In April 2016, a citizens’ initiative proposed a change to the already strict abortion law in Poland. The proposed change would have meant a complete ban on abortion and would have made it punishable with five years in prison.
The initiative was signed by 450,000 people, and in October 2016 it was introduced for debate by the government led by the conservative Law and Justice party that had won the elections in 2015.
“That was too much,” says Krystyna Kacpura, Executive Director of the Federation for Women and Family Planning in Poland.
“We took to the streets. Women were standing in pouring rain for several hours, starting from early morning,” she says, describing the massive Black Monday protest that took place in several Polish cities and abroad.
It was not in vain: The protest was on Monday and on Wednesday the Polish parliament rejected the law.
A miracle – that required hard work
The rejection of the law was not the only thing that was achieved in Polish women’s rights in 2016.
“Something strange happened during the Black Protests,” Kacpura says. “Women had understood that their basic human rights were at stake and there was also a new sense of solidarity between the women.”
While earlier studies showed that 18% of people were for the liberation of abortion, after the shift sparked by the protests the number of pro-choice people rose to 68% in 2018, according to a study commissioned by the federation.
“It was like a miracle,” says Kacpura.
Nevertheless, the miracle was actually a result of hard work. As soon as the new proposal was published in 2016, the Federation for Women and Family Planning and other feminist organisations began campaigning against it.
Kacpura says that during the federation’s campaign, they explained to Polish women what the law would mean in practice, and how it represented a violation of human rights and denied women access to health services. The importance of reproductive rights, bodily autonomy and the importance of women having the freedom to decide for themselves were discussed too.
Continuous fight for women’s rights in Poland
In fact, the fight for women’s sexual reproductive rights in Poland had started decades ago, even though it has never been as popular as today.
For example, the Federation for Women and Family Planning, which consists of various feminist organisations and in which Kacpura works, was established as far back as 1991.
“There was a threat of an abortion law that would be much more restrictive. This was a result of the collapse of socialism and economic change,” explains Kacpura.
The Polish Catholic Church, which played a major role in the resistance against Communism, also presented claims.
“Women’s rights were the first to be changed,” says Kacpura.
“As a result, a new law, one of the strictest in Europe, went through in the Polish parliament two years after the end of Socialism, in 1993, and is still in place. This was a significant change since, during Communism, abortion was legal – it was not uncommon for women from countries like Sweden, France or the Netherlands to travel to Poland for abortion,” says Kacpura.
Today, abortion in Poland legal in a few exceptional situations
Currently, abortion is legal only in three situations: when the mother’s health is at risk, when the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, and when prenatal tests show irreversible damage to the foetus.
Sometimes even in these situations, women do not have access to abortion. According to Kacpura, poorer, less educated women living outside the big cities are in an especially vulnerable position.
A new, even stricter law was also then discussed after the proposal of 2016. This proposal, published in 2018, would make abortion illegal in situations where the prenatal tests show irreversible damage to the foetus, a situation in which abortion is currently allowed.
This would mean a drastic drop in abortion rates since, according to Kacpura, 90% of legal abortions in Poland are done for this reason.
Moreover, as the Law and Justice party won the European elections, it seems that the political situation is not going to radically change in this year’s parliamentary elections.
Kacpura is afraid of the regressive politics in other countries of Central and Eastern Europe.
“But step by step we are going forward. We just need more time.”
Young Polish women’s newly found feminism
Underneath the surface of conservative politics, a change is bubbling.
“Poland is not the ultra-conservative country the Church wants us to believe it is,” says researcher Agnieszka Graff, who is also involved in the Congress of Women, a social movement promoting equality.
Graff says that, in regard to the acceptance of, for example, divorce and premarital sex, the country is not very different to other European countries.
“It is not a problem in Poland to be a single woman. But women who don’t want to have children are a problem,” she explains.
This is a result of a particular view on womanhood. Graff, who specialises in gender studies and has published several books on feminist issues, has recently written about the myth of the Polish mother – and how it has been questioned by the recent feminist movements.
“Women are perceived as strong figures who suffer for the family and maintain it while the men are at wars and uprisings. Women carry the whole burden,” she explains.
This idea, emerging from the context of nationalist and Catholic tradition, has its roots in the 19th century.
In Graff’s view, these ideas are now being rejected, at least to some extent. Women are no longer accepting the traditional role but want their rights instead.
The shift is also visible in how younger women vote: 50% of them vote for the Left.
“Polish women have a newly discovered feminism, but there is a gender gap in voting. Half of young men vote for the radical right-wing,” says Graff, continuing that she is worried about the young men becoming more radical.
Graff considers that there is some hope in open borders and the European Union, and says that a lot of Polish people, even from small towns and villages, travel to work abroad and come back changed.
There are also some signs of cracks in the power of the Church, but she is not very optimistic.
“If you ask where Poland is going, it’s going to the right.”
Polish sex education basically non-existent
Currently, students at state schools in Poland do not receive sex education at all. Instead they are given lessons regarding “preparation for family life”.
“The situation leaves little room to discuss sexual rights, let alone sexual orientation or gender identity,” says Antonina Lewandowska, a voluntary sex educator. She also says that levels of homophobia are very high in Poland.
Lewandowska volunteers in Ponton, a grassroots sex education initiative, established 18 years ago when the Federation for Women and Family Planning wanted to create a youth collective to deliver sex education in schools. Lewandowska studies sociology at the University of Warsaw and also works for the Federation of Women and Family Planning.
The voluntary educators of Ponton can only visit schools by invitation, and if all the parents allow their children to attend a sex education workshop. They also work in institutions such as foster homes and youth psychiatric hospitals.
According to Lewandowska, the year 2015, when the Law and Justice party won for the first time, was very challenging.
“For six months we received no invitations. People were afraid and sometimes still are. We had to switch to different methods of work, so we started discussion clubs and strengthened our field work, for example at music festivals.”
Sex education as a form of activism
The content of the workshops is always the same: a pair of volunteers provide information on sexually transmitted diseases and contraception, and bring up the topics of consent, sex and gender.
“We show that there is a different perspective, that young people have the right to decide about their lives and bodies,” Lewandowska says.
She calls for an urgent change in the school curriculum by adding the subject of sex education.
“We need to re-shape the whole thing and include more than one worldview, so that the curriculum is more inclusive.”
In the current setting, offering sex education is not only difficult, but it can also be dangerous. Lewandowska, who is a visible, international feminist activist, says that she has been threatened with violence on several occasions, but she is not going to give up.
“Talking to these kids can be heart-breaking, but the glimpse of hope in their eyes is what keeps me going. There is no power in the world that would stop me from doing this,” she says
Adult Education in Poland
Poland has a long history of adult education and training. For example, the Free Polish University, Wolna Wszechnica Polska, started educating adults at the end of the 19th century.
During the 1980s, adult education was limited and, during the reforms after 1989, adult education and training was not a priority. In recent decades, the number of non-public institutions offering adult education has grown rapidly.
The current numbers of adults participating in adult education and training are low. According to local data, in 2015 4% of people aged 25-64 were involved in some form of informal or formal training. According to EUROSTAT, the participation rates are less than half the average of EU countries (10.9% in 2017) and, while participation rates have grown in other countries, in Poland this has not always been the case.
Besides the low participation rates, another challenge is the dispersion in the field of adult education and the consequent lack of a common policy covering all the forms of adult education.
The Continuing Education Centres and Practical Training Centres are responsible for most of the non-formal adult education in Poland, the latter principally offer training to the unemployed in order to improve their chances of employment.
An “Integrated Skills Strategy” is currently being developed with the purpose of identifying priorities in the area of skills development in Poland. The Ministry of Education has started a project called “Chance – new opportunities for adults,” financed by the European Social Fund. The objective is to research innovative tools to support the education of low-skilled adults.
EAEA (2018), Adult Education in Europe 2018 – A Civil Society View. European Association for the Education of Adults – EAEA.
EAEA (2011), Country Report on Adult Education in Poland. European Association for the Education of Adults – EAEA.