Thousands of women dressed in black took to the streets of Poland in March, braving freezing temperatures to protest against the government’s attempt to ban most forms of abortion.
Carrying red hand-shaped placards that read “STOP,” the women chanted anti-government slogans and criticized lawmakers for this second attempt at restricting the country’s abortion law, which is already one of the most strict in Europe.
“I am extremely furious,” said Kasia Strek, a Polish photographer and activist who lives part time in France. She has spent the past year documenting stories about reproductive rights in Poland and other European countries. “I am lucky to be a Polish woman who lives outside of Poland but there are many more who are not so fortunate and they are the most vulnerable.”
The protest was one in a wave of demonstrations that have hit Poland since the October 2015 election, where the far-right Law and Justice Party (PiS) won 37 percent of the vote and a parliamentary majority. Since taking office they have introduced a raft of laws and policies that restrict human rights and weaken the Polish judiciary, while clamping down on media and other cultural institutions that speak against the party.
In addition to making sweeping changes to the Polish judiciary system, blurring the lines between the state and the court system, the PiS has also introduced measures that limit the right to free assembly, restrict freedom of expression through stringent anti-terrorism laws and limit the rights of refugees and asylum seekers.
“Those who have been most affected so far include journalists, lawyers, historians and lecturers,” said Barbora Cernusakova, Europe researcher for Amnesty International. “But all of this is really dangerous and will, in the long-term, affect anyone in Poland who finds themselves in a vulnerable position or trying to claim their rights to a free trial.”
Since coming to power PiS has introduced several major changes to the judicial framework that interfere “with the independence of the judiciary and the administration of justice,” including the hiring and firing of judges, according to a Human Rights Watch report.
The shift to the right and surge in public demonstrations has pushed Poland up five points on the Fragile States Index 2015, to 148th place. Created by The Fund for Peace, the FSI gives each state a score of zero to 10 on 12 social, economic, cohesion and political indicators. While Poland scored well in certain areas including the marker for economic equality and improved public services, its scores dropped sharply on Human Rights, Group Grievance and State Legitimacy.
The shift on the index reflects existing concern in Europe that Poland’s increasingly authoritarian government is threatening the bloc’s democratic principles, earning the country a reputation for being “Europe’s problem child.”
In December, the European Commission took the first steps towards triggering Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty, a mechanism that has never been used before. The non-binding resolution is primarily designed to put pressure on E.U. member countries who threaten to undermine the rule of law. It has two parts: the country is first given an official warning, and if that fails to trigger change, the country can be sanctioned and have its voting rights suspended.
In March, members of the European Parliament voted by a large majority in favor of triggering Article 7 and putting Poland on the path to democratic sanctions.
“Poland is under very strict scrutiny right now, this is a very serious message to Poland,” says Cernusakova. “It opens up a space for discussion about how to reverse these changes.
“Although, the chances of Poland actually being stripped of its voting rights are slim, as all other E.U.member countries would need to agree.”
Hungary, which is also governed by a right-wing government, has already said it would veto such a move.
Support for Poland’s recent changes may also come from within the country, particularly in rural parts of the country where PiS has its core supporters and where the Roman Catholic Church, which is staunchly against abortion, has a major influence.
When Kasia Strek photographed Polish women seeking abortions at a clinic just over the border in Germany, she says many of them were most afraid of the way friends and close relatives would react if they found out.
“The women I saw were terrified; they were really stressed,” says Strek. “If people found out what they had done they could be labeled as bad mothers who have killed a baby. People are still very conservative on this issue.”
But Strek says she is optimistic the situation could gradually improve.
The recent protests were inspired by the success of an earlier demonstration against a proposed bill to ban abortion in all cases except when the mother’s life is threatened, and included prison terms for women who have an abortion and doctors who perform the procedure. In October 2016, around 24,000 women and men dressed in black took part in the biggest march since the fall of communism in Poland. Many of the women also refused to work or do any housework that day, inspired by a similar demonstration in Iceland in the 1970s when 90 percent of women refused to work for a day in protest at poor wages.
The proposed law was canceled and protesters ran a counter-petition calling for expanded abortion rights. The petition, named Ratujmy Kobiety (“Let’s save women”), gained over 250,000 signatures in a few months. However, the government has refused to consider it.
The October 2016 march and subsequent petition breathed fresh life into Poland’s women’s rights movement and “so many civil society groups that were born out of that march,” says Strek.
“For many of the people who came to the protest it was the first time they had been to a demonstration.”
Their primary target are younger Poles who have grown up without the restrictions of communism but who are often surprisingly nationalist and supportive of PiS.
“I can’t fully explain why so many young people are extremely nationalistic. Unlike generations before them, they have had access to everything – to technology, education and better jobs and income,” says Strek.
“You have to touch the ground to go up and people will soon realize that if you don’t take action your rights will be taken away.”
Sociologist Maciej Gdula has spent time interviewing PiS supporters in a small community outside Warsaw where 50 percent of people voted for the Law and Justice party in 2015. He also noted that young people are surprisingly nationalistic in rural areas, as well as middle-class and working-class Poles.
“It is too simplistic to say the rise of the right is due only to economic suffering,” he says, adding that one of the biggest appeals of PiS to voters in 2015 was its campaign promising citizens access to the kind of rights and social spending enjoyed by other countries in Europe.
“In the lead up to the election PiS were telling voters ‘We are the party of the European Union, we deserve to live like them,’” says Gdula.
Right now, PiS has been able to turn criticism from the E.U. into a mechanism for gaining more support back home, claiming Poland is being picked on. However, Gdula says, that narrative won’t work forever.
“People who support PiS are often defending the decisions of the party, claiming they got a good election score so they can do what they want to. But it doesn’t mean that Law and Justice supporters will accept the total isolation of Poland.”