An interview with Marta Lempart from Strajk Kobiet (Women’s Strike)
How does it feel to be a woman human rights defender in Poland, at a time like this?
As women, I think we are born and raised to endure harassment of different types. When you are a woman, if you do something that doesn’t fit in, you will be punished for it. Ostracized. We weren’t unprepared for that. We’re prepared for that since the day we are born, to be harassed for having opinions, speaking loudly or not agreeing with what is happening. It’s just a matter of scale and I think it is much harder for the people who are not in the spotlight as much as me, who suffer and fight without recognition.
We actually have a whole program dedicated to supporting activists who are in burnout. We’re at the stage where most of us need help, because this is hard. Being subjected to smear campaigns by the local media who is purposefully targeting local leaders and activists is very difficult and puts a lot of pressure on people. But we will continue to fight, we will not waver.
How does it feel to be marching for basic rights to safety, security and protection from torture in Poland in the year 2021?
The fact it's 2021 is not the worst part: I’m thinking of those who marched 20 years ago, with no massive movements. Many more rights were accessible back then but I think their frustration was even worse than ours now. Now, we’re so many. It’s a massive event. We’re at that stage of every human rights movement when it becomes massive and when regular people – not only join it, but help build it up.
The fact that it’s 2021, that’s just how it is. We’ve been talking a lot about the Argentinian struggle. In their battle for safe and legal abortion, they had to fight so much, even take some steps backwards when they lost in the Senate, but they prevailed. That said, it was certainly unfair that they had to go through all those struggles for a right that should be guaranteed.
What does a society post-ultraconservatism look like for you?
Some human rights have been forgotten, we need to build them up again and defend them. Poland was about democracy, free media, free judiciary, free elections. But we lost that. We managed to create this ‘democracy’ that doesn’t care about human rights, in particular women’s rights, LGBT, minorities, senior, disabled, lower income people’s rights.
We built a country that has economic policies, but it doesn’t have coherent and strategically planned social policies for everyone to be protected. We’re determined to not make that mistake again. I think young people will make sure of that and ask for a democracy that values human rights. Things are changing. For the first time, the opposition party announced that they are in favour of legalizing abortion. They are now forced to acknowledge it’s an element that’s important in public life.
Polish people will never be silent again.
What is happening in terms of protection of women from violence in Poland at the moment?
Our government is copying the Russians. The Polish Minister for Social Policies, Labour and Family drafted an official government bill that follows the Russian example in saying the first act of domestic violence is not domestic violence, domestic violence has to happen more than once to be seen as such. This bill would also dismantle our ‘blue card’ system which ensures the obligation of any institution (police, social workers, teachers, NGOs etc) to flag cases of domestic violence. The bill would also lift the obligation of the state to provide a helpline for survivors of domestic violence.
The only thing that stands in the way of adopting this bill is the Istanbul Convention on preventing violence against women. So the government is now pushing to withdraw from the Convention, the single, most powerful international tool meant to fight violence against women. They are fighting the Convention on two fronts: first is the civic bill which demands Poland’s withdrawal from the Convention - this is currently up for debate in the Parliament, then there is the review of the Convention being conducted by the illegally-appointed Constitutional Court. Sounds familiar to what brought us the virtual abortion ban, doesn’t it?
This is not only a human rights issue, but an issue of rule of law and judicial independence. If the EU institutions don’t stop pretending this is the case and sanction Poland, we will live in a state that will not pursue cases of domestic violence.
How do you position attempts to deny women's freedom within the broader assault on democracy and civil liberties in Europe?
Backsliding on human rights in Poland would have been impossible if we had judicial independence and if we had the rule of law. But we don't. It has been teared down now. It's a kind of a loop for me also because, when the whole thing started in 2015, the first protest that I attended was not a protest against the abortion ban, but judicial independence – for the independence of the Constitutional Court. And five years after, we're back at the same place.
It took us 5 years to actually answer the question: why is it important? Now we know why these illiberal forces took over the Polish Constitutional Court. They need it to change any law they want, to strike down any right they want, to take away any freedom they want, and pretend that this is the Court's ruling. In the past, it was too abstract - democracy, judicial independence, the rule of law - these were just words for many people in Poland. Now people understand how important it is. It's really sad to see that the European Institutions don't understand that, that European politicians don't understand that, or they just try not to see the link.
What would your message to EU citizens who want to support Polish women's fight for dignity and freedom be?
Write to a politician, choose one European politician, choose one national politician, and tell them that Polish people are Europeans and they need to be fought for. And that everything that’s happening to human rights and women's rights in Poland is happening because of the erosion of the rule of law and destruction of judicial independence. Tell your politicians to sanction the Polish government, to use budget conditionality. We don't need their mercy, we don't need them to cry their tears about the sad lives of Polish women and make populist statements, we need them to see us as part of the European community, as equal citizens and act.
We see similar backsliding trends in Italy, Croatia and Hungary and many other countries. At some point, we also did not imagine - could not imagine - that we could lose so many rights. But we did. It can happen anywhere.
What gives you hope on this day?
I am sure that we will win. And I see this in young people, - they are the ones that will actually decide what will happen, and they are having these protests with music and dancing because they know that this will just be a phase. They wouldn’t dance in the streets if they didn't believe that it was just a phase. And that we will win.
All photos credited to MBK.