Women’s rights activists and opposition MPs have accused the Polish government of abandoning victims of domestic violence as a bill that would in effect take the country out of a key international convention on violence against women moved through parliament.
A vote last week on its first reading prompted demonstrations around Warsaw, including at the parliament, constitutional court and education ministry. Activists fear that victims of domestic violence will be left with no support or protection.
The vote to send it for examination by parliamentary committees took place only days after Turkey, the first state to ratify the Istanbul convention, withdrew from it by presidential decree. No date for a second reading in Poland has yet been set.
“Withdrawal from the Istanbul convention would signal to the international community that Poland is moving away from the west, from democracy and human rights, and is instead going in the direction of Turkey and dictatorship,” said the opposition MP Barbara Nowacka, the leader of the centre-left Polish Initiative party.
The Istanbul convention aims to prevent domestic violence and other forms of violence against women. The legally binding treaty was signed by 34 European countries and came into effect in 2014.
Rightwing politicians in Poland and activists from Ordo Iuris, the ultraconservative legal group behind the bill, have argued that the convention promotes “gender ideology”. Proponents of the bill – named“Yes to family, no to gender” – want the Polish government to write its own anti-violence legislation that will “secure the rights of families”.
Marta Lempart, the leader of the National Women’s Strike, the organisation behind Poland’s large pro-choice demonstrations and last week’s protests, accused the government of wanting “to legalise domestic violence”.
She said a 2019 bill that would have decriminalised first instances of domestic violence was rejected by parliament, but she feared that without the protection of the convention, similar legislation would be allowed to pass in the future.
“The government has already cut funding to organisations which support victims of domestic violence. They want to disassemble the whole system of support,” she said.
The bill was introduced to parliament only months after the Polish government approved a near-total abortion ban.
“Poland’s conservative and authoritarian government opposes female emancipation and seeks to preserve a certain status quo,” said Wanda Nowicka, an MP from the leftwing Spring party.
Recent polls suggest such social conservatism does not have overwhelming support, with 70% of Poles backing the widespread protests against the abortion ban and a majority wanting same-sex relationships to have legal recognition.
Lempart argues that the government’s abortion ban has only mobilised opposition. “There are now more people who support legal abortion than there are those who support the government,” she said. “Now everyone knows the phone number to Abortion Without Borders [an organisation that helps people access abortion pills or surgical abortions abroad]. I know that eventually we will become a normal, modern, secular country.”
Many opposition-controlled city councils have taken steps to publicly challenge the government. In February, Kraków announced that the square outside the headquarters of the ruling Law and Justice party, where the first pro-choice protesters gathered, would be renamed the Square of Women’s Rights.
Kraków has also recently joined other cities, such as Warsaw, Gdańsk, Łódź and Częstochowa, which finance IVF treatment for their residents after the government cut funding for the procedure in 2016. This week Wrocław, Poland’s fourth-largest city, signed a “declaration of respect and human rights” that is seen as a response to the notorious “LGBT-free zone” legislations introduced by some local councils.
“I think we made huge progress,” said Anna Wiatrowska, a postgraduate psychology student in Warsaw who has taken part in the pro-abortion protests and who runs a feminist Instagram account. “During the first [pro-abortion] protests [in 2016], people were reluctant to shout ‘abortion’ in a public space. They would say: ‘Let’s shout pregnancy termination instead,’” Wiatrowska recalled. “While today, no one is pondering on whether or not it’s appropriate to say ‘abortion’ – we just shout it.”