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 strategising 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 organisations in the region, and from a coalition of non governmental organisations (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.
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.
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 neighbouring 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".