October 2016 saw the largest strike by women in Polish history. In opposition to a proposed new law banning all abortions, 100,000 women took part in demonstrations across 147 cities and towns in Poland, with 30,000 attending a demonstration in Warsaw. For many, it was the first experience of protest in their lives, and 90% of all actions on the day happened in towns smaller than 50 000 citizens. There were also solidarity actions across the globe, including in London, Paris and Berlin.
The strike action was widely reported in international media, triggered similar actions in other countries (most notably in Latin America), and met with huge support of Polish women: according to the polls prior to the strike, it was supported by 55% of women, with only 14% against it. What outraged Polish women so much was the proposed change to already rather restrictive abortion law: the new proposal banned abortion in all circumstances, including rape and incest; and introduced custodial penalties for women who terminated pregnancy. After the strike, and to many people’s surprise, the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) party decided to vote against the proposal.
To be clear about it, the situation prior to PiS government wasn’t ideal either: Since 1993, Poland has one of the most restrictive anti- abortion laws in the Europe. It allows pregnancy termination only in three specific circumstances: due to the threat of mother’s life, due to damage to fetus, or if pregnancy is result of a crime. The law does not secure women’s right to abortion due to social circumstances, or because she just does not want to have a child. By law, Polish gynecologists can refuse legal abortion based on their religious beliefs. That is yet another obstacle women, especially outside of big cities, have to deal with. All this created a massive underground abortion industry, where abortion is not only dangerous, but also, costing 4000 PLN (approx £850) on average, hence is available only to those who can afford it.
PiS policies re: women’s rights in the country are however more restrictive than anything Polish women ever experienced. Since it came to power in October 2015, it launched a series of actions targeting women.
Introduction of Child Benefit
PiS was praised by many, including some parts of the left, for introducing child benefit payments. It was one of the main points in their electoral programme, was successfully used as the electoral bait, and can be considered as long- overdue introduction of social benefits to the country. The benefit is given to all people with two or more children, and couples or single parents with only one child need to be means- tested in order to receive the benefit. That particularly hits single parents, as it is them who are likely to have only one child. One- third of all children in Poland are brought up in one parent families. Considering that the number of single mothers in the country is eleven times bigger than that of single fathers, the restriction on child benefit is particularly hitting the women who, one may think, deserve particular care from the state. Single parent families however do not fit the right- wing government ideal of the family, so they are not supported.
Moreover, there were comments from numerous politicians stating that one of the ideas behind child benefit was to enforce family values, understood as supporting hetero-normative couples, and helping them with achieving the “ideal” situation of being able to support a family with only one income. That is an explicit attempt to encourage women to stay home in order to look after children (the more the merrier), rather than helping them with achievements outside of family care.
Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence
PiS is working on preparing the termination of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence.
The Convention was signed by Poland, amid great opposition from the right wing and the Catholic Church, in 2015. It introduced the concept of economic violence in Polish law. In addition, it requires, among other things, the fight against gender stereotypes as a source of violence and inequality – the document assumes that there is a connection between violence and unequal treatment and the justification of it in tradition and religion. According to the government, the bare mention of gender as a social concept goes against Christian tradition and religion, is against constitution, undermines father’s rights, and the legal definition of family and a woman.
Considering that in 2015, Polish police recorded 97 501 victims of domestic violence, 69 376 of which were women; and that estimated 400 women each year lose their lives to domestic violence; the government move against the convention seems to be yet another attack against women’s rights.
Since July 2017, emergency contraception in Poland is available only with prescription. That makes Poland, along with Hungary, the only countries in the EU where prescription is requested for this type of contraception. The morning-after pill was described by one governmental official as “the death pill”, which goes in line with what the Catholic Church thinks on the issue.
The government explains that the prescription requirement is essential to protect women’s safety, citing numerous side effects as a reason. Funnily enough, the same rules do not seem to apply to medicines against erectile dysfunction, which, available in Poland on request, have much more serious side effects, and in some cases can lead to death. It is women who, apparently, have to be controlled while making decisions regarding their health and sexual lives.
Police Raids on Women’s Organizations
The day after another women’s strike in October this year, the police raided the offices of numerous women’s organizations across the country, mostly the ones working with survivors of domestic violence. Under the pretext of alleged financial fraud, the cops confiscated entire paperwork (including the sensitive data), and all computers.
However, women’s organizations argue that the issue has a political context and is a repressive response to the protests. In practice, the confiscation of documents or computers means that the organizations’ activity is frozen until the police return their equipment. It is hard not to assume that was the main reason for the raid.
Poor execution of child maintenance payments
According to the National Debt Register from January 2017, one million children in Poland are not receiving maintenance payments. It’s almost 10% of persons below 25 years old. 96% of people failing to make child maintenance payments are fathers, and the problem is
mainly affecting women who are falling under the obligation to support a family. Taking up paid work is most often associated with the loss of the ability to apply for benefits, whose thresholds in Poland are scandalously low.
A woman with one child earning only a minimum wage (2000 zł a month) has no chance of obtaining a penny from the Government Child Maintenance Fund (the threshold is 725 PLN per person in the family). In addition, she will not qualify for child benefit.
Change of perinatal standards
Introduction of standards of perinatal care in September 2012, was a major achievement for women’s rights in Poland. The standards described in detail the rights of women during pregnancy and labor, where they have the maximum freedom and are treated subjectively. Medical interventions and routine treatments (enema, pubic shaving, perineal cure) were to be kept to a minimum and made with the consent of the woman. In December 2016 the Ministry of Health decided to bring change this regulations from legally binding to just recommendation.
Emergency Contraception Parcels Missing
Since October this year, Polish Postal Service failed to deliver several hundred parcels containing emergency contraception and pharmacological abortion medications. The parcels literally vanished from the post office system: they are not recorded anywhere since they entered Poland.
In Poland, it is legal to buy and ship a medicine from abroad for personal use. It is often a lifeline for women seeking abortion, especially those ones who can not afford to either pay for the procedure, or travel abroad in order to get treatment. The pills are either purchased online, or sent by foreign organizations fighting for women’s rights.
Nobody knows who decided to “disappear” the parcels. They literally vanished from the Postal Service system. It is hard not to assume that is yet another move of the government, trying to prevent women from affirming their basic rights.
Those are just some examples of the government repressing basic rights of women in Poland. One can only assume there will be more to come in near future. The government still tries to find ways to, among others, introduce flat ban on abortions. For example,there were plans to introduce custody of women who are in danger of losing pregnancy until they safely give birth, and more plans to restrict women’s right to contraception. Women, in the eyes of Polish government, are merely live incubators.
Women, both cis and trans, are encouraged to email editor(at)freedompress.org.uk should they want to contribute to an article about women’s rights in different countries.
Pic: Grażyna Marks