Women across Central and Eastern Europe are deeply concerned about the growing fundamentalism in the region. In countries like Lithuania, Poland and Macedonia, they have been actively strategizing to combat the religious and political collaboration that threatens women's sexual and reproductive rights.
Women from the Central and Eastern Europe Network, a coalition of women's organizations in the region, and from a coalition of NGOs known as ASTRA sounded a call to action, registering alarm at Poland's recent election, in which arch-conservative Lech Kaczyinski became president.
Calling for international support at the recent 10th Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID) in Bangkok, Thailand, they said "the church" in the region had grown increasingly anti-woman, promoting especially strong views against reproductive rights. "The church relies on women," one activist pointed out. "We need to engage those women to interpret the Bible and the Koran so that they cannot be used as sexist tools." Others called for personal testimonies to document the impact of politico-religious discrimination and sought ways to integrate church-based discrimination into human rights advocacy.
"Why is fundamentalism, which leads to discrimination against women, being supported by governments and societies?" one woman asked. "Why do we put so much faith in the State?" another queried. "Nationalism and politics work against women. We cannot take for granted that governments will work on our behalf. We must be constant watchdogs, monitoring and maintaining our gains. It's not sexy work. It's boring. But it is necessary."
Nowhere is it more necessary than in Poland. Wanda Nowicka, Director of the Federation for Women and Family Planning, a Warsaw-based NGO and an active ASTRA member, was among the women expressing fear and dismay at current events in her country. "Abortion became legal in Poland in 1956," she says, "and then in 1993, in the name of 'freedom and democracy' we saw the introduction of anti-abortion laws. Since then, the Roman Catholic Church has forced abortion underground. It is still safe but expensive. That means poor women cannot have one. Now, the new president is building coalitions with conservative groups such as the League of Polish Families, which advocates a full ban on abortion (even in cases of rape and incest). This is very worrying."
Even before the election, the situation in Poland was bad. Alicia Tysiac's case is an example. Denied an abortion by her doctor even though she received permission on medical grounds, Tysiac suffered an exacerbation of her condition rendering her nearly blind. She sued her doctor but the Polish courts denied her case; it is now before the European court. (Poland is a member of the European Union.)
Feminists in Poland, and elsewhere, are working overtime to advocate for changing anti-woman laws, for sexual and reproductive rights and education, and for abortion and contraception. The Federation for Women and Family Planning and groups like it are actively monitoring laws, submitting reports to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, and offering help to individual women like Tysiac.
But they are up against conservatives who believe that women belong at home. In Poland, where the unemployment rate is greater than 20 per cent, women are expected to relinquish their jobs to men. Sex discrimination predominates in the workplace despite laws against it. Sex education is 'pro-family' and rife with misinformation. "The situation is very bad," says Nowicka, "and Poland is perhaps the most extreme case. But we are not the only post-Communist country where reproductive health and rights are restricted. In countries like Slovakia and Lithuania as well as elsewhere, things are getting worse and worse."
Daniela Draghici, a leader in Romania's nascent movement for sexual and reproductive health, is also worried. "Reproductive law is taking a long time to be promulgated in my country," she says. "The president has yet to sign into law what the parliament has passed and I'm afraid Romania might follow the example of neighboring conservative countries that are already European Union members and restrict our rights. Policymakers are only thinking of population numbers [which have been dropping in Eastern Europe] and not women's rights."
That's why ASTRA was formed in 1999 among NGOs active at the United Nations level. "There was a need for a regional network because countries in transition were invisible to the European Union and the United Nations," according to Wanda Nowicka.
She points out that the European Union (EU) has good policies in place for developing countries but not for European countries, where conditions are entirely different. There, policy is left to individual governments. The parliaments of conservative countries either fail to address women's needs, or they promulgate detrimental policies. "The EU has a responsibility," says Nowicka, with a note of irony. "They need to fund not only initiatives in the developing world but also in Europe."
Beyond women's rights, there is general concern about the direction governments are taking in Eastern Europe. Poland's powerful new president, who is also mayor of Warsaw, represents a party committed to "law and justice". It wants to have "truth and reconciliation committees" - like those in South Africa - to confront corruption among former communists, while promising the electorate the same benefits enjoyed under that regime (e.g., free health care and education). Unwilling to build coalitions with the defeated liberal party, the new government is moving to the extreme right to find its partners. That means active campaigns against homosexuals, abortion rights advocates and others. "We are very scared," says Nowicka. "They are dangerous to democracy." The EU, she says, has expressed concern, but "so what?"
The NGOs remain concerned that the move toward conservativism among the governments of both East and West Europe will mean a huge backlash against women's civil and human rights, including disastrous funding cuts, since EU funds are passed to governments to disperse. Further, the increasingly repressive attitudes of European governments could mean that the EU itself begins to lean decidedly right. Activists cite the recent election of Chancellor Andrea Merkel in Germany as an example of the change sweeping Europe.
"Despite all the international documents that have been signed and ratified," says a somber Daniela Draghici, "we still have a long way to go before women's rights are recognized as human rights."
(Elayne Clift is a writer and journalist specialising in women's issues, health and development.)