A populist government, the Church and a divided society: a Polish story

Women’s rights and gender justice

Interview with Magdalena Kuruś, Deputy Director of the Department of Equal Treatment of the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights, and Agata Szypulska, Specialist in the Department of Equal Treatment of the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights. The Commissioner also performs the role of the National Independent Equality body.

As representatives of the Commission for Human Rights, how do you address or manage the current situation in Poland? Do you feel that international pressure and the numerous reports and recommendations on Poland (e.g. from the Council of Europe and other committees) are having an impact on the situation?

In relation to the international pressure and interest from abroad, it is very important to us. It makes our voice a little bit stronger. We are trying to pursue a dialogue with the government, but that is very difficult and so far this dialogue has been extremely limited. The Commissioner does not remain silent: he continues to give his analyses and recommendations to the state bodies, but many of them do not receive a proper answer or are silenced, so nothing changes or we are told that ‘how things are is OK and we do not need to make any more progress in different areas’. This happens if we talk about women’s rights, but it also appears in many other fields.

The Commissioner, of course, engages also in dialogues with different committees, e.g.: the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers on the implementation of the European Court of Human Rights judgments (particularly the judgements in cases regarding reproductive rights), GREVIO soon as Poland will be reporting later this year and we will begin to prepare our shadow report, and the U.N. Working Group on Women in Law and Practice.

The latter visited Poland in December 2018: they met with us and with women’s rights defenders and activists. They issued a report on the situation of women’s human rights defenders, which was a very important issue for them, using material that we provided them with. Their own report said that they are deeply concerned about the situation in Poland, how the women’s rights movements are being deprived of public funding, how they are being harassed, and about what is happening when, for example, an organisation decides to participate in events like the Black Protests (The Black Protests were organised by activists and women’s rights organisations in 2016 to express extreme anger at the Polish government’s attempt to introduce a total ban on abortion.). We even have a case being handled by our office concerning three NGOs whose offices were visited by the police right after the Black Protests: their hard drives were raided, their computers were taken, their data were frozen. The reason given as to why this happened was not at all clear, but it cannot be coincidence that it happened right after the Black Protest and it certainly sent a clear message. We also know from the NGOs themselves that they have been facing a very specific climate surrounding their activities, and so it is getting more and more challenging to do their jobs. NGOs working with equality issues (like women’s rights, for obvious reasons connected to gender ideology, and the LGBT movement) are under attack.

Do you see the same pressure put on other types of human rights NGOs or is it really mainly focused on the LGBTI NGOs?

LGBTI organisations are under stronger pressure for sure. LGBTI ideology is being discussed publicly, which is quite new. But the backlash is strong and 50 municipalities have started taking judicial acts against this “gender ideology”. The Office of the Commissioner is now challenging 5 of them but we do not have the human resources to challenge them all. We hope to set a precedent so that other activists and organisations can challenge other municipalities. We are very much working along the lines of strategic litigation with reference to the anti-discrimination clause stipulated in the Constitution.

And as the office of the Commissioner, working on issues of women’s rights and gender equality, do you face pressures or a narrative whereby the institution has been “invaded by gender ideology”?

Well, if you look at the budget of our office since the Law and Justice came into power, you can see that it was limited quite significantly in 2016 (the beginning of the current Commissioner’s term). The reasons why our budget was limited is because our deputy commissioner was a specialist on gender equality issues and in the Parliamentary debate it was underlined that the authorities shall not pay for gender ideology.

More recently, when the Commissioner took the municipalities to court, the response was that he had “attacked the citizens because these acts were taken up to protect the citizens”. So, in this case, he was depicted as against the citizens and the family – against traditional values.

There is also a very specific context in Poland because of the ongoing constitutional crisis regarding the rule of law clause. As the Commissioner is pinpointing where violations are happening, he has been attacked personally by politicians and members of the government. This is somehow influencing the way we are seen.

The constant repetition of “common-sense claims” by public television and broadcasters turns the current discourse into a “new truth”: the more they repeat false claims, the more people believe it.

Do you think the general population is aware of the influence the media has on them?

It really depends what you watch! Some parts of the society are perfectly aware of what is happening.

That is why we had such massive protests on the street, people fighting for free media, for independent courts, for independent Constitutional Tribunals etc. But there is quite a significant part of society that, in fact, supports these changes. This is a deeply polarised society and the possibility to create dialogue between these two groups is almost impossible.

In 2018 we conducted some research on legal awareness in the context of equal treatment of people. When we asked people if discrimination on different grounds was common or not, people mostly pointed to discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. But only 15% thought of gender as a ground against which they could be discriminated. Additionally, only 4% said they were a member of a group who risked being discriminated. This was quite a surprise for us because it shows how we think and the level of our knowledge about gender issues and discrimination issues. So there’s a lot to be done.

Similar attitudes towards gender show up in many different studies. On the hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage in Poland (in 2018) we also asked people why they think there are so few women in the political sphere? We then had the possibility to compare the data and the answers given in 2009 compared to the 2018 answers. To the statement “women have different civic duties than men”, 61% said no in 2009. Ten years later, this was down to 50%. When we asked whether “women should not get involved in politics because it is not their job”, only 15% of people agreed with it in 2009. In 2018, the number reached 33%. These statistics show the success of anti-genderism and anti-women’s rights movements agendas in Poland. Increasingly, women are being pushed into the family sphere.

Have you witnessed a correlative increase in forms of gender-based violence or violence against women?

When it comes to violence against women, the numbers are pretty constant and the number of reported incidents according to police statistics is not changing very much. Although women are often the main group targeted by domestic violence. But linking these results to paternity and maternity leave is informative because there have been major legal changes on this social issue. Both men and women (so either parent) are now entitled to take a “long leave” to take care of their baby. This is quite a big shift in thinking. But in practice, according to the data that we received from the Ministry of the Family, there are still far more women taking this parental leave and basically being excluded from the labour market for a year. We can add to this data the uneven distribution of family duties and the burden of care which falls on women. We have tried to encourage the Ministry of Labour to work on a recommendation to encourage fathers to take this leave as an obligation (additional weeks will be lost if fathers do not take them), but we got the answer that “the family is free to decide how to distribute this time at home”.

So the individual is no longer at the centre of different public policies, concern is for the group, the traditional family. The traditional family is the ‘real one’ because there is no form of basic institutionalisation for same sex couples. It is important to notice that we have now cases of children of such couples born abroad and being rejected by the Polish legal system – they have foreign birth certificate which stipulates that they have parents of the same sex, but due to the fact that at least one is of Polish citizenship they should also have the citizen’s right; but in such cases Polish documents are not issued… It’s very important to note that policy is taking care of the traditional family, not all families equally.

Economically, are you concerned about the impact of this “family first” discourse?

Family is the most important, children are the most important, and this is what is being focused on. Nobody takes into account the long-term consequences of exit from the labour market for women. The government are so focused on the goal of having more children that they agree to be silent on distributional responsibilities in the family and also ignore the long-term consequences of women’s exclusion from the labour market. This raises a number of other serious questions, such as who will employ a woman knowing that she will be the sole responsible for the children? And how will the employers react when they have female candidates?

If we don’t address these issues, we will have massive problems with gender-based discrimination on the labour market, with the pension gap, and the poverty that women will suffer later in life.

Working at the office of the Commissioner, how do you try to counteract these discourses on gender?

Reliance on data – the studies that we have, the recommendations that we formulate, everything we do relies on hard, evidence based information. It can be used to create common ground and we saw that with our report concerning the sexual harassment of students. When we showed the results of a study explaining that 40% of students had some kind of experience of sexual harassment while they were studying, the responses from the Ministry of Higher Education were quite satisfying. it shows that our strategy works.

But we never know what subjects and data will be accepted and whether government representatives will be satisfied. We know that some areas are just off limits and we don’t have any progress in dialogues on reproductive rights and violence against women. This takes us back to the gender and women’s rights issues, and ultimately back to the family.

Do you see any positive change?

On the positive side, because this constitutional crisis or form of social change has been very tough on civil society organisations and deprived them of financial resources, something clicked and although we may have a constitutional crisis, we don’t have a similar crisis in attitudes towards NGOs. It helps to keep them in close cooperation. For example, the Black Protest started a social phenomenon that we have never seen before in Poland. It may have started with the abortion law, but now there are many new groups on Facebook and thousands of women are constantly interacting, and thinking about and discussing issues of women’s rights It is quite incredible and we are quite hopeful about these types of movements in the future.

Referring back to the issue of sexual harassment at universities, we see that #MeToo has started in Poland – perhaps not in the way we would expect or with the same energy as in the United States. People are starting to talk about sexual harassment at university, starting to lodge complaints. Something is slowly changing and we’re breaking this taboo. We’re now pushing universities quite strongly to introduce their own anti-discrimination policies so that these cases will be processed with the reverse burden of proof at the university level without going to court. We see that the universities are also changing mainly because the people who take on the roles of equal treatment officers are very student-friendly and have a lot of enthusiasm – they’re trying to stimulate the debate and I think young women are more eager to talk about the issue of harassment. They’re refusing more and more to stay silent about it. So there is a generational difference in mentality… The #MeToo movement is reaching Poland and change could be on the horizon.