality/ Equal Opportunity Institutions
last updated November 1, 2003

Two approaches characterize efforts to establish governmental institutions for the purpose of monitoring compliance with and enforcement of laws and policies relating to sex discrimination (including sexual harassment): (1) the establishment of an institution with independent monitoring and investigation powers accountable directly to the prime minister or head of government or (2) a branch of the Ministry of Labor or other appropriate governmental ministry with a gender equality or equal employment opportunity mandate.

Examples of both approaches can be found in the CEE/FSU region. Lithuania, Poland and Bulgaria have each established or will soon create independent authorities charged with monitoring compliance with and enforcing laws prohibiting all forms of sex discrimination, including sexual harassment. In Lithuania, this authority is the Office of the Gender Equality Ombudsman which was established by the parliamentary assembly in March 1999 to enforce the Law on Equal Opportunities, which prohibits sex discrimination in the workplace. In 2001, the Polish government created the Office of the Governmental Plenipotentiary on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men in Poland which is a higher-level institution, directly subordinated to and established by an ordinance of the Council of Ministers. In September of 2003 the Bulgarian parliament adopted a Law on the Protection Against Discrimination which establishes a Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination to enforce the provisions of the law. The body is to have nine members who will be elected for five years. Five of the members will be elected by the national assembly and four will be appointed by the President. The Commission will be able to make independent investigations of sex discrimination, among other forms of discrimination and is authorized to impose fines up to 10,000 Euro. Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia and Romania have created gender equality departments within their ministries of labor.

Many women's advocates in the CEE region believe that establishing an independent authority to monitor and investigate instances of sex discrimination (often together with other forms of discrimination) is preferable to creating a gender equality department with the labor ministry. Independent authorities are more likely than labor ministry branches to effectively enforce the law against private employers because they have no other relationship with or interest in such employers or their businesses. The successful enforcement of sex discrimination law by independent authorities is also more likely to encourage victims of sexual harassment to make complaints about discrimination in the workplace because such authorities are not thought to be beholden in any way to the employers they are charged with investigating or monitoring.

It should be noted, however, that any gender equality or equal opportunity government agency or branch will only be effective if (1) it is given sufficient investigatory powers to carry out its mandate, (2) receives sufficient funding to conduct monitoring activities or investigations, and (3) hires appropriately trained personnel capable of managing such activities or investigations.

Adapted from Open Society Institute, Monitoring the EU Accession Process: Equal Opportunities for Women and Men 17-18 (2002); Genoveva Tisheva, Gender Equality Institutions in the Candidate Countries—A Requirement in the EU Accession Process (26 March 2003); and Human Rights Project Press Release, Bulgaria Made Important Step for Elimination of Discrimination (Sept. 19, 2003).