Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape of women or men, including spousal rape, is illegal, and the government prosecuted such cases. A convicted rapist may receive 10 to 30 years in prison. The law prohibits domestic violence and provides for fines and incarceration. Legal sanctions for domestic violence are based on the sanctions for physical violence against a third person; the latter range from eight days to 20 years in prison. In cases of domestic violence, these sanctions are doubled.
The NGO StopFeminicide reported that 36 women died in connection with rape or domestic violence in 2018. According to 2018 statistics from the federal police, there were approximately 39,000 official complaints of physical, psychological, and economic violence, including 139 complaints of sexual violence.
In May, Julie Van Espen, a 23-year-old student, was killed on her way to Antwerp. Police arrested Steve Bakelmans after a review of surveillance camera data. Bakelmans had been sentenced to four years in prison in a 2017 rape case, a ruling he had appealed. Bakelmans had been set free pending the ruling of the appellate court, scheduled later in the year. The case made media headlines as proof of the deficiencies of the justice system and of its protections for women against violence.
A number of government-supported shelters and telephone helplines were available across the country for victims of domestic abuse.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law prohibits FGM/C for women and girls, and it was not a widespread practice in the country. Reported cases were primarily filed by recent immigrants or asylum seekers. Criminal sanctions apply to persons convicted of FGM/C. According to 2017 estimates, there were more than 17,000 female minor and adult victims of FGM/C in the country, while more than 8,000 were at risk. The vast majority of potential victims were asylum seekers from Guinea, Somalia, Cote d’Ivoire, and Egypt.
Sexual Harassment: The law aims to prevent violence and harassment at work, obliging companies to set up internal procedures to handle employee complaints. Sexist remarks and attitudes targeting a specific individual are illegal; fines for violations range from 50 to 1,000 euros ($55 to $1,100). The government generally enforced antiharassment laws. Politicians and organizations such as the Federal Institute for the Equality of Men and Women worked to raise awareness of the problem.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.
Discrimination: Women have the same legal rights as men. The law requires equal pay for equal work and prohibits discrimination on the grounds of gender, pregnancy, or motherhood as well as in access to goods, services, social welfare, and health care. The government generally enforced the law effectively, although many NGOs and feminist organizations reported women often had to accept part-time work due to conflicting family obligations.
Birth Registration: The government registered all live births immediately. Citizenship is conferred on a child through a parent’s (or the parents’) citizenship, but, except for a few circumstances, not through birth on the country’s territory.
Child Abuse: The government continued to prosecute cases of child abuse and punish those convicted.
Early and Forced Marriage: The law provides that both (consenting) partners must be at least 18 years of age to marry.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits sexual exploitation, abduction, and trafficking of children and includes severe penalties for child pornography and possession of pedophilic materials. Authorities enforced the law. The penalties for producing and disseminating child pornography range up to 15 years’ imprisonment and up to one year in prison for possessing such material. Local girls and foreign children were subjected to sex trafficking within the country.
The minimum age for consensual sex is 16. Statutory rape carries penalties of imprisonment for up 30 years.
International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
The country’s Jewish community was estimated at 40,000 persons. There were 101 reports of anti-Semitic acts in 2018, a significant increase from the 56 notifications in 2017. Anti-Semitic acts included physical attacks, verbal harassment, and vandalism of Jewish property. A poll by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency found that 39 percent of local Jews had encountered verbal abuse. Authorities generally investigated and where appropriate prosecuted such cases.
In August, Dimitri Verhulst, a columnist for the Brussels daily De Morgen, published an op-ed stating that, “Being Jewish is not a religion. No God would give creatures such an ugly nose.” The paper later withdrew the comments after widespread criticism that they were anti-Semitic and Verhulst later admitted he should have made a clearer distinction between Israelis and Jews. There was also widespread criticism of a float in the March carnival parade in Aalst, which featured puppets of two stereotypical Orthodox Jews sitting on bags of money amid crawling rats. Aalst’s mayor, a member of a right-wing nationalist party, declined to take action and denied that the float was offensive. Jewish groups and international organizations, including the European Commission, condemned the float.
Online hate speech continued to be a problem. In August, UNIA stated that the number of notices it received on online speech (targeting the Jewish community among others) doubled during the campaign for the May general elections, from 369 during the first six months of 2018 to 740 for the same period in 2019. UNIA added that such an increase is not unusual during an electoral campaign.
The law prohibits public statements that incite national, racial, or religious hatred, including denial of the Holocaust. The government prosecuted and convicted individuals under this law (see section 2.a.). The government also provided enhanced security at Jewish schools and places of worship.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities. The government generally enforced the provisions.
While the government mandated that public buildings erected after 1970 must be accessible to persons with disabilities, many older buildings were still inaccessible. Although the law requires that prison inmates with disabilities receive adequate treatment in separate, appropriate facilities, there were still many such inmates incarcerated in inadequate facilities.
There were reports of physical and verbal attacks against Muslims. In 2018, the most recent year of available data, the Collective Against Islamophobia in Belgium reported they had opened investigations into 90 Islamophobic attacks, 76 percent of which were against Muslim women. In February students at a Catholic high school in Melle dressed up as “Saudi Muslims,” including one wearing a black face mask and a fake explosive vest. In March, two veiled Muslim women picking up their children from school in Uccle were verbally abused by a driver, who then attempted to run over the women. Police later arrested the driver.
Ethnic minorities continued to experience discrimination in access to housing, education, and employment. Discriminatory acts primarily took place over the internet, at work, or when individuals attempted to gain access to various public and private services, such as banking and restaurants.
Discrimination against women who wear a headscarf was common in the labor market. The law also prohibits the wearing of a full-face veil (niqab) in public places. Authorities may punish persons who discriminate on the basis of ethnic origin with a fine of up to 137.50 euros ($150) and a jail sentence of up to seven days. There were reports of discrimination against persons of African and Middle Eastern ancestry. Government efforts to address such problems included internal training of officials and police officers and enforcement of laws prohibiting such discrimination.
The law prohibits discrimination against LGBTI persons in housing, employment, application of nationality laws, and access to government services such as health care. The government enforced the law, but the underreporting of crimes against the LGBTI community remained a problem.
UNIA reported in May that it received 125 complaints of homophobic acts in 2018, compared with 84 in 2017 and 104 in 2016. The complaints included 17 incidents of physical aggression, 42 incidents of verbal aggression, and 17 of discrimination in renting a property or providing a commercial service.
LGBTI persons from immigrant communities reported social discrimination within those communities. The government supported NGOs working to overcome the problem.
The law provides protections for transgender persons, including legal gender recognition without first undergoing sex reassignment surgery.
UNIA received complaints of discrimination based on physical characteristics, political orientation, social origin, or status. Restrictions on Islamic clothing in public and private sector employment, schools, and public spaces affected Muslim women in particular. The Muslim community was also targeted as part of the increase in online hate speech during the election campaign.