By Maria Wilczek
“We have brought a left-wing, gender Trojan horse into our system, and it’s high time for withdrawal,” announced Poland’s deputy minister of justice on Monday, as the ministry fulfilled an earlier promise to submit a formal application to the family ministry to begin the country’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention.
In 2015, the Civic Platform (PO) government ratified the Council of Europe’s treaty to prevent and combat violence against women and domestic violence. While Poland has yet to complete the treaty’s implementation, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, which succeeded PO, may be moving to withdraw from the convention altogether.
“The part of the convention which relates to real proposals to combat violence against women is [fully] accepted by us,” said justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro. “The problem [however] concerns the second part, the layer which we consider counterproductive (…). We believe that not only does it fail to improve the situation of women, but, on the contrary, it may even lead to a significant deterioration in the situation of women and a rise in domestic violence in Poland.”
His comments echoed those made by other senior officials, including family minister Marlena Maląg, who called the treaty “left-wing gibberish”, and deputy prime minister Jadwiga Emilewicz who also denounced the convention.
There is still some confusion, however, over the government’s formal position, as a spokesperson of Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki insisted on the weekend that no decision had yet been taken. Some analysts are interpreting the situation as another factional battle within the ruling coalition, with justice minister Ziobro – reportedly a rival of Morawiecki – jockeying for position.
The plans to withdraw from the convention have provoked protests in Warsaw. On Friday some 2,000 protesters gathered outside the family ministry and the offices of Ordo Iuris, an ultraconservative legal group that has led the campaign in Poland against the Istanbul Convention. Similar demonstrations spread to more than 20 other cities.
To shed light on the treaty’s main flashpoints, we speak with legal experts on both sides of the tug of war – including Karina Bosak from Ordo Iuris and Adam Bodnar, Poland’s commissioner for human rights, along with his legal team.
What seems to be the problem?
Since the onset of the discussion, various representatives of Poland’s ruling coalition and other conservative groups have opposed the treaty. While most of its detractors agree that domestic violence should be prevented, many take issue with the treaty’s “ideological character”, which includes definitions of gender as a “social construct” (rather than a biological one).
Referring to articles 3 and 6 of the convention, Karina Bosak, a lawyer at Ordo Iuris and the wife of far-right presidential candidate Krzysztof Bosak, tells Notes from Poland: “this introduces a new definition of ‘gender’ which is not currently used in Polish law”. She describes this definition as “unclear”.
In Bosak’s view, the treaty suggests that “relations between female and male roles” are the problem, and that the “traditional family” serves as a hotbed of violence. “It thus seeks to weaken the family.”
“’Gender’ shall mean the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men” – Article 3b, Istanbul Convention
“Parties shall undertake to include a gender perspective in the implementation and evaluation of the impact of the provisions of this Convention and to promote and effectively implement policies of equality between women and men and the empowerment of women” – Article 6
“Article 12 directly refers to the need to root out traditions and customs,” Bosak tells us. “That’s very problematic from the perspective of the safety of the traditional family,” she adds: “It introduces ideology through the back door.”
“Parties shall take the necessary measures to promote changes in the social and cultural patterns of behaviour of women and men with a view to eradicating prejudices, customs, traditions and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority of women or on stereotyped roles for women and men” – Article 12.1
Critics of the convention also believe that it could violate the rights of parents by requiring schools to teach children about gender, a measure Minister Ziobro has described as “harmful”. According to Bosak: “the process of education [mentioned in the treaty] is meant to foster an ideology. It’s all very abstract – it’s hard to capture the concept of socio-cultural gender as separate from biological sex.”
“Parties shall take, where appropriate, the necessary steps to include teaching material on issues such as equality between women and men, non-stereotyped gender roles, mutual respect, non-violent conflict resolution in interpersonal relationships, gender-based violence against women and the right to personal integrity, adapted to the evolving capacity of learners, in formal curricula and at all levels of education” – Article 14.1
Another worry mentioned by Bosak is that the document omits issues such as alcoholism and “the objectification of women and their image in public spaces,” which she sees as conducive to violence. “The tools in the convention do not identity the sources [of violence].”
She thus argues that it provides a piecemeal solution, which does little to bolster Poland’s already “effective” laws. “The level of domestic violence recorded in Poland is lower [according to the OECD] than in countries where this convention has long been signed,” argues Bosak.
Rather, Bosak says that any outstanding reforms could be conducted domestically, outside of the Istanbul Convention. As a precedent, she cites the ruling coalition’s recent law allowing perpetrators of domestic violence to be immediately separated from their victims, passed by parliament last year.
“We have done a lot to show that the fight against violence against women and domestic violence is our priority,” said Minister Ziobro, speaking about the convention on Saturday. “We have done it in a manner free of ideology.”
Aspects of the Istanbul Convention have aroused similar criticism in other parts of Central and Eastern Europe. Among the countries that have signed but not ratified the treaty are Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Ukraine (as well as the United Kingdom). Russia and Azerbaijan are the only Council of Europe member states not to have signed the convention.
The appeal of the treaty
The treaty, however, also has a large number of vocal defenders in Poland.
“The Istanbul Convention strengthens mechanisms of protection against gender-based violence, including domestic violence. It is a kind of guarantee that Polish law in this area will implement the highest standards of protection, the implementation of which will be monitored and assessed by a group of independent experts,” Adam Bodnar, Poland’s commissioner for human rights, told Notes from Poland.
“Poland has not renounced any international human rights agreement for many years. The renunciation of the convention would be an embarrassing precedent,” adds Bodnar. “By ratifying the convention, as Poland, we took on an international obligation. We are responsible for how we protect the victims of violence and how we try to prevent violations of their rights. All the more because this concerns an absolutely fundamental value: the protection of life and health. Everyone should be protected from violence, including in relations with loved ones.”
Supporters also argue that the convention extends the current provisions of Polish law. Agata Szypulska, a lawyer at the Office of Adam Bodnar, draws attention to a few key aspects which are currently absent from Polish law.
“‘Domestic violence’ shall mean all acts of physical, sexual, psychological or economic violence that occur within the family or domestic unit or between former or current spouses or partners, whether or not the perpetrator shares or has shared the same residence with the victim” – Article 3b
Polish law currently leaves out former partners from its definition of “domestic violence”, which according to Szypulska leaves women without necessary support in cases such as stalking by former partners. Moreover, the wider definition of “violence against women” used in the convention introduces “economic harm or suffering” as one of its forms.
Joanna Gzyra, spokesperson of the Centre for Women’s Rights (CPK) adds that it is a matter of “approach” to violence against women, which the convention “treats as gender-based violence, a structural issue conditioned by prejudices and cultural stereotypes.” Gzyra explains that “this approach is fundamentally different from what Polish law presents, which unfortunately still has many gaps in its protection of women experiencing violence.”
Supporters also argue that the convention effectively expands and clarifies the definition of rape in Polish law.
“Consent must be given voluntarily as the result of the person’s free will assessed in the context of the surrounding circumstances” – Article 36.2
According to Szypulska, the Polish definition of what constitutes rape “does not reflect the notion of consent”, which “makes legal proceedings much harder to initiate in circumstances without obvious use of force, threat, roofies or holding someone at knifepoint”.
Gzyra echoes this point: “to prove a case of rape under Polish law, the victim must prove that a criminal act was committed with the use of violence, threat or deception, while the convention states that rape constitutes sexual behaviour without consent.”
The convention also refers to the establishment of facilities to support victims of violence:
“This provision calls for shelters to be set up in sufficient numbers to provide appropriate temporary accommodation for all victims (…) [The Council of Europe’s report] recommends safe accommodation in specialised women’s shelters, available in every region, with one family place per 10 000 head of population” – Explanatory Report to Istanbul Convention
“Contrary to the standards of the Convention, there is still a lack of specialist facilities [in Poland] offering comprehensive support to victims of violence, and comprehensive risk assessment procedures that would enable effective protection of women against the escalation of violence or murder,” continues Gzyra.
Main image credit: Jacek Marczewski/Agencja Gazeta
Maria Wilczek is deputy editor of Notes from Poland. She also contributes regularly to The Economist and Al Jazeera, and has also written for The Times, Politico Europe, The Spectator and Gazeta Wyborcza.