Since the Russian offensive in Ukraine, more than one million refugees, the vast majority of whom are women and children, have reached Poland. The Women's Rights Center, located in 7 Polish cities, helps them and offers a global support (collection of basic necessities, psychological and legal help, setting up a support phone line, accommodation, Polish language courses). The Foundation had the pleasure of speaking with Urszula Nowakowska, founder of the Women's Rights Center, to discuss the actions implemented for refugee women, but also those for sexual and reproductive rights and against violence against women in Poland.
Hello Urszula Nowakowska, we are delighted to have this opportunity to speak with you. You are a Polish lawyer, activist, writer, and feminist, and you founded the Women’s Rights Center (Centrum Praw Kobiet) in 1994 in Poland. How and when did you realize the importance of feminism?
I remember being fighter for girls’ rights since my early childhood. I always protested when someone wanted to limit my choices as a girl. However, I become more conscious feminist in the mid 80. I was a young activist of the independent Freedom and Peace movement while I was discriminated a woman by one of my colleagues during large international conference we have in Poland. I realize that as a woman I get less time to speak than my male colleagues. I met a Canadian writer who attended this conference and who invited me to join her to meet independent group of Polish feminists. I was later invited to go for an international camp of pacifist feminist women in Ireland. Since than my feminism became more conscious and activist.
The Women’s Rights Center was born in Warsaw and is now present in 7 other Polish cities. What are your goals and how do you help women daily?
The Women’s Rights Centre mission is to prevent and combat all forms of gender-based violence and discrimination in private, public and professional life and to empower women to rebuild their lives, free from violence and fear. WRC provides comprehensive support to women experiencing different forms of violence, whose rights were abused and their children. Every day we offer psychological, social, and legal counseling, and curt assistance. We operate a 24/7 helpline for women and when needed we provide women and their children safe spaces in our shelter. We also offer possibility to take part in support groups and various workshops. Each year, we help over 5,000 women. We also publish and widely disseminate manuals and leaflets aimed to raise awareness about women’s rights and to equip them with much needed information to leave abusive relationships and to protect their rights.
One of the center’s projects is to serve as a watchdog on femicides, in order to have a better understanding of it, and to eventually issue governmental recommendations. What difficulties have you encountered so far in tracking this widespread problem? Do you already have an idea of the number of yearly victims in Poland ?
When you work on the issue of violence against women, it is impossible not to come across the most drastic form of it, which is femicide. I remember well the first femicide case I have ever dealt with. One of the women we were helping then missed the appointment at the Center. I called her and she told me that her sister, whom she had long encouraged to come to us for help, was murdered that night by her husband, and her seriously injured daughter was fighting for her life in the hospital. She was murdered in the morning when her husband returned home after spending several hours in the detention center. He had not been charged event tough he boasted to his neighbors that he could kill his wife. That night, fearing that her husband would take revenge on her for calling the police, she called the police station again to find out if and when they would release him. She wanted to prepare herself for it somehow. The police said that they would not tell her anything because he didn’t concern her. When he returned home, her and her daughters were still asleep, and he killed her.
In the following years, we have dealt with more cases of women murdered by their husbands or partners. Two of our clients, we know were killed by their violent partners. In none of these cases, police or prosecutor’s office took women’s complains seriously, although threats of murder and pending cases at the victim’s initiative are classic factors that increase the risk of escalating violence or femicide.
In Poland we do not have good and reliable statistics concerning violence against women and femicides. WRC estimates that every year around 400- 500 women may lose their life in relation to domestic violence. We do not only speak about killing but also suicide and those cases where legal classification was not a murder but beating which resulted in death. There are women who disappear each year, a sometimes the body is discovered after many years and police finds that the partner was the murderer.
The center recently signed the “Legal Abortion Without Compromise” civic initiative bill initiated by various women’s rights groups in Poland in partnership with the opposition party Lewica. Can you tell us more about this initiative and about abortion rights in Poland in general?
Although Poland has had for over 20 years one of the most restrictive law concerning abortion – abortion was legal only in case of danger for women’s life and health, malformation of fetus and rape – we have faced permanent attacks aimed to further restrict access to abortion. On October 22, 2020, the illegitimate Polish Constitutional Court ruled that access to abortion due to “high probability of severe and irreversible foetal disability or incurable disease threatening its life” is unconstitutional.
“Legal abortion without compromise” aims at liberalising access to abortion in the long run. To put it on the parliamentary agenda, we must present 100,000 signatures. When the 100,000 signatures are attached, the draft bill can be presented to the Marshall of the Sejm with a request to proceed with it.
The draft bill “Legal Abortion Without Compromise” proposes that abortion should be available until week 12th without asking women for any reason and after the 12th week in case of foetal defects or when pregnancy is a result of a criminal act.
What have been some of the concrete consequences so far of the total ban on abortion in Poland?
Abortion is now allowed only in cases of rape or incest or when the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother. It exposes pregnant women to health problems. This new law had what we call a “chilling effect”, which means that in practice doctors refuse to provide medical care for fear of legal consequences. Doctors who carry out abortions face up to 3 years in prison.
At the beginning of November 2021, Poland was shocked by the death of Izabela from the town of Pszczyna. She died of sepsis due to a medical error resulting from the chilling effect. Izabela has become a symbol of the systemic violation of reproductive rights in Poland, and the disclosure of her dramatic history quickly resulted in an avalanche of reports on the successive tragedies of women whose rights were openly violated. One of them was Anna from Świdnica, who also died of sepsis only because the life-threatening pregnancy was not terminated at the right moment. I am afraid there maybe more of such cases.
Many women who would like to terminate pregnancy goes abroad. Fortunately, there are organizations such as Abortion dream team who helps women to find such clinic abroad and provide financial support. The rest are left without any assistance which results in leaving the most marginalised women without any help.
Since the ban passed, Poland has seen massive protests against it. Is there a future to this type of civic mobilisation, and is there a way that we, French citizen, can help?
We have massive protest after the Constitutional Court ruling and after the death of Iza but it is difficult, especially in the time of a pandemic to keep permanent mobilizations. However, positive consequence of the new abortion rules, of the backlash that followed and of the massive protests is that it has raised people’s awareness. A survey conducted last year found that over 70% of Poles were opposed to the Constitutional Tribunal ruling. It has also changed the narrative around abortion and increased the number of those who support liberalization.
We were very thankful to international community and French citizens for their solidarity with Polish women in this difficult time of attacks on women’s fundamental human rights. As we will continue to fight for the abortion rights in Poland, we need your support and solidarity. Under the French presidency to the EU, France has more power to do so. We need European Commission and Council to act and defend democratic values and to protect women’s rights to freely decide about their reproduction. We need EU and French authorities, to support civil society financially in Poland. However, not only EU and government can do it. Each person, who cares about women’s rights can do it. Every euro matters and can help us to change women’s lives.
Human rights groups say women activists have faced escalating threats and repression since the ruling.
It is true. At the WRC as well as in many other women’s rights NGOs we have been receiving emails for some time containing death threats if we will not give up what we do. One time during the visit of a French delegation in our office we received emails threatening us, telling us there was a bomb in the building. Women are beaten up by the police at the demonstrations, persecuted, detained illegally. It’s happening and nobody is punished for doing so.
Could you please tell us, in a couple of sentences, what will you do to support women refugees in Poland ?
So far there is a lot of enthusiasm in supporting Ukrainian refugees in Poland, but system and institutional solutions are lacking. At the beginning most women and children who came here had somewhere to go to in Poland, now the situation changes. Many new refugees do not have friend nor families and they require more institutional and systematic support. They need more support. March 8th is International Women’s Day. Instead of celebrating, we are launching our hotline for Ukrainian women who fled from the war. We will offer them psychological counseling and information about resources and support available to them and their children in Poland. We are going to support not only those who fled from Ukraine because of the war but also those who stay and work in Poland but whose family are still in Ukraine. Yesterday I met with a Ukrainian woman whose two sons left Poland to fight. This situation is very stressful for her. We get information about women who were raped and need immediate support, those who stay in big groups in small apartments. People need basic items like shoes, warm jackets, diapers, personal hygiene items etc.
Apart of the hotline we plan to employ Ukrainian and Russian speaking psychologists to provide women and children direct support in all our centers (Warszawa, Krakow, Lodz, Wroclaw, Gdansk, Poznan). There are lawyers and social workers willing to work with us to help women and children access social services and housing. We plan to start Polish classes for women and children, help them to find a job in Poland. We organize collects for women and chlidren.
Urszula Nowakowska is the co-founder and president of the Center for Women’s Rights in Poland. She is a lawyer by training and a feminist activist.
© cover picture : Thierry Monasse