For this year’s 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, the hashtag #TrzymamStroneKobiet has gone viral in Poland. It translates to “I’m on women’s side.”
But these days, Poland’s government appears to be anything but on the side of women.
On October 4, police in several Polish cities raided offices of the Women’s Rights Centre and Baba, two nongovernmental organizations that support domestic violence victims and promote women’s rights. The official rationale for the raids was a search for evidence linked to alleged wrongdoing by the previous government’s Ministry of Justice. But the timing was suspicious. The previous day, activists from these organizations were among thousands who marched against a restrictive abortion law on the anniversary of the Black Protest.
Organizations like these provide crucial support for gender-based violence survivors, including legal aid and shelters and run important public awareness campaigns. Based only on complaints filed with police, in 2016 almost 67,000 women in Poland were victims of domestic violence. The actual numbers are likely much higher, as many victims never report violence. According to the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, around 4 million Polish women and girls have experienced physical or sexual violence since the age of 15.
Yet last year, the Ministry of Justice withdrew funding from several women’s rights nongovernmental organizations, including Women’s Rights Centre and Baba, claiming that they discriminate against men because they only support female survivors of domestic violence. Women’s Rights Centre was refused financial support again earlier this year.
Government and religious authorities have repeatedly argued that “Polish women are treated with far more respect than in other European countries,” but the ruling Law and Justice party has a peculiar way of demonstrating it. Last fall, the Ministry of Justice initiated a draft bill calling for withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, a treaty aimed at preventing violence against women, supporting survivors, and holding perpetrators to account. Though the initiative was abandoned in January, parliamentarians periodically call for Poland’s withdrawal, claiming the convention is a source of evil “gender ideology” aimed at destroying Polish traditional values. Law and Justice has strongly opposed the European Union’s formal accession to the convention, calling it “a tragic mistake.”
Instead of creating an oppressive political climate for women’s rights activists, the government in Poland should take measures to prevent domestic violence, protect and support victims, and promote gender equality. It’s time for the government to demonstrate it really is on women’s side.