The messages of solidarity sent to women in Ireland and South America throughout the “Black Protest” clearly indicated that this mass mobilisation against the proposed abortion ban in Poland is not only a Polish matter. If we are truly worried about the ongoing political developments and how will they shape the future of Europe, we must ensure that the gender perspective is taken into account in the current debate. What are the lessons learned from Central and Eastern Europe with regards to women’s rights and what European values are at stake?
Anyone who thinks that the rise of opposition to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) in Central and Eastern Europe is a recent development is sadly mistaken. Since 1989, the status of SRHR and women’s rights in the region has been in permanent crisis. It was one of the most unexpected results of the Soviet bloc’s transition from communism to democracy, yet it was not prominent enough.
Of course, Central and Eastern Europe is not a monolith, and the socio-economic and political situations at national level varies - not to mention the division between non-EU and EU countries or the ongoing war in Ukraine, which turned almost 2 million people into refugees. But it is women that have been among the groups most affected by the post-communist transformation in the region.
The role of women in a post-Soviet Europe
The notion of gender equality was instrumentally used in the Soviet Union to fulfil its totalitarian goals, however it had a substantial impact on women’s lives compared to the pre-war situation in the whole region. Access to education, healthcare services, childcare, abortion and paid maternity leave were widespread and free.
The collapse of the Soviet Union brought back the conservative view on child bearing and a new, enthusiastic belief in the “invisible hand” of the free market economy that led to tax reductions, mass privatisation and marketisation. For women, gender blind policies meant losing not only access to abortion but access to a wide range of social and economic rights.
Almost entirely excluded from the mainstream political agenda, women have organised themselves through formal and non-formal forms of participation that is visible in the high levels of feminisation seen in the NGO sector across Central and Eastern Europe.
Nevertheless, another common characteristic for this region is the precarious situation of women’s organisations, which remain constantly underfunded and without sufficient resources, often operating in a hostile environment. They, however, still provide various services which should be ensured by governments. This is not merely an enormous challenge for influencing national governments and implementing real change locally, but also remains challenging for effective advocacy at European and international levels. While through a global perspective Europe is considered to hold a progressive position on SRHR, for the vast majority of women in Central and Eastern Europe, this is not the reality.
A rise of illiberal Democracy
Narrowing the discussion to Poland and Hungary, the two major players across Central and Eastern Europe, we see in both countries the rise of illiberal democracy. Andrea Pető from the Central European University and Weronika Grzebalska from Polish Academy of Sciences use a metaphor of the “polypore state” to describe it: “A polypore is a parasitic fungus that feeds on rotting trees, contributing to their decay. In the same way, the governments of Poland and Hungary feed on the vital resources of their liberal predecessors, and produce a fully dependent state structure in return.”.
For instance, the Polish government recently announced that a new department will be established to bring NGO’s under centralised control and to decide who will receive state funding, and for what. Already this year, a few Polish women’s organisations working on domestic violence were rejected in the grant-making process in favour of organisations that do not challenge the political status quo. The illiberal governance poses a serious threat to all kinds of human rights organisations, making them incapable of operating within the existing political structure.
The worsening of conditions for women in Central and Eastern Europe have been explained as a political and cultural backlash. Some have ascribed this to a lack of a well-established political culture or a tradition of civil society. However, this year’s events in the Western world (Brexit and Trump’s election), should make us think that the anti-liberal changes are equally endangering women’s rights all over Europe and beyond.
Recent attempts to fully ban abortion in Poland saw the mobilisation of various opposition groups to SRHR and women’s rights in Europe. The organisation Ordo Iuris, that prepared the bill on abortion which was later rejected by the Polish parliament under the pressure of the “Black Protest”, is linked to the “One of Us”. “One of Us” is a European Citizen’s Initiative gathering anti-choice organisations from all over Europe. Their ultra-conservative stance against women’s rights is at the same time against European values - encompassing respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all.
Over the last decade, almost all EU member states within Central and Eastern Europe have struggled with a profoundly divided political establishment and increasing socio-economic inequalities. Many people do not see the EU as a guarantor of a dignified life and the market-driven economy did not bring promised prosperity for all. The side effects of which include a rise in populism and opposition to SRHR, which have instilled hatred in those who feel insecure and excluded.
On Human Rights Day, it is crucial to reflect on the strong backlash against women’s rights across Europe. The “Black Protest” was a clear reminder that the situation in Central and Eastern Europe is critical for the advancement of SRHR, not only for women in the region but across the entire continent. The political situation in Central and Eastern Europe also has clear implications on the successful development and implementation of progressive European policies. I strongly believe that our community and the progressive movement will be able to safeguard women’s rights in Europe while pushing for a systematic change. Yet it is absolutely essential that we display solidarity and work together to ensure social justice, both at the local and transnational levels if we are to effect any positive change.