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Work of extraordinary women means there is still hope for campaigners

Molly Bingham

MA Russian and Eurasian Politics and Economics

08 March 2022

International Women's Day is a day that marks the political, economic and social gains that women have made around the world. Unfortunately, however, it is still a day in which we need to reflect, learn and expose instances of regression where leaders and governments choose to backslide and choke women’s hard-won freedoms. In a ‘year of fear’ for Polish women since extreme abortion legislation was enacted, King’s student MOLLY BINGHAM argues now is the time to demonstrate a global solidarity with those who have been devastated by rulings which have coincided with a rise in right-wing populism.

Poland has always been a country ‘caught in the middle’ so the conflict of interest between the more liberal Rafal Trzaskowski-voting women and the patriarchal conservative voice of Andrzej Duda’s voters is not necessarily a surprise. The events of the last couple of years do, however, hold deep resonance given that Poland was once a figurehead for women’s democracy - franchising women before the UK in 1918 and the significance of women who piled on pressure for reform from the Lodz textile factories.

Despite the promise and hope that once welcomed women into a democratised Poland, the current landscape facing Poles is concerning and transcends simple conflict of interest. Since protests began in October 2020, the Human Rights Watch has tracked and called attention to those who are facing death threats for standing up for their bodily autonomy. Developing anger and threats towards Marta Lempart, the co-founder of Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet (All-Poland Women’s Strike), is of deep concern, partly due to her claims that she has received death threats and violent imagery sent by followers of the Leader of Law and Justice Party, Jarosław Kaczyński.

The increasing level of violence, and its source, is not aimed exclusively at the women who lead the campaign, however. Tear gas became the oppostion’s favourite coercive measure and it was freely used on demonstrators who were labelled a security threat. This included parliamentary MPs such as Magdelena Biejat and Barbara Nowacka, who, for their public service, enjoy immunity from prosecution, and journalists who suffered for exercising their freedom to photograph and document the demonstrations. The account given by Biejat makes for unsettling reading. With the cries of ‘the Nazi’s are hitting’, women were blindly dragged out of the crowd and beaten by men armed with batons, sticks and pepper spray - again Biejat states her suspicions that some of the aggressors were sent directly from Kaczynski to restore order.

One obvious conclusion that we can draw from the events of the last year is that the oppressors of women’s rights take particular umbrage with those who represent and embody a modern, free and liberated Polish woman. The MPs that hold the PiS party to account, the journalists who expose the violence and the women who run the organizations that support and fight the stigma that surrounds female sexuality in a patriarchal country. The scare tactics have far-reaching consequences for all women, however it is the activists who ‘wear the target on their back’. The threats of truly despicable violence are calculated and saved for those who are perceived as holding influence over Polish women and who could be considered as a role model for immoral and ‘anti-Catholic’ behaviour. Evidence of this is the lack of confidentiality that surrounds these services and the women who are named and shamed for running them. Agata Teutsch, director of a foundation that goes into schools to counteract gender based violence, was one such woman who was directly named in articles and labelled a threat to children.

Poland remains as torn as ever and the probability of the situation swaying back into women’s favour seems unlikely. – Molly Bingham

On reflection, we can now see that there is a greater issue present that has become bigger than abortion rights. Abortion was merely a scapegoat for the government to push a misogynistic agenda that discredited and discriminated powerful women in increasingly personal attacks. At a time when we should be embracing the end of the stigma that surrounds female sexual empowerment, the ruling PiS party has used scare tactics to enforce and pursue policy that punishes women. One of the first signs of trouble was identified back in 2017 when access to emergency contraception was drastically reduced.

Federa (Federation for Women and Family Planning) remarked that the health minister’s defence was that the usage of emergency contraceptives was being abused - perhaps the irony here being that if there was more freedom of access, the need for abortion in Poland would be drastically reduced. Furthermore, there has been wide condemnation over the decision to imminently withdraw from the Istanbul Convention; a document which commits countries who sign to adopt measures to prosecute domestic violence and other forms of abuse against women. In a country where every fifth woman falls victim to rape, this is the policy that most reveals the government’s blindness to the protections its women need. It is worth noting that the government is planning to draw up its own alternative, however the ratification of this would include an abortion and gay marriage ban in its entirety.

So what now? Poland remains as torn as ever and the probability of the situation swaying back into women’s favour seems unlikely. Poland will remain a divided country for as long as its government chooses to retain policy that is heavily deferential to the Catholic church, whilst its youth search for opportunity abroad.

On this International Women’s Day, we must take a minute to acknowledge the very real consequences these rulings have had. Women have died because of the abortion legislation and the worst fears of many have been tragically realized. Most recently, a lady named only as ‘Agnieska T’ died as a result of sepsis after one of her two foetuses died but doctors delayed in terminating the pregnancy. Her death occurred almost exactly on the first anniversary of the 2021 ruling that made aborting pregnancies due to foetal abnormalities illegal.

Her sad story is not the first and neither, I fear, will it be the last. However, all is not lost. We continue to see the extraordinary  work that individuals like Marta Lempart do to provide hope for women in Poland. They continue to advocate despite the heavy-handed threats and intimidation they encounter. Whilst we must lobby the EU Commission to enact its mechanism which ties EU funding to EU values, let us today especially honour the women who are echoing the voices of the women who came before them from the humble textile factories of Lodz. Women of Poland have shown their strength in enforcing reform before -now it is time to hear them roar again.

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