Poland’s Justice Minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, has announced that the country will leave the Istanbul Convention, a European treaty designed to prevent violence against women. The Minister has condemned the Convention as ‘harmful’ as it stipulates that education on non-stereotypical gender roles must be included on the school curriculum. Poland’s argument is that the treaty is ‘ideological’, and restricts parents by preventing them from choosing how, or indeed whether, to educate their children on gender equality or women’s rights.
The Convention defines violence against women as a violation of human rights and a form of discrimination, and establishes ‘a comprehensive legal framework and approach to combat violence against women’ across the 34 European countries who have signed it. Its focus is preventing domestic violence, protecting victims, and prosecuting accused offenders. Poland’s withdrawal from the treaty suggests that it disagrees that the crime is as severe as is stated, thus implying that victims of abuse may no longer be protected with the same stringency as the Convention outlines.
In wake of the news, the Council of Europe’s Secretary General, Marija Pejčinović Burić, made a statement saying that ‘leaving the Istanbul Convention would be highly regrettable and a major step backwards in the protection of women against violence in Europe’.
Thousands of Polish women have taken to the streets to protest the withdrawal, with the organiser of one march in Warsaw, Marta Lempart, saying that for the Polish government, ‘the aim is to legalise domestic violence’.
This move is not entirely surprising considering the deeply conservative nature of Poland’s ruling party, the Law and Justice (PiS) party. The party is closely aligned with the powerful Polish Catholic Church, and has promised to uphold and promote traditional family values in exchange for support. When the party was first elected in 2015, it cut funding to NGOs helping female victims of domestic violence, claiming the organisations were discriminatory in only providing help to women.
It can be assumed that one of the Polish government’s primary issues with the treaty is its definition of gender as ‘the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men’. This defies the notion that gender roles are set-in-stone, obligatory structures which must be followed to create an ordered society in line with Catholic morals.
On the 13th of July, the leader of the PiS party, Andrzej Duda, was re-elected as President after a campaign fraught with conservative rhetoric which attacked more than just women. During a speech in June, he denounced the promotion of LGBT rights as a more severe form of ‘ideology’ than communism. The party has been frequently accused of having an anti-gay agenda, shown when Duda signed the ‘Family Charter’ of election proposals which pledges that he will prevent gay couples from getting married or adopting children, and will prohibit LGBT education in schools.
It is the conception of women’s rights and protection against violence as an ‘ideology’ which is the most harmful aspect of this story. The prevailing conservative mindset in Poland regards gender equality as an attack against family values and social stability, rather than the protection of the rights of half its population. It is deeply concerning that an EU member state has voted to prioritise misogynistic societal values over the safety of its women.