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Women’s Rights: Poland Gears Up to Exit Istanbul Convention

Following Turkey’s withdrawal from Europe’s key treaty to protect women, Poland may follow suit.

Women’s protection, gender equality and LGBT rights have all become popular targets for European autocrats. Recently, Hungary caused international outrage over a law equating homosexuality with paedophilia and banning education on LGBT rights in schools. In Poland, which has been ruled by right-wing nationalist populists since 2015, the most radical anti-abortion law in Europe came into force in January 2021, stipulating that even foetuses with severe damage must be born. All this is done with reference to tradition and Christian faith and is supposed to preserve a patriarchal image of the family, which is stylized as the cornerstone of the political program of the European autocrats.

It seems only logical that Poland, following in the footsteps of Turkey, is the next in line to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention on combating violence against women and domestic violence. The convention, which the Council of Europe adopted in Istanbul in 2011, obliges signatory countries to take action against all forms of violence against women and to abolish all discriminatory regulations, as well as guaranteeing education and counselling services to sensitize societies to women’s rights. It has been a thorn in the Polish government’s side for years – ostensibly because it is not compatible with the values of the Polish constitution and the definition of family it enshrines.

Poland’s Constitutional Court examines treaty on women’s protection

Polish President Andrzej Duda, a lawyer, called for the convention to be rejected. Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro criticized the fact that the definition of “domestic violence” in the convention not only refers to pathologies such as drug use or alcoholism, but also to traditional social gender roles. The convention is branded by the government as the culmination of “genderism” and “LGBT ideology”. For the Polish right, the term “gender” represents the evil that threatens the nation and its culture. At the request of Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, the Constitutional Court, always compliant with the government line, will now review the agreement. And a bill is already being discussed in parliament that would open the way for leaving the convention.

This can be viewed as mere political manoeuvring, as an attempt to woo the most radical voters in the government camp without really wanting to implement the project. But the experience of the last few years shows that even seemingly hollow proposals can suddenly be revived as soon as they seem politically useful. For example, the tightening of Poland’s anti-abortion law followed a ruling by the Constitutional Court that many had believed would never see the light of day.

Government ignores binding commitment to protect women

The Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI), which has been analyzing the Polish transformation process towards democracy and a market economy for many years, now calls Poland a “defective democracy”. Since 2016, the country’s rule of law rating has been falling significantly and now stands at just 6.8 out of a possible 10 points. The latest BTI Country Report for 2020 states: “The changes in the court system reduce legal certainty and make it more difficult to fight discrimination.”

Leaving the Istanbul Convention would symbolically mark another step by the state away from fundamental European values. Meanwhile, women’s current situation is already worrying given the de facto ban on abortion and the ongoing obstruction of the work of women’s organizations. The formal validity of the Convention does not prevent the government from making plans that contradict both the text and the spirit of the treaty.

Negating gender-based violence

It is true that important legal changes have already been made in keeping with the Istanbul Convention. For example, perpetrators of domestic violence can now be swiftly isolated from their victims. Also, the public prosecutor’s office is now obliged to initiate proceedings for rape, even without the victims having to report the perpetrator. Nevertheless, a lot is still wrong and largely for ideological reasons.

Women’s organizations criticize the fact that violence against women is not mentioned in the government’s program, but is merely subsumed under the heading of violence in the family. The Ministry of Justice withdrew financial support from social organizations that advocate for the protection of women because their focus is too narrowly defined and excludes violence against men. The term “violence in the family” is only applied to the inner circle of the family, with the consequence that divorced women, for example, are not sufficiently protected from the angry outbursts of their ex-partners. Economic violence against women is also not recognised – contrary to the provisions of the Istanbul Convention. And meanwhile: the legal definition of rape in Poland is based on coercion instead of lack of consent, as recommended by the Council of Europe. Fortunately, the government again moved away from the idea of defining rape according to the Russian model in which a single act of coercion does not count as such.

Raising awareness through resistance

In general, the main problem is a societal lack of awareness of women’s rights and gender discrimination. This is encouraged by the radical conservative restructuring of school programs as well as the deliberate drying up of government support for civil society that does not conform to the government’s approach. In addition, liberal governments prior to 2015 also paid too little attention to the issue of women’s rights. According to a report by Adam Bodnar, the Polish Ombudsman for Civil Rights, “Gender discrimination has become so embedded in women’s everyday lives that it has become invisible to them in principle.”

The attack on the standards of the Istanbul Convention is evidence of backward thinking that places Poland close to Russia and Turkey in terms of family and women’s policy. But there is also resistance. It is the Polish women and their supporters who are exerting the strongest opposition to the authoritarian tendencies in Poland. In Poland where, as elsewhere, half the population is female, one thing is certain: the rebuilding process of Polish democracy—whenever it occurs—will remain incomplete without the full recognition of women’s rights.

Translated by Jess Smee

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