Sunday

17th Oct 2021

Opinion

How women are suffering for human rights in Poland

  • In 2020, women started protests all over Poland against the new abortion restrictions. Since then the lives of female activists have become ever more difficult (Photo: Łódzkie Dziewuchy Dziewuchom)
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In its latest politically motivated ruling, Poland's Constitutional Tribunal last week ruled that the Polish Constitution was not subject to EU law.

This is only the most recent in a series of developments that trample on the rule of law and human rights in Poland, rubber stamped by a tribunal riddled with ruling Law and Justice (PiS)-party supporters.

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Hundreds of thousands of people are taking to the streets in Poland to protest against this.

Authorities have responded with detentions and physical violence reminiscent of their response to the pro-abortion protests in October 2020.

Nine people have been detained thus far, including an LGBTIQ activist, and authorities have taken down the names of 71 people who were protesting.

Far-right groups have again organised counter-actions impeding peaceful protesters, with little reaction from police forces.

The Polish government has long been in dispute with the EU, repeatedly refusing to implement rulings of the EU's Court of Justice, including one to withdraw the PiS-dominated judicial Disciplinary Chamber, which threatens and intimidates Polish judges, undermining their independence.

The government has also forced out of office its Ombudsman who acted as a watchdog for human rights. And it is now working to withdraw from an internationally recognised convention protecting women from violence.

The crippling of the rule of law is having real-life consequences for Polish citizens, and women human rights defenders (WHRDs) are the biggest casualties.

The 22 October 2020 Constitutional Tribunal decision to impose a near-total ban on abortion was a massive attack on women's sexual and reproductive rights.

The result is agonising for women and their families. Some are forced to continue pregnancies against their will, including in cases of fatal or severe foetal impairment.

Others have no choice but to travel abroad to seek care, if they have the financial means to do so, or to seek unsafe abortions.

The ban needlessly increased the suffering of women and sparked massive protests throughout the country.

And a year after these protests, WHRDs face many threats and attacks both from the state and non-state groups.

The abortion ban has helped create a climate that is more permissive of attacks on women's rights. The authorities have repeatedly used excessive force and physical violence against protesters, who have been targeted by police officers.

WHRDs are facing criminal charges from politically appointed prosecutors, while charges against police and far-right groups who perpetrated violence against them are being dropped.

WHRDs' lives continue to be threatened by extremists.

Emotional burnout

Many have been on the receiving end of rape and death threats and bomb scares over their activism.

Their financial livelihoods have been affected, with some women losing their jobs or being publicly ostracised for their participation in protests. Many are on the brink of mental and emotional burnout.

This is the heavy price that Polish women are paying for trying to stand up for the rule of law and civic freedoms in the face of the government's onslaught.

Marta Lempart, co-founder of the Polish Women's Strike (Strajk Kobiet) recently told the European Parliament about the consequences of ongoing activism: "This is hard ... We lose our jobs, our families suffer, we are being detained, we are being beaten up, we are tear gassed, we put our bodies on the line, we put our lives on the line", she said.

"The Polish state treats us as enemies ... We are freedom fighters," Lempart said.

Lempart is facing close to 80 criminal charges for her own role in the protests. The charges against her are undoubtedly an attempt to silence and intimidate her and other WHRDs.

Lempart has not been able to return to her home because she "fears being killed".

Nadia, a 21-year old WHRD, also received death and rape threats. "Every time I check my email and see another threat, I become more and more frightened and overwhelmed," the activist said.

The authorities are not offering the women any protection from violence. The degradation of the rule of law in Poland only makes such attacks more likely, and makes it less likely that perpetrators will be held to account.

Despite these life-altering circumstances, WHRDs are demonstrating that the fight is far from over. WHRDs from the Polish Women's Strike have been collecting signatures throughout this month for a bill that would reverse the abortion ban.

A total of 100,000 citizen signatures need to be collected for the new bill to be introduced to the assembly for debate. 

Increase EU support

Polish WHRDs are looking to the EU to stand up for their rights, but the most recent Constitutional Tribunal ruling once again demonstrates the Polish government's complete disregard for EU rules and values.

The government continues to ask for huge amounts of aid from the EU's Covid Recovery Fund even as it is, in effect, trying to unilaterally renegotiate the terms of its membership, and undermining the independent judicial oversight that safeguards against corruption.

But many Polish citizens are saying enough is enough. Just as they massively protested against the abortion ban, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets all over Poland last weekend to protest against a 'legal Polexit'.

The EU must stand with Polish citizens in this fight. Polish WHRDs and citizens need more than statements from EU leaders: they need protection, resources, continuous pressure, and urgent action.

While the rule of law remains under attack, the EU must not back down. It must continue to withhold the recovery funding and must immediately impose conditions on other EU money going to Poland.

These funds should bypass the government and be redirected to Polish groups who respect and uphold EU values.

This means the EU must urgently increase its financial support for civil society and WHRDs on the ground. Their survival is key to the survival of the rule of law in Poland, and to any hopes the EU has of making its values count for something.

Author bio

Camille Butin is an advocacy advisor at the International Planned Parenthood Federation European Network Network. Aarti Narsee is a researcher at CIVICUS Monitor.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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