Legislative and policy framework

Belgium has extensive policy experience in gender equality. Since the 1980s, it has implemented legal measures to promote gender equality and equal opportunities at the federal and regional levels, in both the public and private sectors. After adopting a law to monitor the application of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BPfA) in 1996, and piloting projects in all federal ministries, the overall legal framework for gender mainstreaming at the federal level was established in 2007 through a Gender Mainstreaming Law[1]. While this law applies at the federal level, similar legal obligations (Walloon Region, French-speaking Community, Brussels-Capital Region) or mechanisms (Flanders) exist at regional and community levels. In February 2002, the Belgian Constitution affirmed the principle of equality between women and men by including a specific provision in an amendment to Article 10.

Along with the Gender Mainstreaming Law, the Gender Act acts as an essential piece of legislation which regulate gender-related policy at the federal level. The Gender Act was adopted federally in 2007 (alongside the related General Anti-Discrimination Federal Act and the Racial Equality Federal Act). It aims to combat discrimination between women and men (thereby implementing European Union legislation) and prohibits every form of discrimination based on gender, change of gender, gender identity, gender expression, pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood.

Belgium does not have a federal strategy or action plan for gender equality. However, the country adopted a Federal Plan on Gender Mainstreaming (Plan fédéral Gender Mainstreaming) in 2012 and it has been renewed twice since then, with the plan now in its third edition (2020-2024)[2]. It is drawn up by the Interdepartmental Coordination Group (ICG) which was set up under Article 6 of the Gender Mainstreaming Law of 12 January 2007.

Federal Plan on Gender Mainstreaming Objectives

  • Implementing gender mainstreaming as an approach to concretely strengthening equality between women and men in society
  • Effectively considering the gender dimension in the preparation and execution of policies and ensuring that the Secretary of State in charge of gender equality policy is the central point of coordination and engages in follow-up
  • Paying particular attention to the completion of the Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA) established by the law of 15 December 2013, which contains various provisions on administrative simplification
  • Promoting and supporting the operation of the Interdepartmental Coordination Group (ICG), the body responsible for coordinating the implementation of the plan
  • Organising gender mainstreaming training strategic units

The plan is structured according to wide-reaching measures to be undertaken by each ministry. The Council of Ministers monitors these measures every six months, in addition to the reports submitted to parliament as provided for by law. Belgium has several other policies to promote gender equality within a range of sectors.


Governmental equality bodies

The Institute for Equality between Women and Men (IEWM) is the permanent government body responsible for gender equality. Established in 2002 as a semi-independent equality body, in accordance with Article 4 of the 16 December Act, the IEWM has two distinct missions: it is under ministerial control from an administrative perspective and carries out governmental policies but remains autonomous with respect to legal action and the provision of advice to government and other public authorities. As a semi-independent entity, it is both an institutional organisation and an equality body.

Its mandate is strictly set on gender equality issues. Article 5 of the 16 December 2002 Act states that ‘the Institute is responsible for preparing and implementing government decisions and monitoring European and international policies on gender equality. It carries out these missions under the authority of the minister in charge of gender equality policy’ [3]. It is responsible for coordinating the fight against gender-based violence, implementing gender mainstreaming at the federal level, and for monitoring policies on equality in employment, and decision-making. It also provides structural support to women's organisations and feminist associations under the authority of the Secretary of State for Gender Equality, Equal Opportunities and Diversity. There are 26 employees specifically allocated to equality body-related activities in the IEWM.

The second key body for the promotion of gender equality is the Interdepartmental Coordination Group (ICG). The ICG is responsible for coordinating the implementation of the Federal Plan on Gender Mainstreaming. The first Royal Decree (2010) determined the composition, remit and functioning of the ICG and the necessary qualifications its members must hold. The ICG is comprised of representatives of the federal, community and regional departments concerned. It is chaired by the Director of the IEWM, who also acts as its Secretariat (see section 1.3.2). By virtue of its composition, the group requires the direct involvement of political actors and establishes links between the political and administrative levels. It also facilitates the exchange of good practices among governmental entities. The ICG, a steering committee involving the federal, community and regional offices concerned, and groups of experts participate in the coordination and monitoring of the National action plan against gender-based violence 2021-2025.

The Council for Equal Opportunities between Men and Women has acted as an advisory body for ministries and other organisations (such as the National Labour Council) since 1993[4]. It draws up reports, conducts research, proposes measures, formulates opinions, and provides information on equal opportunity policy at the request of the competent minister for equal opportunities, at the request of any other federal minister, organisation, individual, group, or on its own initiative.

In addition to IEWM staff, 70 employees are specifically allocated to support gender mainstreaming across all government departments/ministries of the federal entities.

Independent equality body

The Institute for Equality between Women and Men (IEWM) also acts as the permanent independent body responsible for gender equality. The Institute can write independent reports on gender discrimination within the jurisdiction of the entities concerned and provide them with opinions and recommendations on gender equality. It has signed protocols of collaboration with the French Community (2008), the Walloon Region (2009), the French Community Commission (2013), the Brussels-Capital Region (2016), and the German-speaking Community (2016).

In terms of reporting requirements, Article 12 of the law of 16 December 2002 states that: 'The Institute shall submit an annual detailed report on the execution of its mission to the Minister responsible for gender equality policy. The latter shall forward this report to the federal legislative chambers.' The IEWM also submits a biannual report on the Federal Plan on Gender Mainstreaming to the Council of Ministers.

Parliamentary body

The legislative body responsible for gender equality legislation at the federal level is the Commission of Health and Equal Opportunities[5]. Similar to other commissions, the Commission on Health and Equal Opportunities discusses, reviews, amends and votes on bills and proposals related to women’s rights and gender equality. A report of the discussion and the text adopted by the Commission are then presented to the parliamentary plenary session. In addition to preparing legislative work, the Commission also monitors the government’s action by posing oral questions about its gender equality-related initiatives.

Regional structure

Gender equality policy in Belgium is implemented by both federal and federated authorities, as per both their respective domains of competence and governance level. In Belgium, communities and regions have the same legal power and competence as the federal authority, and thus regional decrees and ordinances have the same value as laws passed at the federal level. Therefore, in addition to federal mainstreaming, state authorities have administrations responsible for implementing gender equality policies under the authority of a minister.

Considerable differences exist between the gender equality policies and government bodies of the various constituent parts of the Belgian State. The relationship between the federal and regional levels is complex in all aspects of administration. This has prevented a joined-up approach to gender equality, resulting in gender mainstreaming strategies being developed independently.

This complex organisation means that regions and communities can work to progress gender equality in all fields of their legal competence. The regions and communities may therefore have their own gender equality bodies.

Consultation with civil society

Women's organisations and feminist associations (subsidised by all levels of government: federal, regional, and local) and, more broadly, civil society, are widely consulted by the authorities on many issues relating to gender equality and tackling the issue of violence against women (VAW). Civil society groups were consulted as part of the development of the Federal Plan on Gender Mainstreaming and in formal consultations on the development and monitoring of the Action Plan to Combat Gender-based Violence 2020-2025.

Women's organisations and feminist associations also participate in conferences and are one of the main target audiences for the dissemination of information and publications issued by the authorities on gender equality.

There are three councils active in the area of gender equality: the Federal Council for Equal Opportunities between Men and Women (CEC), the Walloon Council for Equality between Men and Women (CWEHF) and the Brussels Council of Equality between Women and Men (CEFH)[6]. The Councils include society organisations and have issued numerous analysis documents in recent years on gender equality and gender mainstreaming[7]. Moreover, A Gender and Development Advisory Council was created in April 2014 to provide expertise, debate and advice on gender mainstreaming in development cooperation.[8]

Social partners are formally involved via the Council for Equal Opportunities at the federal level, as well as via one-off projects.

Methods and tools

Note: the methods and tools listed under this section were the focus of EIGE's 2021 assessment. If certain methods and tools are not mentioned in this section, this does not necessarily mean that they are not used at all by Belgium.

Gender impact assessment

Belgium has a legal obligation to undertake an ex-ante gender impact assessment when drafting laws or policies. Article 3 of the Gender Mainstreaming Law calls for the implementation of a ‘gender test’ for all laws and regulations. This provision was executed with the adoption of the Regulatory Impact Assessment (RIA) law (Law of 15 December 2013 and Royal Decree of 21 December 2013).[9] This ‘gender test’ is mandatory for all files submitted to the Council of Ministers. Specifically, there are a series of open questions on the differences between women and men regarding the content of the policy regulated by the law. With the adoption of the RIA law for all new regulations submitted to the Council of Ministers, Belgium made significant progress in improving the quality of government regulation through administrative simplification.

Gender budgeting

There is also a legal obligation to undertake gender budgeting. The Gender Mainstreaming Law explicitly requires that the preparatory work on budgets consider a gender perspective. Art 2, § 2 of the law requires that a gender note be written, enumerating the budget being allocated to promote the equality of women and men. This is also required by the Circular on Gender Budgeting adopted in 2010. The Circular implements a procedure,[10] which consists of categorising the budgetary allocations of the federal administrations according to whether they concern the internal functioning or do not have a gender dimension (category 1); specifically aim to achieve equality between women and men (category 2); concern a public policy and have a gender dimension (category 3). Funds that fall into category 3 must be subject to a 'gender comment' on how the gender dimension is or will be considered. An evaluation is carried out every two years. Gender budgeting represents an important tool for gender mainstreaming, and each administration prepares a contribution to the gender note.

Training and awareness-raising

One of the main objectives of the Federal Plan on Gender Mainstreaming is the organisation of gender mainstreaming training within strategic units. Training, however, remains ad-hoc and voluntary but is available for all staff besides employees at the highest political level e.g., ministers. Between 2019 and 2021, the IEWM organised 86 training courses on gender equality (gender discrimination and sexism, gender-sensitive communication) at the request of federal institutions or federated entities (regions and communities) which targeted 1 694 people (from high institutional levels, governmental bodies, and various departments/ministries).

Federal authorities have also developed specific tools for gender-neutral communications and the FPS Chancellery of the Prime Minister, which is responsible for the federal government's external communication, has made paying particular attention to gender in communiqués one of its priorities since 2014. For example, the IEWM has published a practical guide, ‘Integrating the gender dimension into federal communication’.[11]

Gender statistics

The Law on Gender Mainstreaming guarantees the use and dissemination of gender statistics. Article 4 of the Law provides that all federal agencies must ‘ensure that all the statistics they produce, collect and order in their field of action are disaggregated by sex, whether or not it is relevant.’ Article 3 of the Law also provides that each minister must ‘approve the relevant gender indicators to measure the process of gender mainstreaming and the achievement of strategic objectives.’ Most datasets are available through Statbel, the Belgian statistical office, and are therefore sex-disaggregated although there is no section of the website that brings together gender-related statistics which hinders the dissemination of these statistics.

Gender statistics are disseminated regularly through the IEWM which issues press releases and has published three versions of the report ‘Women and Men in Belgium: Statistics and gender indicators’,[12] most recently in 2020. It provides an overview of the main gender indicators and statistics, divided into thematic chapters.

Monitoring progress

Indicators for monitoring progress on institutional mechanisms for the promotion of gender equality and gender mainstreaming in the EU, under Area H of the Beijing Platform for Action

This section analyses the scores achieved by Belgium for data collection in 2021 for the four officially agreed-on indicators on institutional mechanisms for the promotion of gender equality and gender mainstreaming in order to monitor progress on Area H of the Beijing Platform for Action. It also analyses scores under an expanded measurement framework which includes the role of independent gender equality bodies and assesses the effectiveness of efforts to disseminate statistics disaggregated by sex. Institutional mechanisms refer to national machineries that implement, monitor, evaluate, and mobilise support for policies that promote gender equality and gender mainstreaming. All indicators and sub-indicators are available on the Gender Statistics Database here, including metadata about how the scores are calculated.

For Indicator H1 on the status of commitment to the promotion of gender equality and taking into account only the governmental commitment in line with the officially adopted indicator, Belgium scored 5.0 out of a possible 12, below the EU average of 7.2. It scored particularly low on sub-indicator H1e on accountability of the governmental gender equality body where it lost 4.0 points out of a maximum possible score of 5 because there is no strategy or national action plan for gender equality in place.

Under an expanded measurement framework which includes sub-indicator H1f on the mandate and functions of the independent gender equality body, Belgium scored the maximum number of 3 points because it has an independent gender equality body which focuses exclusively on gender equality and carries out all relevant functions. The overall score for the expanded H1 indicator was 8.0 out of a possible 15, below the EU average of 9.1.

Indicator H2 analyses the personnel resources of the national gender equality bodies. For both sub-indicators Belgium scored 1.5 points out of a possible 2 as both the governmental and independent bodies have 25-100 employees working on gender equality. It however scored less than the EU average of 1.0 for sub-indicator H2a, regarding the governmental body, but above the EU average of 0.8 for sub-indicator H2b, regarding the independent body. For both sub-indicators, the maximum 2 points was awarded where the number of employees was over 100 as an indication of the body being sufficiently resourced.

Indicator H3 relates to gender mainstreaming. Here, Belgium scored 6.9 out of a maximum possible 12, which was above the EU average of 5.1. Under sub-indicator H3c on the commitment to and use of methods and tools for gender mainstreaming, Belgium scored 3.9, out of a maximum of 6 points, which was a relatively high score, because there is a legal obligation to undertake gender budgeting and it is widely used in most ministries.

Under an expanded measurement framework which includes sub-indicator H3d on consultation of the independent equality body, Belgium scored 6.9 points out of a possible 14, which was also higher than the EU average of 5.4. Under this sub-indicator, Belgium lost both available points because the independent gender equality body is only consulted by departments or ministries on the gender impact of new or existing policies, law, or programmes in a few cases. For Indicator H4 on the production and dissemination of statistics disaggregated by sex, Belgium scored 3.0 points out a possible 6, just below the EU average of 3.4. It scored the maximum score of 2 points for sub-indicator H4a on government commitment to the production of statistics disaggregated by sex because there is a legal obligation for the national statistical office to collect data disaggregated by sex. However, Belgium lost 3.0 points, out of a possible 4, for sub-indicator H4c on the effectiveness of efforts to disseminate statistics disaggregated by sex, as there was no website or section of a website devoted to gender statistics, which hinders dissemination.