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January, 25th, – reading time : 8 minutes
Poland’s Abortion Rights Protests Lead to a Louder Call for Gender Equity, by Paulina Reiter
Magdalena Szkarłat-Meszczyńska told her employees they could join nationwide marches across Poland with no fear of losing their jobs when pro-choice protesters enmassed in the streets late last year. The 53-year-old interior designer joined those protesting the ruling by the Constitutional Tribunal imposing a near-total ban on abortion. In the northern city of Gdynia, Szkarłat-Meszczyńska watched with her husband as thousands of others rallied, despite coronavirus restrictions, with others honking their horns, waving from balconies and making a “V” for victory sign with their fingers in this predominantly Roman Catholic country.
« The feeling of solidarity was overwhelming, uplifting. It brought hope for changes,” she says.
For Szkarłat-Meszczyńska, like the million women and their allies who have taken the streets for months since that ruling in October, she was not only marching in solidarity against further tightening Poland’s abortion laws. It was about much more, about freedom, which she says has been taken away bit by bit by the ruling conservative nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party.
At first, after the October ruling, protesters, mostly young women, snaked through Polish cities chanting slogans like “My body, my choice!” while pitted against police in riot gear in a constant fog of tear gas. Marching, blocking roads and interrupting church services, they have sent a definitive rejection of the ruling government. They have donned clothing and brandished placards with the red lightning bolt insignia of the All-Poland Women’s Strike organization, symbolizing not only the country’s pro-choice movement but also defiance in the face of the ruling party’s assault on gender equity.
Agata Nowicka for Impact x Les Glorieuses
In October of last year, the country’s constitutional court ruled abortions to be illegal even in the cases of severe foetal abnormalities, which form the vast majority of Poland’s 1,000 or so legal abortions performed each year, according to Poland’s Ministry of Health. Poland, a member of the European Union since 2004, received a resounding denunciation of this new law from European Parliament in November last year. With one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe already in place, this new law would only allow termination in cases of incest, rape and when a mother’s life is at risk.
Marta Lempart, the 41-year-old lawyer and leader of Women’s Strike, the driving force behind the protests, says the time is ripe to take on crises in human rights and healthcare, corruption and the government’s handling of the economic fallout from the pandemic. Lempart is often at the front of the protests in Warsaw, sporting a black face mask with the signature red bolt, armed with a large megaphone in one hand, and a sign in the other.
“The government knows its citizens are furious,” she says, before referencing one of protesters’ popular slogans. “This is war.”
Protesters have worldwide support, from across Europe to India. American feminists Gloria Steinem, Phyllis Chesler, Merle Hoffman and Naomi Wolf wrote an open letter to the women of Poland saying, “We stand with you and attest that women’s rights are human rights.”
This is not the first time that women challenge the government
This is not the first time that women on the streets of Poland have managed to successfully challenge the government over their reproductive rights. Women’s Strike was formed in 2016 in the wake of large decentralised protests the first time PiS attempted to pass the near-total ban. After marches took place over 100 cities, officials distanced themselves from the proposed law.
The consistent public denunciation of the court ruling has not only empowered women in subsequent weeks to re-examine their country’s stance on gender equity, it has staved off the ruling party’s implementation of this ruling, leaders of Women’s Strike say.
Typically, the Polish government publishes the decision of the court and passes it
into law immediately. But nearly three months have passed since the court’s ruling and the future of the near-total abortion ban hangs in jeopardy, with the rightwing government facing its biggest challenge since it came to power five years ago.
Piotr Mueller, the government spokesman, when asked about the protests, said: « At the moment, we all need peace and discussion around this verdict, [we need to] mute social emotions and [need] a calm discussion among experts.”
In a separate radio interview, when asked about Women’s Strike, he said there is « no chance for dialogue » with the organizers.
The movement also has its opponents in a country with deep, Roman Catholic roots where politics and religion are often connected. As PiS’ leader Jeroslaw Kaczyński said while campaigning in 2019 : “Christianity is part of our national identity. The church was and is a preacher and possessor of the only system of values fully known in Poland.” Since the protests began, the Church in Poland has been silent about the failure of the government to implement the near total abortion ban.
A third of the country’s citizens are opposed to the pro-choice marchers
Approximately a third of the country’s citizens are opposed to the pro-choice marchers, according to recent polls. Some of the rallies have been interrupted by nationalist counter-protesters who have shot tear gas at the crowds and tried to punch women as they march. A few of those counter-protesters have been seen choking protesters and many are almost instantly arrested by police. Recent opinion polls show 70% of Polish citizens support the Women’s Strike protests. Trust in the PiS ruling party has also fallen: a Kantar poll from December shows that two thirds of the respondents expressed a negative opinion about the ruling party, a record decline in support.
At the start of protests Kaczyński went on national television to urge that the rallies be crushed because they are a threat to Poland. The « nihilist » riots, he said, are directed against the church, a bastion of morality, and they must be protected « at any price.”
In response, some protesters shout at rallies: “If altar boys could get pregnant abortion would be a sacrament.”
Young women across the country have been emboldened by the country’s
largest protests since the end of Communism 30 years ago, taking aim at a rightwing government that has frequently taken aim at LGBTQIA+ people and threatened to abandon domestic violence protection measures for women.
Dorota Kotas, an openly gay writer based in Poland’s capital Warsaw, decided to regularly attend the pro-choice protests, even though she has previously met threats at other LGBTQIA+ protests for drawing a rainbow in chalk.
“It would be more terrifying to sit home alone and listen to the news from the demonstrations,” the 26-year-old says. « These protests are about me, my friends, about all the women I know but really about people in general, because the decisions of the authorities have a very broad impact on everyone. »
Though the ruling has yet to be implemented, protests are continuing months later with fewer people. Still, protest organizers say they have expanded their goals, setting their sights on abolishing the current government and its policies.
“It must be hard to rule the country if the agenda is set by someone else,” says Lempart with a wry laugh.
In recent days, as women in Poland continue to fight, in the Catholic country of Argentina, home to the Pope and head of the Catholic Church, abortion was legalized on December 30 after five years of grassroots-organized mass marches mobilized via social media. It’s a signal to women in Poland that change may be imminent, even if it may come slowly.
One of the largest, and earliest, protests shortly after the court ruled on the law set the tone for Polish women’s long-term battle. On October 30 in the center of Warsaw, women took turns coming to a small makeshift stage framed by plastic palm tree, where they relayed to large crowds their tales of abortion.
“I am here to speak not only for me, but for my mother and my grandmother »
“I am here to speak not only for me, but for my mother and my grandmother,” an unidentified woman shouted to loud applause as a police helicopter whirred above. Like many of the estimated 150,000 Polish women who have abortions each year, she travelled to one of the nearby countries — Slovakia, Czech Republic and Germany — where an industry has sprung up for Polish women seeking to terminate their pregnancies. With thousands of women going abroad for abortion and others ordering abortion-inducing pills online to take in Poland (which is legal if self-administered and with no outside assistance), 1 in 3 pregnancies in Poland ends in abortion, according to state pollster CBOS.
Her voice trembling yet full of conviction, the woman, who asked not to be identified, said she recently confronted her conservative, PiS-voting father. “I said, ‘Happy birthday, Dad, I hope that at 74 you will learn to think independently and critically and you will stop believing this fucking propaganda. Because your wife and your daughter have had abortions.’”
– Paulina Reiter is a contributing journalist to The Fuller Project, a nonprofit newsroom reporting on issues that affect women.
– Agata Nowicka is an Polish illustrator and comics artist, author of posters and book covers. www.agatanowicka.com | instagram.com/pixelendo
Impact x Grassroot movements
Since January 23rd, the hashtag #CommentFaire PourQueLesHommesArretentDeVioler (#HowToGetMenToStopRaping), has been used thousands of times on Twitter to denounce the censorship from the social network against several feminist activists.
This hashtag started trending after the suspension of Mélusine
’s account, a feminist activist who first asked the question, in a tweet about the « massive amount of sexual violence against women, children and gay men » in the midst of the wave #Metooincest and #Metoogay.
Subsequently, several accounts took up the issue in solidarity, and some of them were also suspended. In the end,Twitter re-established Melusine’s account twelve hours later.
France – Since Saturday 16 January, tens of thousands of testimonies of incest victims have been posted on social networks through the hashtag #MeTooIncest.
Led by the collective @NousToutesorg and activists such as author Axelle Jah Njiké or psychiatrist Murielle Salmona, this movement seeks to break the silence and incite the government to act. Five days later, the Senate unanimously adopted, in first reading, a bill criminalizing any act of sexual penetration between an adult and a minor under the age of 13. However, the Senate opposed extending its statute of limitations.
India – Thousands of Indian women are taking part in the protest against the liberalisation of the agricultural sector advocated by Narendra Modi’s government. According to Oxfam, 85% of women in rural areas are engaged in agricultural activities, but only 13% of them own land.
Women suffer most from poverty, discrimination and domestic violence. A decline in family income directly impacts the health and well-being of women, and may lead to more violence from men.
Farmers are threatening to organise a parade of tractors and trucks through the streets of the capital on 26 January, Republic Day, if an agreement on the liberalisation of the agricultural sector is not reached with the government.
Sudan – The hashtag #ItsNotOkay went viral on social networks on 11 January following a gang rape committed in Khartoum on the evening of 31 December. Since then, Sudanese women have been mobilising to denounce impunity.
Anger has intensified following two new scandals: the rape of a nine-year-old girl by a member of military intelligence, and the murder of a pregnant woman by her husband.
Activists are calling for a revision of the 1991 law on sexual violence to recognise rape as a crime and end the omerta on violence against women.
United-States – The economic recovery plan presented by Joe Biden on Thursday 14 January plans to invest $15 billion in subsidies for childcare for disadvantaged families. This measure aims to help women re-enter the workforce.
The exorbitant cost of childcare in the United States has forced many women to give up their jobs to look after their children. As of December, 100% of the 140,000 jobs destroyed in the United States were held by women, according to The National Women’s Law Center.
The measure would provide a tax credit to reimburse up to 50% of childcare costs for families earning less than $125,000 a year; and a partial credit for those earning between $125,000 and $400,000.
Argentina – Abortion up to 14 weeks of pregnancy officially became legal and free in Argentina on January 14. Argentina thus became the fourth country in the region to allow abortion.
Until then, abortion was only possible in cases of rape or when the mother’s life was at risk. The Argentinian government estimates that between 370,000 and 520,000 clandestine abortions are performed each year, leading to more than 38,000 hospitalisations.
This victory follows the massive mobilisations led by the feminist « green handkerchiefs » movement since 2018. However, in a very conservative country, the text included the possibility for doctors to assert their « conscientious objection ».
Vatican – On Monday, January 11, Pope Francis allowed women to read passages from the Bible during Mass and to participate in the Eucharist by serving bread and wine to the priest, roles that until then were officially reserved
However, this reform does not allow women to become priests. « With regard to ordained ministries, the Church has in no way the faculty to confer priestly ordination on women, » the Pope wrote in a letter. Until then, abortion was only possible in cases of rape or when the mother’s life was at risk.
In October 2019, during a synod dedicated to the Amazon, the bishops of the region had asked for more functions to be given to women in recognition of their essential contribution in this area where priests are scarce.
To be continued…
Chile – Since 13 January, Congress has been debating a bill tabled in 2018 by left-wing parliamentarians to decriminalise abortion up to 14 weeks of pregnancy.
Ireland – Prime Minister Micheal Martin promised that the state would pay tribute to the 9,000 children who died in institutions for single mothers run by Catholic nuns and
the state between 1922 and 1998.
France – One year after its first passage in Parliament, the bill opening Medically Assisted Procreation (MAP) to all women will be examined by the Senate on 2 February.
Pakistan – After the Lahore High Court, the Singh High Court has been considering since early January the possibility of banning virginity testing of rape victims, which could possibly pave the way
for a nationwide ban on this practice.
DCR – Civil society denounced on Wednesday 20 January an increase in rapes against women in Lubumbashi since the introduction of a curfew on 18 December.
Your opinion matters:
#MeTooInceste promped a deluge of testimonies of victims of incest on social media in France, shedding light on the magnitude of the problem. Would you be in favor to eliminate the statute of limitations for incest ?
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This zero issue of the IMPACT newsletter was prepared by Rebecca Amsellem, Caroline Prak, Anne-Dominique Correa, Elena Raymond, Hinde Bouratoua, from the Les Glorieuses team, with the invaluable help of Khushbu Shah, Amie Ferris-Rotman, Kim Abbott of the Fuller Project team.