On November 28, 1918, Polish women won their right to vote. 102 years on, they are still fighting for their right to self-determination, equality and freedom of choice. Once a leader in advancing women’s rights, Poland achieved women’s suffrage two years prior to the United States and ahead of most European states. Today, Poland leads Europe as one of the most oppressive countries for women, violating their fundamental human right by denying them reproductive rights.
After decades of accessible abortion under the communist regime, in 1993 the church and the state sealed women’s fate with the so-called compromise, which severely limited abortion. Millions of Polish women revolted then against the violation of their bodily autonomy, yet their signatures were discarded and voices discounted. For 28 years now Poland has had one of the most restrictive abortion policies in Europe, allowing for the procedure only if the pregnancy results from rape or incest, if the woman’s life is at risk, or if the fetus is affected by severe congenital defects. However, in practice even these extreme circumstances did no guarantee women the access to legal abortion, as doctors frequently evoke the “conscience clause”. As a result of such strict limitations, the official number of legal abortions performed annually in Poland (population of 38 million) was around 1,000.
On October 22, 2020, the last of these three conditions was ruled to be unconstitutional by the illegally elected and politically controlled Constitutional Tribunal. Three months later, on January 27, 2021, the contentious ruling came into legal force thus effectively imposing a near-total ban, as abortions in cases of severe and irreversible impairment of the fetus account for 98% of all legal terminations performed in Poland. The UN Human Rights experts released a statement condemning the Tribunal’s verdict: “Poland has decided to sacrifice women’s human right to safe and legal health services for termination of pregnancy on account of protection of the right to life of the unborn in violation of its international human rights obligations.”
The court’s decision sparked a wave of on-going mass protests unseen since the 1989 collapse of communism, with more than 400,000 people taking to streets in more than 500 cities and towns over the last three months. Both the ruling, and the timing of it – in the midst of the global health crisis and nation-wide lockdown – enraged the people and unified them against the governing party, the Law and Justice. The civic rebellion led by women has attracted the most uncanny allies: the radical feminists were joined by families, football fans, and even farmers on their tractors.
The country-wide mobilization, particularly in smaller towns, challenges the stereotype that issues of reproductive rights only concern big-city-elites. Despite the draconian laws, 1 in 3 Polish women has had an abortion. They rely on pills shipped from abroad or undertake the costly trip to be free from the fear of breaking the law. However, this choice comes at a cost many cannot afford. This is when Abortion Without Borders – a transnational initiative, which provides information, practical support and funding – comes to the rescue! The courageous activists behind Abortion Dream Team – a grassroots Polish organization that launched the initiative with the support of reproductive rights organizations from all across Europe – believe that human rights do not stop at the borders. In one year since their launch, they helped over 5 thousand Polish women who needed an abortion abroad.
Accessing safe abortion services remains a matter of privilege, whereas it should be an unquestionable right. The protests are a reflection of such sentiment, mobilizing women and persons of all backgrounds, regardless of their socioeconomic status. Marching under the banner “Abortion is not a political debate! It’s not a worldview, nor an ideology! Abortion is our life, our experiences, our decisions!” women stress their autonomy from the state.
The fiery energy of the protests is fuelled by a new generation of unapologetic, uncompromising Polish women with red lightning bolts – the symbol of the movement – painted on their cheeks. “As a participant of this wave of protests – and many others over the last five-six years – I was really surprised and happy that I suddenly found myself among the oldest participants of the demonstrations,” says Aleksandra Lipczak, a Senior Fellow of the 2007 Warsaw Fellowship. “This generational handover is something really exciting and makes me think of similar dynamics in Argentina and its „revolución de las pibas” (girls’ revolution), which turned out to be so effective in terms of changing the political and social dynamics,” adds Lipczak, who covers Latin America and Spain as a journalist.
Yet, what began as a spontaneous block party – civil disobedience to the rhythm of disco music and dancing at roundabouts and intersections of major streets – has since escalated into a horrifying spectacle of police brutality and vigilante violence of nationalist groups, who took upon themselves to “safeguard” the Polish nation.
Under the guise of the COVID-19 preventive measures, the state has deployed the anti-terrorist brigade to disperse the demonstrators, whom they deem to be a health hazard and blame for a spike in coronavirus infections. The state has exploited the pandemic in doubling up the police efforts to crack down on dissenters. One tactic in particular, “kettling” – also known as “trap and detain” – has been controversial. Forcibly pulled out of the crowd and driven in a police van to an undisclosed precinct, many detainees, some of whom are underage, are then denied contact with families and access to lawyers. Such practices became normalized earlier this summer during the brutal pacification of the pro-LGBT rights protests.
On one too many occasions the officers have used force and tear gas against journalists, who cover the peaceful demonstrations, and prominent female MPs, who support the women’s rights movement. This only goes to show what regular citizens, with no institutional immunity to protect them, have to endure. The undercover officers – who could easily pass for fascist militias roaming the streets – have been infiltrating the demonstrations, wielding batons and firing tear gas on non-violent protesters. When people in charge of public safety are the ones provoking violence, the orders must come from above.
The blatant human rights violations perpetrated by the state show that the Women’s Strike has struck a nerve with the ruling party.
Despite the use of excessive violence by police, the determination of protestors is unwavering. Spontaneous demonstrations are organized in solidarity with detainees outside of police stations. Legal and psychological aid is offered to those who need it. “You Will Never Walk Alone” has become a rallying cry for the protesters, emphasizing the sense of solidarity and sisterhood that pushes the movement forward.
Even though the National Women’s Strike has been the organizing force behind the movement, most of the initiatives are bottom-up, with the bulk of organizing taking place online. Using all the social media platforms available, the “strikers” call for direct actions that are friendly to social distancing – like the motorcade protests blocking off streets – with locations disclosed at the last minute. “I think of Spain when I see women in Cracow organizing on the most local levels (within the neighbourhood or even the street) to carry out some protest actions – like painting over the anti-choice posters or going to the post office together to send a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights (an action encouraged by one of the feminists NGOs). Looking at the Spanish experience of the Indignados, I believe this self-organization on the lowest level is absolutely crucial, to change things you need a solid basis,” says Lipczak, a resident of Cracow.
The protests have also brought to the front one of the largest minorities in Poland – women with disabilities, whose access to reproductive health services is all too often further restricted. They too have voiced their dissent and demands, coming out from the shadows of public invisibility. The women’s movement has taken notice and is making a concerted effort to make protests accessible.
In line with the all-encompassing and inclusive approach, the organizers of the Women’s Strike formed a Consultative Council of experts, who identified major topics of concern. For each issue – including education, LGBT rights, employment, health care, disability rights, climate change, the rule of law, the separation of church and state, and of course, reproductive rights – a working group has been created. In the second stage of their revolution, they opened the process to the public, encouraging everyone to weigh in on best practices.
In pushing its conservative agenda, the ruling party has triggered quite the opposite reaction. Although protests erupted initially as a response against further restrictions on abortion, the aspirations for change are much larger. There is no going back to the so-called compromise. Polish women will not wait another century to fully exercise their rights. As Zofia Nałkowska, a remarkable Polish novelist who fought for women’s emancipation, said in 1907 at the Warsaw Women’s Convention, “We Demand A Full Life!”. And we are not asking anyone’s permission.
This article was authored by Zuzanna Krzątała, Senior Fellow of the 2019 Warsaw Fellowship and current Projects Coordinator of Humanity in Action Poland