The age of sexual consent will be raised from 14 to 16 years old in Estonia from June 2022 after the Riigikogu gave its nod to a draft law on Thursday.
Minister of Justice Maris Lauri (Reform) presented the bill, which has cross-party support, to the government on Thursday morning. It still needs to be passed by the Riigikogu to become law but it is very unlikely to be voted down.
The aim of the bill is to protect children from being sexually exploited by adults.
The Ministry of Justice said in a statement an adult's sexual relationship with a young person under the age of 18 is already prohibited in Estonia if the adult party in the relationship is a family member or other person in a relationship of trust, such as a teacher or a coach.
However, children aged 14 and older need additional protection against sexual relations in which the partner is an adult stranger or acquaintance who is not a direct family member or is not in a trust relationship with the child, it added.
At the same time, it is important that children and young people are not punished for engaging in consensual sexual relations with each other, spokespeople for the government said.
Due to this, the bill includes a so-called "Romeo and Juliet" clause which allows for consensual sexual intercourse between a young adult and a minor aged 14-15 with an age gap of no more than five years.
This means consensual sexual intercourse is allowed between couples aged 14-19 or 15-20.
"As the majority of sexual relations among young people of this age group take place between peers or between young people with a small age difference, the draft makes an exception for consensual sexual relations between young people," Lauri said.
Age limits have also been changed for the handling of child pornography to exclude punishment for pornographic material created during a voluntary and age-appropriate relationship.
In addition, the Family Law Act will be amended to change the exceptional minimum age of marriage for minors from 15.
The law should enter into force on June 1, 2022. The bill passed its first reading in May.
Discussions about raising the age of consent arose in March after historic sexual abuse allegations were made against a Nõmme Kalju FC football team coach. At the time, the girl was 14 years old and the coach 52.
A bill was initially tabled by the opposition party the Social Democrats (SDE) and found cross-party support. It is also supported by health professionals.
SDE MP and former health minister Riina Sikkut said at the time: "Our aim is to protect minors from sexual abuse. In Estonia's neighboring states, the age of consent is 16 for instance in Finland, Latvia and Lithuania. The raising of the age of consent has also been discussed repeatedly in Estonia, and it is supported by child protection specialists as well as the doctors and psychologists helping victims of violence."
Editor's note: This article was updated to add additional information after the Riigikogu approved the draft bill.
Editor: Helen Wright