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Protesters with a banner reading “Women’s Strike” take part in a rally against the Polish government’s plans to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention on prevention and combating of domestic violence, in Warsaw, Poland, July 24, 2020.
© 2020 AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski
Poland’s justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro confirmed on Saturday that he will pursue withdrawal from a landmark European treaty on violence against women. This is a worrying policy move on the part of the government, led by the Law and Justice party, and one with far-reaching consequences.
Law and Justice has said it doesn’t necessarily support the decision of Ziobro, of the United Poland party, part of the ruling coalition. But the Law and Justice government has repeatedly used fear-mongering and hateful rhetoric about so-called “gender ideology” to legitimize attacks on the rights of women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.
Women, adolescents, and LGBT people bear the brunt of Poland’s moves to undermine sexual and reproductive health and rights and demonize gender-nonconformity. In reality, the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (known as the Istanbul Convention) promotes protections for women and girls trying to escape abuse or seek justice. It also promotes healthy attitudes and behaviors through education on equality, non-discrimination, and conflict resolution in relationships.
Organizations working with women survivors of violence say the fact that Poland reports fewer cases of domestic abuse than other EU countries merely reflects how taboo the issue remains. High-level Law and Justice leaders have downplayed the problem of gender-based violence and disparaged groups working to combat it. “The whole existence of domestic violence has been denied,” the leader of an organization in western Poland told me.
The Law and Justice government has targeted such groups through smear campaigns, raids, and defunding. The Women’s Rights Centre in Warsaw cut staff and services when it lost long-term government funding, and they went from helping about 3,000 women a year to only 1,000.
As reports of domestic violence rise during the Covid-19 pandemic, including in Poland, governments should shore up protections rather than dismantle them.
This isn’t the first time Poland has threatened to rescind the treaty’s ratification. It is part of a broader backslide on rule of law and democracy under the Law and Justice government. The European Parliament and the Council of Europe have condemned such threats and should continue doing so. Instead of abandoning commitments to protect women and girls from violence, Poland’s government should choose to make their safety a priority.