CIVICUS speaks about the upcoming International Women’s Day and Polish civil society’s role in advancing women’s rights with the team of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (HFHR).
Founded in 1989 by the members of the Helsinki Committee in Poland, the HFHR is a civil society organisation (CSO) that seeks to promote the development of a culture based on respect for freedom and human rights in Poland and abroad. Since 2007 it has had consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council.
What role has Polish civil society played in advocating for abortion rights, both before and during the pandemic?
Polish civil society has advocated for abortion rights for almost 30 years. Jointly with other CSOs, HFHR has continuously monitored the implementation of the legal provisions of the Abortion Act and represented women who were denied access to abortions they were entitled to.
One such case was P. and S. v. Poland, which led to a decision by the European Court of Human Rights that declared Poland responsible for improperly hindering access to abortion by a 14-year-old girl. Polish laws allow abortion if the pregnancy is the consequence of a crime, and in 2008 P. was given a public attestation that authorised her to get an abortion due to her age, as sexual intercourse with minors under 15 is codified as a crime. But doctors in two hospitals refused to provide the abortion, and they even forced her to speak to a priest and disclosed her case to the media, as a result of which she was harassed by anti-abortion activists. They got the police involved and removed her from her mother’s custody. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that Poland had violated Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which bans ‘inhuman or degrading treatment’.
That was a landmark case and should have been the gateway to a growing recognition of abortion rights. However, the situation only got increasingly worse. Despite civil society opposition, further restrictions were imposed on access to legal abortion. In October 2020, while we were in the middle of the pandemic, a Constitutional Tribunal judgement made access to abortion almost impossible in practice.
Civil society played a crucial role in mobilising in protest against the judgement. And thanks to the engagement of CSOs such as the Federation for Women and Family Planning and Abortion Dream Team, women who required access to abortion received information, legal assistance and other forms of help.
But as a reaction to these protests and acts of resistance, the environment for women’s rights activism deteriorated. Shortly after the protests, at least seven women’s rights and human rights CSOs advocating for sexual and reproductive rights were harassed and threatened and their activists targeted with disinformation campaigns from the government and government-aligned media. Several activists who participated in protests were detained and some face politically motivated criminal charges, including for allegedly breaking pandemic rules.
How has the pandemic impacted on your work?
HFHR is the oldest and largest human rights CSO in Poland. We provide legal assistance to victims of human rights abuses, monitor legal changes affecting human rights and participate in public discussion about the protection of human rights. We focus on the situation in Poland, but also on some other countries in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
The COVID-19 pandemic heavily impacted on our work. For obvious reasons, many of our in-person meetings were cancelled and we could not get people together. To substitute for this, we shifted online and enhanced our presence on social media. We used it to get in touch directly with our supporters. This allowed us to broaden our audience.
The pandemic also brought new and serious challenges to human rights, including but not only in the area of healthcare. HFHR has monitored pandemic-related legal developments, including restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly. We analysed the impact of the pandemic on human rights protections and made recommendations about this, and intervened in a number of cases in which pandemic-related restrictions on fundamental rights were imposed that were disproportionate and unconstitutional, such as in cases involving restrictions on the rights of defendants in criminal proceedings.
How is civil society advocating for gender equality and how are the authorities responding?
The Polish government has not adopted a comprehensive strategy for promoting gender equality. Further, the state’s institutional system to protect equal treatment has been severely weakened. Not only is the state doing nothing – it is also not very welcoming of civil society initiatives on the matter.
CSOs continue working for gender equality through training activities, programmes and initiatives involving key stakeholders – for instance, by providing school training sessions on equal treatment. But instead of supporting these efforts, parliament recently adopted changes to the Education System Act that will significantly limit the access of CSOs to schools and educational facilities. The law has not come into force yet and has just been vetoed by the president.
The International Women’s Day theme for 2022 is #BreakTheBias. How are you organising around it in the communities you work with?
We think the fact that it is now almost impossible to access abortion is one of the key issues hindering women’s rights in Poland. Sexual and reproductive rights will inevitably be at the forefront of IWD in Poland this year, and this will surely remain one of the priority topics for HFHR in upcoming years.