International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women 25th November
By Tiphaine Soyez, Alternatywa Socjalistyczna – CWI in Poland
In October 2016 in Poland, a massive women’s movement defeated the Christian-conservative government’s project of a total ban on abortion in Poland. This was a strong blow to Poland’s ruling party – the right-wing populist PiS (Law and Justice) – and to conservative forces in general, and it improved women’s confidence to stand up for their rights. However, Poland’s right-wing forces have responded to this important victory with a renewed assault on women’s rights and conditions on other fronts.
In January 2019, the Ministry of Family, Labour, and Social Policy proposed a law to restrict the legal definition of domestic violence. If passed, the definition of domestic violence would have been modified to require “repeated intentional acts”, which means that individual and first-time offenses would no longer be considered crimes at all. It would have also made the consent of the victim a prerequisite for action to be taken against the perpetrator – ignoring the pressure and retaliation a victim can face.
Three months later, this amendment was withdrawn in the face of the widespread public criticism it raised, including from sections of the PiS itself. However, there are still major loopholes in the Polish legislation regarding the protection of victims. Psychological and economic violence are not punishable by current domestic violence laws, nor is relationship violence against trans women or in same-sex partnerships. Furthermore, the couple must live together under the same roof in order for the laws to apply.
In the Polish establishment, there is a general backwardness on the understanding of gender violence. For example, this year for the 10th time, the city council of Zakopane has rejected a resolution against violence in the family and for the protection of victims; some councillors claimed that “the state’s actions aimed at protecting against violence by other members of the family constitutes excessive state interference in family life”!
Attacks on sexual education and homophobic campaign
The most recent conservative move is a new piece of legislation against sexual education. Behind this proposal is the same group which proposed the total ban on abortion in 2016, this time under the banner “Stop Paedophilia”. Their claim is that informing children on any aspect of sexuality (from contraception to sexual orientation) is equivalent to grooming victims for paedophiles.
One important aspect of sexual education should be to teach youth the importance of consent, and to fight victim-blaming and rape-apologism. On the contrary, depriving children of any knowledge of sexuality and making it a taboo subject deprives them of the tools necessary for recognizing and speaking out against sexual abuse. Given that the “Stop Paedophilia” campaign does not even once mention the child sexual-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, which are an almost weekly occurrence in Poland, one might wonder what their real intentions are in banning sex talk with children.
The propaganda of “Stop Paedophilia” is incredibly homophobic, explicitly equating LGBT people to rapists and depicting LGBT activists as promoting paedophilia. This is in the context of an increasingly homophobic climate in Poland. In just the last several months we’ve seen fearmongering by the PiS about “gender ideology”, towns declaring themselves “LGBT-free zones”, and the first-ever Pride in Białystok (a nationalist stronghold) experiencing vicious physical attacks by counter-demonstrators.
The discussions on the ban on sex education in parliament were met with a demonstration of 5000 in Warsaw and smaller protests in 20 cities in Poland, called by organizations that emerged during the 2016 movement. The teachers union has also stood up in favour of sexual education in schools.
Capitalism, the root of oppression
The backwardness on gender violence and creeping homophobia are not to be blamed on a specific Polish mentality or on religious feelings of the population. In fact, 80% of the Polish population is in favour of sexual education, according to a recent poll. Statistics like this, not to mention the massive movement for abortion rights in 2016, show that a significant part of the population holds more progressive views on these questions.
The current conditions of women in Poland are rooted in the conditions created by the return of capitalism three decades ago. The church has been an ally of capitalism in distracting the Polish working class from the deep socioeconomic problems brought about by the collapse of Stalinism and the implementation of free-market economic policies, and therefore has been able to exert a strong influence on governments, starting with the implementation of one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe in 1993 although, according to the polls, 70% of the Polish population opposed it.
The driving force behind the electoral success of PiS in 2015 was not its reactionary social views; rather, it was its promises of popular reforms such as the introduction of universal child benefits and lowering the retirement age. It also presented itself as a populist alternative to the centrist neoliberal PO (“Civic Platform” party) – under which the economic conditions of the working class worsened – and promised to prevent closures and redundancies in different sectors. This was possible due to the lack of a strong working-class alternative on the left. Even many left-leaning workers and youth who consciously support women’s and LGBT rights felt compelled to vote PiS because it was the only viable party advocating for a stronger social safety net for workers and their families.
In spite of those reforms that were very welcomed by working-class families, the economic situation of many women remains so bad that they can find themselves unable to escape violent or unhappy relationships. The public funding of the helpline for victims of violence is inadequate, to the point that it was completely shut down on 1st of January 2017 because, according to the ministry, “helplines are not very helpful”, and the service was restored only after several months thanks to private donations.
While PO has been criticizing PiS for their reactionary attacks, including the proposed change of the definition of domestic violence, the reality is that they worsened the situation of women during their rule with the cuts in public sectors and frozen wages.
Workers party needed to fight for socialist feminism
The questions of gender violence, reproductive rights, and ending homophobia cannot be solved while Poland is trapped in the false dichotomy of losing jobs and benefits under PO and “hell for women” and homophobic violence under PiS.
A workers’ party is needed in Poland to present an alternative to capitalism and the oppression it stirs up. This party should fight for a socialist feminist programme, including economic, legal, and social measures that would improve the independence of women along with the lives of all working people, such as building of council housing; reopening of kindergartens and creches; a massive public jobs program with decent wages and working conditions, protected by full union rights; the right to abortion on demand, covered by the National Health Fund; legislation against gender violence and homophobic attacks that actually protects the victims; and proper sexual education in schools.
Such a party would need to fight for its programme not only in parliament, where the deck is stacked in favour of capitalist politicians, but also in workplaces, schools, neighbourhoods, and in the streets, and ultimately challenge the rule of capitalism and remove the roots of oppression once and for all.