Women gesture as people gather in an abortion rights campaigners' demonstration to protest against plans for a total ban on abortion in front of the ruling party Law and Justice (PiS) headquarters in Warsaw, Poland, October 3, 2016.

 
© 2016 Reuters

On October 3, 2016, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets across Poland in defiance of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party’s attempt to enact a complete abortion ban.  #CzarnyProtest, or Black Protest, and #StrajkKobiet (Women’s Strike) became rallying cries for women’s reproductive freedom and rights at protests broadcast around the world. When parliament rejected the ban on October 6, it felt like a triumph for popular protest and women’s rights.

Two years later, “triumphant” hardly describes the reality for women’s rights activists in Poland. In recent interviews with activists across Poland, one after another described a culture of fear and government intimidation that casts a shadow over their work.

Anna, coordinator of the Women’s Rights Center in Lodz, described police raids on three of the center’s offices on October 4, 2017, the day after demonstrations marking the Black Protest anniversary. A 70-year-old volunteer called Anna, saying four police officers were waiting outside the office. Anna contacted the organization’s director, herself en route to the Warsaw office, who said it must be a mistake. “Then she went silent,” Anna recalled. “She said, ‘Oh, no. They’re here as well.”

Police raided another longstanding women’s rights organization in western Poland, BABA, the same day.

Police said the raids were part of an investigation into former Ministry of Justice staff, and, because the organizations had received Ministry funding, they had to furnish information. But activists said their timing – immediately after the Black Protests – and methods suggest otherwise. “They had four police officers to get a few binders [of documents],” Anna said. “It was scary – it was a coordinated action. You don’t use these kinds of methods to deal with non-suspects.”

Two years on, Anna and other activists say the raids, along with government defunding and officials’ rhetoric against women’s rights, have ongoing effects. The raids caused public suspicion and tarnished the organizations’ reputations. Funding cuts have hit essential services for survivors of violence that are often unavailable in Poland, especially outside major cities, such as shelter, counselling, and legal aid.

Determined to continue, they work in the shadow of a government that denies that domestic violence occurs in marriage and disdains efforts to advance gender equality. “It is still in the back of your mind,” Anna said. “There is a slight, constant fear, wondering what will be next.”