In the last few days, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets of Poland to fight for women’s rights.
This winter’s demonstrations followed a ruling in late October by the country’s Constitutional Tribunal, which banned abortion in cases of foetal malformation — a scenario which accounts for almost all of Poland’s legal abortions. Women’s rights groups, as well as thousands of ordinary people have since joined demostrations against the decision, with 100,000 protestors assembling in Warsaw on 31 October in the largest protest since the country’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party came to power in 2015.
The new ruling comes after repeated attacks on women’s rights in Poland in recent years by the right-wing PiS. New laws have cracked down on access to contraception and abortion, and the government has also expressed plans to pull out of the Istanbul Convention, a human rights treaty designed to prevent violence against women.
Yet, despite growing pressure, a multitude of activists are fighting back: campaigning for women’s rights, promoting education for women’s health, and forging a more hopeful future. The Calvert Journal spoke to five groups and activists leading Polish feminism.
Poland has some of Europe’s strictest abortion laws, with only around 2000 legal abortions carried out each year. Under such intense stigma, Abortion Dream Team wants to normalise abortions: providing information and advice to women in need on how to take abortion pills, or access abortions abroad, in both workshops and online.
The group’s founders — lawyer Karolina Więckiewicz, activists Justyna Wydrzyńska, Natalia Broniarczyk, and cultural scientist Kinga Jelińska — had all previously worked in reproductive rights, but came together in 2016 to hold an informal meeting about abortion. And, when Broniarczyk posted on social media that the group had become an “Abortion Dream Team”, the name stuck.
“We were just tired of what was going on around the Czarny Protest [a national day of protest against a proposed total ban on abortion, in 2016],” Więckiewicz told The Calvert Journal. “We decided that we want to talk to people that really have this experience [of trying to access abortions].”
Their efforts were also stepped up during the coronavirus pandemic, when women in Poland faced further difficulties as a result of border closures. The Abortion Dream transformed into a hub of information on transport timetables and restrictions — or, as Więckiewicz puts in, “an ultimate travel agency” — providing every woman who came to them wanting an abortion with information about how to leave the country.
“The pandemic actually has been another obstacle in access to abortion — but not something that makes it impossible,” says Więckiewicz.
Established in 2019 by Magdalena Demczak, Wiktoria Szpunar, Emilia Kaczmarek and Julia Kaffka, Akcja Menstruacja is a charity tackling Polish period poverty head-on.
Access to sanitary products is a serious issue in Poland. A survey earlier this year by the Dominika Kulczyk Foundation, a women’s rights charity based, found that one in five Polish women sometimes lacked money to buy sanitary towels or tampons, despite the Polish government recently reducing VAT on period products. Misconceptions about menstruation were also proven to be rife, with 25 per cent of women surveyed saying they thought it was impossible to get pregnant during their periods. A further 21 per cent said that menstruating women should not bake cakes or pickle cucumbers.
Akcja Menstruacja want to change how Poles think about periods. One recent project, Hej Dziewczyny (“Hey Girls”) aims to regularly supply schools with sanitary products and offer classes to improve menstrual health.
“We hope that no young student in Poland will feel shame or discomfort in school during their period,” the founders told The Calvert Journal. “We have heard stories about girls who use their socks or hygienic cotton wool instead of tampons and pads.”
The Dominika Kulczyk Foundation survey also showed menstruation is still a cultural taboo in Poland, and Akcja Menstruacja say they are not surprised.
“We felt enormous sadness, because although we know that period taboo is a huge thing in Poland, for the first time we (and all the Poles) saw the real statistics,” the founders explained.
“Every day, we receive comments and messages saying that our work is unnecessary, claiming period taboo and period poverty is a ‘fake problem created by radical feminists’. On the other hand, we also receive anonymous stories from girls, young teenagers afraid to ask their mothers to buy tampons or even say the word “period” around their family members. Every story touches us and shows that the cycle of taboo is still unbreakable.”
Kaja Rybicka, founder of period product company Your KAYA, also wants to break taboos about periods in Poland – but also with an ecological emphasis. She says the manufacture and advertising for period products in Poland needed a “revolution”.
“The leading manufacturers have this very infantile and not-at-all direct approach — to this day most of them feel replacing blood with a blue liquid in their adverts is the way to go. They put pearls and butterflies on the packaging for sanitary pads; it’s hard to understand what in heaven this has to do with periods,” she says. “All of this was topped with ads telling girls to pick a tampon instead of a pad, because it’s easier to hide it from their friends at school.”
The Your KAYA range of period products are “good for your body and our planet”, she adds, with environmentally-friendly design – made of 100% organic cotton and natural liquid – which is biodegradable and plastic-free.
Last year, Rybicka also launched a #mensTRUEacja campaign to address unrealistic period product advertising. “All of it felt simply wrong,” Rybicka says, “so we set ourselves a goal of opening up the public discussion and getting people used to speaking of menstruation directly. To show that a period is neither a horror scene nor a red flood, but also not flowers and glitter in our pants, as big brands are trying to convince us.”
Advertised as “a community that will help you succeed”, Polish platform Her Impact is helping Polish women achieve their full potential as business leaders.
Founded by Magdalena Linke-Koszek and Karolina Cwalina-Stępniak, the website — which is open to women around the globe — has a holistic approach to encouraging young women to build their skills, with online classes, mentoring, content from more than 70 experts, and social support. The platform also uses AI to produce a custom-made development path.
Eurostat statistics from earlier this year revealed that Poland had one of the lowest proportions of female senior executives in Europe’s largest publicly-listed companies in Europe — just 14 per cent.
Linke-Koszek says the idea for the platform came about after she was involved in initiatives and events supporting female professional development. “Whilst doing this I was thinking: ‘What more can I do for young women so they can be more present on the labour market and get more self-confidence?’”
Her Impact was set up last year, and Linke-Koszek says that thousands of women have since registered to take part. It’s all the more needed due to the uncertain job market as a result of the pandemic. “Now with Covid-19, it’s doubly-hard for [women],” she explains. “They lack self-confidence.”
Warszawskie Dziewuchy have provided a diverse range of help and support for women in Poland since the 2016 abortion protests. They attend and organise protests for women’s rights, provide information and education — including helping women access abortion pills — and coordinate civil projects.
“I guess the most important part is to encourage women to take action in their own hands, guiding them how to take responsibility,” says organiser Paulina Krasnodębska.
Recently, members of the group were also out on the streets protesting the government’s plans to pull out of the Istanbul Convention. The government’s decision was met with an outcry from Polish society – and Krasnodębska says she feels attitudes towards women’s rights are changing.
“I would say society and authorities are becoming more radical in both directions. Around 70 per cent of people were against [Poland’s] new abortion ban, and around 50 per cent want to ease restrictions. And then you have government, forcing this new ban,” she says.
“The fight for women’s rights has become more visible indeed, but at the same time, movements against women become more visible too,” she adds. “Our space is becoming visibly smaller and it’s just unreal to realise our rights were not given forever — that we still have to fight back.”