Thinking about women, thinking about all the problems we need to solve, I wonder was the voice of women in general, of the Congress, loud enough during the forty-day protest for dignity of people with disabilities and their mothers in the Sejm (the Polish parliament)? Some might say they spotted a man at the protest, but we all know that unpaid care of people with disabilities is first and foremost women’s burden. And that’s true for unpaid care in general: Women are the ones who most frequently care for their parents (both their own and their husband’s) and adult children with disabilities. Haven't we, as feminists, repeatedly been quick to judge the courageous women who speak up in Codziennik Feministyczny (the feminist eye, a feminist online magazine) and in social media with previously unknown strength and courage about sexual violence and against its perpetrators, whose social status as public figures seems to protect them even after such accusations?
Unfortunately, my answers to these questions is NO, our support wasn’t loud enough and YES, we tend to misjudge these women. Let’s be honest: The women who need us the most in order to win their battles are not here. Sometimes I feel that there’s an economic barrier preventing some of the women who need our congresses, NGOs and groups the most from attending them. It is as if they had become luxury goods. Often, we fail to sympathise with victims of gender-based violence because the perpetrators are our friends, colleagues and sometimes even have the nerve to call themselves feminists (of course only in theory). Instead of standing in solidarity, we idly stand by next to politicians who have never done anything for our cause although they had a chance.
Meanwhile, in Poland:
Elderly Woman on Balcony - Przemysl - Poland. Photo by Adam Jones. CC BY-SA 2.0
Women often don’t know that they can attain more, they can dream, they can have higher aspirations, they can expect more from their state.
The list of cases we fail to notice at the meetings and conferences of the Women’s Congress is very long. In my day-to-day job as the Deputy Commissioner for Protection of Civil Rights, I encounter a lot of cases of discrimination that have multiple and intertwined factors. This is what we call intersectional discrimination. Every day, every week I see loopholes in our legal system that deepen inequalities between people. How do I know that? Every week my desk is covered with cases of women and girls who were left behind by their state – victims of domestic violence, victims of a dysfunctional alimony system, victims of flawed state-support for people with disabilities, victims of a brutal healthcare system.
For some, these examples are not as obvious as questions of equal pay or representation in public and political positions. Nonetheless, they are important issues that need to be dealt with. As you know, I try to be vocal about it each and every day. Because I know that if we don’t handle these basic, fundamental matters with and for different groups of women, we will leave a lot of them behind. I can’t stress enough how important this is.
Let’s look at the women who live in rural areas. The latest report of the Supreme Chamber of Control of the Republic of Poland on this matter indicates that their access to publicly funded outpatient gynaecology and obstetric services is very restricted. Data from the National Health Fund shows that there are no gynaecological and obstetrical clinics in many rural communities! Impossible? Clinics located in rural communities represent an infinitesimal percent of the total number of clinics in the country – although 40% of all women and newborn children live there. In Podlaskie and Lublin Voivodeships there were cases where up to 27,000 women were assigned to a single gynaecological clinic! Only one in 251 women living in districts in Opole Voivodeship had access to cytology. You wonder how the situation looks like in Kuyavian-Pomeranian? Check it out, but I doubt you’d be pleasantly surprised…
Let’s take a closer look at their situation. Their particular abilities and needs make them far more vulnerable – something the legal system in Poland and the state still choose to ignore.
For example, the mechanisms against domestic violence don’t take their specific situation into consideration. Women with disabilities are three times more exposed to violence - including domestic violence - than able-bodied women. And yet, they are unheard of in the legal system, overlooked by politicians. The system in place to combat domestic violence not only disregards their specific situation, it almost completely ignores them when it comes to gathering data about violence, raising the question: What can Poland do against this type of abuse when it lacks any kind of knowledge concerning the causes, characteristics and scale of violence affecting elderly women and women with disabilities? The answer is: nothing. Neither counter the violence nor support those in need. Just to make it clear: this is not a new issue. These violations of the human rights of women have been going on during the whole cycle of Poland’s transformation. A transformation which hasn’t yet ended for women - in some cases, it hasn’t even started.
These fundamental issues need to be voiced loud and clear, not handled with kid gloves. Patting each other's backs and smiling at the camera won’t make things better for women. It only delays necessary changes, causes more years of unfair treatment and injustice, and exposes women to a greater risk of losing their health or even their lives.
These are challenges I see going forward, for our organizations, for our societies, for us. Making unseen problems visible, stepping in to compensate for hostile state policies, working at the grassroots, etc. Not solely organizing recurring events that elderly women and women with disabilities rarely attend. We won’t meet them there, because they still don’t know about the possibilities they have. They don’t report incidents of domestic violence because they often still don’t know that they can. They don’t know where, they don’t know how; they feel abandoned to their fate. They are ashamed that they experience violence from their own adult children who are now taking care of them. Meanwhile, the state has pushed care work into the private sphere, arguing that it’s a family matter. That’s why they were made to believe that domestic violence is their private burden. And compared to able-bodied women, they are far more frightened of living on their own; they can’t even dream of living an independent life. These are acute problems we need to talk about.
Apart from violence against women, we should focus also on the creation - or rather the lack - of reproductive rights for women with disabilities, including access to information and health benefits. In reality, Polish women with disabilities who get pregnant or merely wish to have children encounter many obstacles trying to access the necessary health services. Women with disabilities urgently need our solidarity and support because Polish society is still very prejudiced against them. They are seen as asexual, unable to get pregnant; not fit for parenting because their children would ‘inherit’ their disabilities. Of course this is utter nonsense, but parts of Polish society still don’t accept these women as mothers.The societal bias combined with structural state discrimination makes the reproductive rights and sexuality of women with disabilities taboo. I have no doubts that if we had a list of groups the state has left and is still leaving behind, these women would be at the very top.
It has no experts in the field or adequate medical equipment. Studies show that women with disabilities have serious troubles finding doctors and midwives willing or able to take care of them. Deaf women can’t communicate with their doctors because medical facilities don’t provide them with sign language speakers. Gynaecological chairs are not adapted to the needs of women in wheelchairs. Yes, this is where we stand. Instead of having discussions about political aspirations and professional carriers for women with disabilities, we are still talking about basic needs such as gynaecological chairs. Until these basic issues are resolved, women with disabilities will continue to be held back from seeking elected office, starting academic careers or their own businesses. They are impeded from being part of our decisions about our public sphere.
This is what almost every state institution looks like. The state and its legal system don’t take the needs of women with disabilities into consideration. I can assure you, I know that reproductive rights in Poland are restricted for all women, that all of us have problems with access to contraception. Still, the situation these women face is far worse. When you take into account the risk of gender-based violence that women and girls with disabilities are exposed to and the barriers they face when it comes to contraception, it becomes evident how restricted their physical autonomy is in comparison to able-bodied people.
As you can see, I’m not trying to be diplomatic while raising these issues. I just want to plainly describe the situation. The examples of intersectional discrimination I just told you about are challenges we need to face! We need to do this because ‘intersectionality’ is rarely seen on banners and almost never comes up as a topic during panels and discussions - even within our organization.
2018 was special as we celebrated 100 years of the right to vote for Polish women. In 2019, we mark 30 years of the Polish Round Table Agreement. It’s the right time to ask ourselves - what’s next? What do we want from the state, from society, its laws and freedoms, what do we want for women? I have a proposal:
FIRSTLY, we need more, far more solidarity between women regardless of their economic status and origin! Women’s solidarity is fundamental for any future development. Yes, this is the moment when I typically have to remind you that for some women Poland’s Family 500+ programme plays a crucial role in their fight for subjectivity. Talking about women’s solidarity we need to keep in mind the women for whom the issues usually discussed at our Congresses have little to do with their daily lives. Let’s remember the women who don’t agree with us or even question what we do, because without them we will never truly make it… And even if we do, it won’t be a true victory. I appeal to you - let’s focus more on concrete issues, even if they don’t seem like the most exciting topics for our conferences.
SECONDLY, we need solidarity and support from men for our demands. This is our mutual fight! We won’t make it without them!
THIRDLY, we need wise, empathetic women, politicians of both genders. We need to look for them, win them for our side, no matter which party wins elections.
I try to talk about all of this wherever I go - Congresses in Słupsk, Toruń, Łódź, a few days ago at a huge women’s conference in Kraków. And I won’t stop as long as women’s situation in Poland hasn’t changed!
One more important thing. We need to engage with those who are the most affected by structural discrimination: elderly women, women living in rural areas and disabled women to attend our conferences, meetings and congresses. I have a suggestion. Next time we go to a Congress, each of us should bring a person who would not have had the means to attend without any support! This is the goal for each and every one of us. We can do the same for every other public event. Let’s give a voice back to all women!
Sylwia Spurek - is a lawyer, doctor of jurisprudence at the University of Warsaw, solicitor, legislator, feminist, vegan. Since 1999 she’s been human rights defender, particularly women’s human rights. In 2015 she was appointed the Deputy Commissioner for Human Rights and is responsible for equal treatment issues.
This article was originally published on Political Critique in October 2018 and was translated from English to Polish by Advocate Europe.