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 activist blog StopFeminicide reported that 24 women died in connection with rape or domestic violence in 2019. The government does not keep a record of the number of femicides. According to 2018 federal police statistics, there were approximately 39,000 official complaints of physical, psychological, and economic violence, including 139 complaints of sexual violence, during that year.
A number of government-supported shelters and telephone helplines were available across the country for victims of domestic abuse.
According to analysis carried out in the country for the EU Commission in 2019, out of a sample of 100 rape cases, 50 of the rapists were never identified. Of the 50 who were identified, only four were judged in court: three were given a deferred sentence, while one was convicted and served prison time. In 2016 the Federal Public Service for Justice estimated that 500 to 600 of the 3,000 to 4,000 rape cases of rape reported annually ended in conviction. A survey of 2,300 male and female participants, ages 15 to 85, conducted by Amnesty International in during the year indicated that respondents believed only 4.3 percent of the reported cases lead to conviction.
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 Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, Guinea, and Somalia.
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; parties ruled guilty are subject to fines. The government generally enforced antiharassment laws.
Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. All individuals have the right to manage their reproductive health. They had access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. No legal, social, or cultural barriers, or government policies adversely affect access to contraception. Similarly, no legal, social, or cultural barriers, or government policies adversely affect access to skilled health attendance during pregnancy and childbirth. The government provides access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
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.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The law provides that both (consenting) partners must be at least 18 years of age to marry. Federal police statistics for 2019 recorded 20 cases of forced marriage.
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.
In April, five men were arrested for their participation in a child pornography case involving 110 victims, 90 suspects, and some nine million images. The investigation began in 2015 and has since been referred to as the country’s largest child pornography case. The case involved three Belgians, a citizen of the Netherlands, and a UK citizen, all of whom were tried at the Dendermonde correctional court, were found guilty, and were subject to sentences ranging from five to 16 years in prison.
In September the courts convicted five persons for trafficking eight young Nigerian girls into the country. The girls, who were recruited under the promise of becoming hairdressers, were first transferred through Liberia before being forced into prostitution upon their arrival in the country.
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.
In 2019 UNIA received 79 complaints of anti-Semitism, a decrease from 101 complaints in 2018. Of these, 46 reports took place on the internet, five were linked to education, five were cases of verbal aggression and threats, six were cases of vandalism, and one case involved violence. Also in 2019 the Belgian Federal Police recorded 14 cases of Holocaust denial. The civil society organization antisemitisme.be recorded 75 anti-Semitic incidents in 2019; the majority of cases were ideological (34) or took place on the internet (26), while 11 involved property damage.
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.
While ritual slaughter for religious practice remains legal at the federal level, the Flanders and Walloon regional governments instituted bans on religious slaughter in January and September 2019, respectively. In both regional governments, the law requires that animals be stunned prior to killing. Many Muslim and Jewish communities challenged the restrictions on grounds of discrimination and violation of religious freedom. On July 8, the EU Court of Justice heard the case. On September 10, the EU’s advocate general ruled against the ban, stating that it violates EU norms. The ruling was nonbinding but serves as a precursor to the final court decision expected later. Normally court decisions align with the advocate general’s ruling. The Brussels regional government does not have a policy on ritual slaughter and has further stated that it will await the court decision before holding discussions on the subject.
On February 23, the carnival parade in the city of Aalst, as in 2019, had floats with negative caricatures of Jews as well as individuals parading in Nazi SS uniforms. In 2019 UNESCO stripped the 600-year-old event of its World Heritage status because of its anti-Semitic floats.
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 (also see section 2.a.). The government provided enhanced security at Jewish schools and places of worship.
Trafficking in Persons
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
Persons with Disabilities
The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities. The government generally enforced these prohibitions.
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, many inmates were still incarcerated in inadequate facilities.
The National High Council for Persons with Disabilities raised concerns about access to intensive care services for persons with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. UNIA stated as well that due to social distancing measures, persons with disabilities and older persons did not have equal access to health care. Cases included older persons and persons with disabilities being given oxygen without medical supervision, and a person with an intellectual disability being told to leave the hospital because he was too loud.
Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups
Ethnic profiling continued to be a problem, and there were sometimes concerns regarding ethnic profiling by police. Amnesty International, among others, alleged that police enforcing COVID-19 lockdowns sometimes targeted ethnic minority and marginalized groups with violence, discriminatory identity checks, forced quarantines, and fines.
According to media reports, police subjected Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana, a black member of the European Parliament, to violence in Brussels in June after she attempted to video-record nine police officers “harassing” two black youths. Herzberger-Fofana filed a complaint, while police filed a countersuit for defamation.
In 2018 Sanda Dia, a black Belgian student at the Catholic University Leuven, died while allegedly participating in the Reuzengom fraternity initiation custom known as a “baptism.” According to local media outlets, Dia died of hypothermia and multiple organ failure after being subjected to the club’s ritualistic hazing. In August new information regarding Dia’s treatment alleged that the club subjected him to racist remarks during his initiation. Reuzengom members were also accused of other displays of racism, including allegedly wearing Ku Klux Klan robes, a speech at the fraternity that referred to “our good German friend, Hitler,” and a video of club members singing, “Congo is ours.” In September requests for additional investigation into the incident postponed the case’s referral to criminal court until a later date.
Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
The law prohibits discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, and intersex (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 that in 2019 it received 133 complaints of acts of discrimination against members of the LGBTI community, of which 35 were related to workplace discrimination or harassment. This was a record number of complaints related to LGBTI discrimination and the first time workplace discrimination was the most cited abuse. A study by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights found that 37 percent of individuals in the country identifying as LGBTI reported avoiding certain areas to avoid being harassed, assaulted, or insulted.
UNIA received several complaints of online hate speech and incitement to violence towards the LGBTI community. One case involved a student who had commented on a teacher’s Instagram page, that homosexuality was “cancerous,” telling him to “die of AIDS.” Within the political sphere, UNIA received reports of discrimination concerning comments made by several Vlaams Belang (an extreme right political party) politicians, stating that the LGBTI community “will always be abnormal,” referring to pictures of Pride marches as “repugnant,” and saying that allowing homosexuals to marry and adopt children “is going too far.”
LGBTI persons from immigrant communities reported social discrimination within those communities.
The law provides protections for transgender persons, including legal gender recognition without first undergoing sex reassignment surgery.
Other Societal Violence or Discrimination
There were reports of physical and verbal attacks against Muslims. In 2019, the most recent year of available data, the Collective against Islamophobia in Belgium reported they had received 108 reports of discrimination. Of these, 96 investigations were opened, of which 80 were confirmed as cases of Islamophobia. In nine of 10 confirmed cases, the victims of discrimination were women. During the same year, UNIA registered 290 reports of discrimination against persons of Muslim faith.
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.
In February the Brussels Court of First Instance ruled that prohibiting headscarves in sports for safety reasons was permitted and that a sports headscarf did not meet the safety requirements. In July the Constitutional Court ruled that educational institutions could prohibit religious symbols (namely headscarves), leading to protests against the ruling for disproportionately targeting girls of Muslim faith. In November a teacher in a Molenbeek school was suspended for showing caricatures of the prophet Mohammed in his class. UNIA also reported numerous instances of religious discrimination via social media. In October, two individuals were sentenced to six months of prison and a fine for running a Facebook page, Identitaires Ardennes, which featured anti-Islamic hate speech. The Audiovisual Superior Council noted an increase and normalization of online hate speech.
In November, UNIA published a report on the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on discrimination. The study found that reports of discrimination rose by 32 percent between February 1 and August 19 in comparison with 2019. A total of 1,850 complaints which UNIA linked to the health and safety measures taken to combat the COVID-19 pandemic were registered. Discrimination reports came mainly from persons with East Asian and foreign origins, persons with disabilities, young persons, and elderly persons.