Last week Monday, 3rd October 2016, was a historical day for Polish women. It was the women’s strike, #StrajkKobiet. With over 150 locations across the country and beyond, it is estimated to have been the largest show of women’s solidarity in Poland’s history! Estimates vary widely, with some reporting that around 7 MILLION women took part in the action (that is roughly a third of Polish women!). Solidarity protests took place all around the world, from London to New York, and from Kenya to Berlin!
But perhaps most importantly, the action was incredibly effective! What Polish women were protesting about was a draft bill that was going through the parliamentary body in the country, proposing a near-total ban on abortion, that would also restrict access to emergency contraception and prenatal care, and which threatened to limit availability of sex education and to criminalise miscarriages! The bill was voted through in the Polish parliament to the commission stage just a week earlier, but just two days after the strike we found out that the government backtracked on its support for it and decided to scrap it instead!
As Krystyna Kacpura, one of my all-time biggest sheros of the feminist movement in Poland, says in her article for the Guardian, the incredible win of the women’s strike in Poland has empowered us. It has come about as a result of just a week’s long preparation, and it has proven to us that in solidarity we can do anything! Admittedly, Polish women had to defy a whole load of voices, from the outside as well as in, that this strike was never going to work! But we did it anyway, and I think the success of the action has defied all expectations! It attracted the attention of the media worldwide, from AlJazeera to the NY Times and the Guardian.
But I hope that it did more than just empower Polish women! My biggest wish is that it went some way to inspiring women all over the globe who are still suffering under laws like the one that the strike in Poland opposed last week, and those who are fighting alongside us to keep or finally gain the human rights that we all equally deserve – especially in the 21st century!
Just a day before the strike, I have attended the Festival of Choice, which is a now annual event in London that tackles the issue, with workshops and panels addressing the topics of abortion, contraception and sex education around the world. And I was struck by how little I knew about the situation of women’s reproductive rights around the globe, despite the fact that I’d been working on the issue for the past 6 months! I had been so totally focused on Poland that I’d barely even noticed the parallel struggles of other women around the world.
True, Poland sticks out like a sore thumb, as the only country in Central and Eastern Europe that has such a restrictive abortion law (at the moment, a woman can only get an abortion in Poland if her health or life is at risk, if the foetus is seriously deformed, or if the pregancy is a result of rape or incest; and even in those cases access is problematic, because of the so-called ‘clause of conscience’, which doctors can sign to say that they will not perform any abortions due to their religion). But all across the Global South, with a very few exceptions, women are denied the right to choose. Many countries across South and Central Americas, Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia still have a total ban on abortions. But we don’t have to look far for an example of where the reproductive rights of women are even more limited than in Poland. Ireland, for the past 30 years, has had the kind of law that the Polish government was trying to push through just last week. As a result of that, on average, 77 women travel from Ireland to Britain every week to obtain abortions illegally.
It is not to say that the situation in Poland is much better! It is officially estimated that Polish women get approx. 1,000-2,000 abortions a year (based on the legal reasons outlined above). This stands in stark contrast to the estimated number of illegal abortions that happen at the same time – circa 100,000!
Women have always found ways to obtain abortions, regardless of the legal rules surrounding them. And so the only difference, ultimately, is that in those countries where access to legal abortion is problematic, more women die. The World Health Organisation estimates that 50,000 women a year die because of lack of safe access to abortions. Also according to WHO research, rates of abortion have fallen by approximately 40 per cent in developed countries in the past 40 years. However, it is worth noting, that under those definitions, both Ireland and Poland would fall into the ‘developed countries’ category, despite of the lack of safe abortion access for most women there; and so it would be interesting to see how the rate of reduction would be affected by the exclusion of those outliers from the data. Nevertheless, the research is clear proof that only safe and legal access to contraception, sex education and abortion can reduce the problem. So it is clear that laws like the one in Ireland, and much of the Global South, are counterproductive and counter-intuitive. And yet, we still have to fight them!
For Polish women, the celebration after the strike was very short lived, although it is worth mentioning that the sense of strength in solidarity that it created will stay with us all for a long time! A day or two after the decision of the Polish government to scrap the bill, another one, pretty much just like it, was proposed! As shocking as that might seem to most non-Polish people who are reading this, this is likely just a reminder of the reality that is our country to most people in Poland. The Polish government has backtracked on its support for the first bill, due to the immense external pressures that they were under. But that does not make them any more pro-choice! They have just decided to address the problem – as they see it – in a different way. Just a couple of days after the strike, the Prime Minister of Poland (who is a woman, worth noting) has announced a plan to invest money into family planning education. And when I say family planning, I don’t mean sexual education – the use of language is deliberate here. This can be very confusing, especially to those living in countries like the US, where this language has been used interchangeably with sex ed. It is worth noting that that is not what is on our Prime Minister’s mind when she talks about family planning. In her head, it is code for propaganda – the kind of sex education that is approved by the Catholic Church: promotion of chastity before marriage and abstinence as the preferred method of contraception…
And so Polish women have no choice but to go back onto the streets! But as, our very recent, history has taught us, we are powerful and we are capable of great things when we stand together in solidarity with other women! And so, from now on, we will be standing side by side, not just with our Polish sisters, but with women fighting against these injustices around the world! I have a dream of holding one of those great, famous banners, just like the ones women back in the 60s and 70s did – ‘Women of the World Unite’ – around a great Catholic cathedral somewhere is a European capital, sometime soon. And I am pretty positive this dream is going to come true!
To find out more about our next steps, search #CzarnyProtest #BlackProtest #StrajkKobiet or follow us at Polish Feminists on Facebook or Twitter!