Democracy can die fast

New York Times

"The thing about change is that it can happen very quickly. You can wake up one day and the democracy as you knew it had died yesterday," says a Polish women´s right activist Marta Lempart in an interview for Mezinárodní politika.

Marta is a women’s rights activist and a democracy defender. She has been the leader of the national help committee of the Polish Women’s Strike, a coalition of women that on 3 October 2016 – known as Black Monday – organized and led the “black protests” in over 150 cities in Poland that stopped Polish parliament from introducing a total abortion ban. Polish protests were the inspiration to form the International Women’s Strike coalition that organized women’s protests in 60 countries worldwide on 8 March 2017. She is one of the founders of the Prodemocratic Coalition and was a guest at last year´s international conference organized by the Open Society Fund Prague.

Marta Lempart on a strike

source: Marta Lempart

Can you summarize the state of women’s rights in Poland today? What are the most pressing issues and what are the challenges that women in Poland face.

As you know, last year after the “black protests” the anti-abortion law was not implemented, however, the government is still taking away women´s rights piece by piece. For example, it limits organizations that take care of the victims of domestic violence or the national help lines by redirecting finances away from these institutions. In Poland there are many cases when government shrinks financing of organizations that help women and children. Poland has also signed and ratified the Istanbul Convention (against domestic violence). But the message from the state is that we shouldn’t obey the law and instead “uphold the tradition” even if it is a tradition of domestic violence.

The economic situation of women in Poland worsens because the support for single mothers from the state is shrinking. We might soon expect the rise of corruption in the social services system because it is not effective anymore. But you don’t have to be a single mother to be disadvantaged. Many women are repressed just for taking part in the protests and there is a huge propaganda against women’s rights on national media.

The “black protests” were tied primarily to the total abortion ban. What has changed in the sphere of women´s reproductive rights since then?

We stopped the abortion ban but we´re still fighting all different kinds of proposals that are trying to sabotage women´s reproductive rights, so we´re preparing other protests. We have groups of deputies that asked the constitutional tribunal to evaluate one of the three exceptions to abortion (when fetus is deformed and unable to live). We are trying to persuade the MPs who put this case in front of the tribunal to withdraw it. We also collected signatures for a bill that is currently in the parliament and it consists of a law that legalizes abortion in Poland.

But even if the three exceptions stand, the doctors can still refuse to perform abortion because of the ‘Conscience Clause’, so they can decline to give abortion based on their personal values and beliefs. Another thing is that we don’t have access to the morning-after pill, which has become a prescription drug and totally loses its purpose. Women and girls over 15 will now have to make an appointment with a doctor to prescribe the pill. So that is why Poland is losing case after case in the European tribunal humans rights because people have right to abortion but are not provided with one.

What is the role of Church in today´s Poland regarding women´s rights? How does it affect policy making?

After the last elections in Poland, the Church has become much more arrogant. They have the golden years now – they can ask the government anything and they will do that. It is for example now formally part of the process of pushing forward the abortion ban by collecting signatures for the bill in churches around Poland. The church is officially now part of the legislation process. The ruling party was strongly supported by the Church before the election and they are now paying back with money and women´s rights. When we were gathering people for the Black Monday protests, the Catholic Church was one of the spheres we were criticizing – because we want to have “state without superstition”. We have been attacking by Church for so long time, that we no longer care about being polite to them. But it´s not only women´s rights that are attacked, it is all the working non-governmental organizations that lose their money in favour of the Church. This already affects the sphere of social services, education or culture.

With the power of the Church growing, were you surprised to see so many people at the Black Monday protests? Why do you think so many people protested? After all, the anti-abortion bill was pushed forward by citizen´s initiative as well.

The citizens´ initiative you are speaking of was funded by Ordoiuris and is actually not a citizens´ initiative at all. Ordoiuris is an institute funded by some sect in Brazil that fights against women´s rights anywhere in the world. It is an anti-women´s initiative, which is also in the United States of America, Brazil and France and their aim is to take away all the reproductive rights of women. And they have loads and loads of money. Now, the Church is taking over the fight against women´s reproductive rights and collects signatures for support the abortion ban – sometimes in very sketchy ways. They for example just ask for your signature without showing you the whole text of what you are signing etc.

As for the protests, I think so many people showed up for the protests because the power of the Church has grown. The protests were very anti-clerical. It is the politicians and the media that don’t follow but the people do. The anti-church protests always attract more people because the people are so fed up with what the Church has to say. And the fact is that 46 % of people are pro legalising abortions and only 26 % are against. 11 % of people in Poland want to make the abortion law even stricter.

In one of your previous interviews you said that the Black Monday protest was one of the fastest growing Facebook events in Polish history. Why do you think this was the case?

We had clear visual identification – which was really easy to share – and clear message. What was also important was the local aspect of the protest. We incorporated a poll to our Facebook event that gave people the opportunity to find other people in their home cities, who were going to participate in the protests. The local dimension was really important and the fact, that people saw that it was happening right in their neighbourhood. In the end we had around 150 cities registered for the event. I wrote a 12 point guide for them explaining how they should organize a protest in their home town. We´ve also had great volunteers who helped us with attacks by online trolls and neo-Nazi groups and with cyber security.

Do you think that social media can spread the feeling of solidarity among people?

You have to have a clear message, but it doesn’t work always. We only used our Facebook event for organizing and we eliminated the discussions. Nobody has ever convinced anyone to change his opinion in the Facebook comments, that is why I never discus anything on Facebook because it’s stupid and it doesn’t work. Also, if you don’t have money, you cannot win the discussion. If you have money and you have twenty times more people than us, you can kill our discussion and persuade people that they are the minority. And we see how many times and how often we are attacked from control groups. That’s why the Facebook events are only for organising and not for discussion. But Facebook definitely gives you a feeling that you can be “part of it”, like with the #meetoo campaign or worldwide protests when Trump became president.

The logo of "Polish women on strike"

source: Marta Lempart

Another thing is participation. We often hear about the democratic deficit - feeling that institutions don’t function properly and that individual voice cannot change anything. Do you think that social media give people that voice?

I think I have to start with Trump here again. I don’t think Trump won the elections with gun or immigration topics but he gave people the feeling that they can finally speak for themselves. No media, no politicians, not even celebrities or activists will ever speak for you. You have to do it yourself. And that´s how I think he won. It´s the same with the protests. Organizing people through social media is one thing – but I also think that local participation is crucial. When we were organizing the Black Monday protests, we made sure that Warsaw and Wroclaw had just one voice like every other city. It’s about the solidarity to those who feel are not represented enough. Getting to the real thing means reaching out to the smallest cities. Warsaw is not Poland and 90% of the protests were made in the cities that have around 50 000 people. That´s the majority. That´s the protest. Some people protesting in their local communities have already become celebrities and they are literally taking democracy in their own hands – they no longer go to the bigger city to talk to someone, they organize the protests on their own or try to push for change locally. You simply cannot leave out the small cities. Unfortunately, this is sometimes what the media are doing and even big cities themselves are doing it and it´s very unfair to all those who put the work in and organized a protests in their home town.

Do you think that change can be only brought about locally?

Yes, absolutely. In bigger cities, like Wroclaw or Krakow you will always have demonstrations, where you´ll be able to gather few hundred or thousands of people but nobody cares really. The government doesn’t really care, I´m sure. Plus, most probably you won’t be in danger for organizing the protests. In small cities you have to be worried that someone will fire you, victimize you in the newspaper or break your car windows. You have to think about your own protection and participation – people might not show up for your demonstration. But if you succeed and gather few people for a protest even in the smallest city, it is a huge surprise factor for the government. The politicians think that they have it covered in the small cities. They don’t think that anyone would dare protesting or acting against them. If you gather two thousand people in a small city, it is like two million in Warsaw. It´s important to remember that we are all in it together and we need to start working on big cities´ support to the smaller once. The plan for next protests is to cover up to three hundred cities – cover the map – so nobody has to travel for the protests.

Female solidarity and activism was important for Black Monday protests. But how many men were you able to mobilise?

This is an interesting question. Men were actually willing to join the protest because it was so absurd and crazy for them too. The politicians are so anti-feminist and they think women’s rights are not human rights but it´s obvious that they don’t follow the people. For many men, the anti-feminist propositions are so absurd. We actually call ourselves a coalition of women and reasonable men. It´s a huge group – maybe about 40 % - they´re not the decision makers but are an important part of the team.

Last question. What you are planning next?

We are preparing other protests, of course! The thing about change is that it can happen very quickly. You can wake up one day and the democracy as you knew it had died yesterday.

Markéta Wittichová is an Associate Researcher of the Institute of International Relations and works at the Open Society Fund Prague.

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