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Poland moves to withdraw from landmark European treaty on violence against women

The Polish government has been accused of further eroding women’s rights, introducing a bill which, in effect, could see the country withdraw from the 2011 Istanbul Convention.

The convention – formally known as the Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence – is a legally binding Council of Europe treaty which creates a “comprehensive legal framework and approach to combat violence against women”. It requires governments to adopt legislation including greater investment in education, offering support to victims, and collecting data on gender-related crimes.

Sent to parliamentary committees for examination last week, women’s rights activists and opposition MPs have said that the bill and efforts to withdraw from the convention are “dangerous”; accusing the government of “abandoning victims of domestic violence”.

Hillary Margolis, a senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that:

“Parliament can and should still reject the dangerous bill, ensure protection from violence for all women and girl”

The bill, officially named “Yes to Family, No to Gender”, seeks to replace the convention with an alternative treaty that bans abortion and homosexual marriage. According to the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, the new treaty offers support to “the protection of the life of a conceived child” and stipulates that “the concept of marriage remains reserved exclusively for the relationship of a woman and a man.”

Proponents of the bill have argued that the Istanbul Convention is “harmful” to traditional family values and that a replacement treaty would “secure the rights of families”.

The vote to send the bill for parliamentary examination came only days after Turkey withdrew from the Istanbul Convention by presidential decree – a move that was also met with castigation by women’s rights activists, lawyers and opposition politicians.

Barbara Nowacka, opposition MP and leader of the Polish Initiative party, decried moves to abandon the convention, stating that:

“Withdrawal from the Istanbul convention would signal to the international community that Poland is moving away from the west, from democracy and human rights, and is instead going in the direction of Turkey and dictatorship”

The Polish government’s prospective withdrawal from the convention is the latest example of their extensive campaign against women’s rights. Legitimised by hateful rhetoric about so-called “gender ideology”, attacks on the rights of women, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people have steadily grown in frequency.

Since coming to power in 2015, the right-wing populist Law and Order party has repeatedly targeted women’s rights groups. This has materialised in raids and denial of funding, public smearing of women’s rights organisations, reinforcement of traditional gender roles and discouraging efforts to combat violence against women. Wanda Nowicka, an opposition MP from the leftwing Spring party, said that:

“Poland’s conservative and authoritarian government opposes female emancipation and seeks to preserve a certain status quo”

In January 2021, the highly partisan Polish Constitutional court imposed a near-total prohibition on abortion. Following the authorisation of the ban, women’s rights groups condemned the decision as a “rollback on pregnant people’s sexual and reproductive rights”. Esther Major, a senior research advisor at Amnesty International, said that the ruling was:

“the latest in a coordinated and systematic wave of attacks on women’s human rights by Polish lawmakers”

In line with their international obligations, the Polish government must not follow Turkey and withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, ensuring that the safety of women and girls is prioritised.

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