Eastern Europe's blitzkrieg on gender equality

Throughout Central and Eastern Europe a new cultural era is emerging that condemns liberal values as an attack on tradition, faith, national pride, and family. Welcome to 2018 in Romania, Hungary and Poland. Is your country next?

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Sian Norris NewsMavens, Europe
 Eastern Europe's blitzkrieg on gender equality  - NewsMavens
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The oleander flowers that bloom across Romania’s gardens attract admiring glances from passers-by and visiting tourists. Pink, white, purple and red, it’s hard to believe these objects of beauty could contain a dark secret.

But under the Ceausescu dictatorship, where both contraception and abortion were banned, women and girls with a crisis pregnancy would drink brewed oleander leaves to force a miscarriage.

“I remember when I was about five or six, a woman in my town died as a result of drinking the leaves to induce an abortion,” journalist Ana-Maria Luca tells me over Skype.

Luca’s neighbour was one of the 10,000 women who died from complications following a clandestine abortion between 1966 and 1989. Abortion was finally legalised in 1990, and is now available on demand up to 14 weeks.

However, it is one thing for abortion to be legal. It is quite another for it to be accessible, and for women and girls to have easy access to sex and reproductive health education.

“Sex education is not present at all in Romania,” activist and founder of FRONT Irina Ilisei told me over Skype. “There was a campaign to introduce it, but it remains optional and very few schools teach it.” The Orthodox Church campaigned against its introduction and preached that sex education would corrupt children, encouraging parents to be against it.

The lack of sex and reproductive health education demonstrates the devastating impact religious and right wing policy can have on women’s and girls’ access to equality -- particularly in Romania’s rural areas.

A recent Save the Children report revealed that Romania has the highest rate of minor mothers in Europe. This statistic contributes to the country’s higher premature birth rates, higher rates of infant and maternal mortality, and an increased chance of young women dropping out of school. One in five mothers receives no pre-natal, birth, or post-natal care.

“Women and girls in rural areas often haven’t had medical care during pregnancy, and have had no education about contraception,” Luca tells me. “There is a lack of vision from the government to change this. And this is in part because women’s rights and women’s issues are completely neglected in Romania.”

Luca believes that this lack of care for women’s equality comes right from the top, namely, the Romanian Parliament. Recent incidents that revealed misogynistic attitudes at the heart of government include one MP telling a woman who challenged him that he had a video of her having anal sex, and a second MP telling a young female senator to “suck his d***”.

Religious influences on Romanian medics

With a lack of leadership from government on women’s rights, and a lack of civil society organizations providing health care and advice, groups with an anti-equality agenda have started to fill the vacuum of healthcare and education. In rural Romania, the most influential of these groups is the anti-choice, anti-contraception Orthodox Church.

The Church has always preached against access to sexual healthcare and education. Now it actively promotes its own form of “Christian Medicine” to doctors and medical students -- running retreats for doctors and students where they combine centuries-old religious teaching with their current stance on abortion, contraception, and LGBT issues.

Founding member of the anti-choice, anti-LGBT rights organisation Coalition for the Family, Dr Chirila, recently lectured at one such retreat. Among other subjects, he described homosexuality as a “trend” imported from the West.

This has a very worrying, real-world impact. Doctors can refuse to perform legal abortions as a matter of conscience in Romania -- as they can elsewhere in the world. The concern is if more doctors bring “Christian Medicine” into their clinics, it will make it harder for women to access abortions, particularly in conservative rural areas and during religious holidays.

“Doctors in hospitals can already refuse to give abortions,” Ilisei explained. “So it’s very hard for women in rural areas to find somewhere for an abortion to be done. This is worse during Orthodox fasting times.”

Chirila’s comments on homosexuality as a “Western trend”, the rise of Christian Medicine, and the influence of the Orthodox Church on women’s access to sex education and contraception, are part of a dangerous pattern of illiberalism that is spreading across Eastern and Central Europe. Throughout the region, there’s a new cultural era that rejects progressive and liberal values associated with EU membership, such as LGBT and women’s rights. Instead, such values are portrayed as an attack on tradition, national pride, and family.

No-where is this more apparent than in Hungary.

The impossible made possible in Hungary

“Things we thought would never happen are now happening,” Ivett Korosi says with a sigh on the phone. The worry in her voice is palpable. “I wouldn’t have guessed they would ban gender studies in universities. And it’s happening.”

A journalist based in Budapest, Korosi is referring to a recent government decree to ban gender studies in the Central European University and Eotvas Lorand University. Orban’s ruling party, Fidesz, gave the universities 24 hours to respond to a consultation on the ban, which they claim is for economic reasons.

But according to critics, including philosopher, critic, former dissident and former MP, Professor G.M. Tamas, “the banning of gender studies courses ought to be seen as part of a general attack of the semi-dictatorial Hungarian régime on civil rights and civil society in general.”

Tamas tells me that, following “massive propaganda campaigns against philosophy, contemporary literature, modern museums and so on for not being patriotic enough [...] now it's the turn of feminism and gender studies that are supposed to undermine masculinity, family and the nation.”

The targeting of gender studies courses follows an all-out assault on feminist, pro-migration and LGBTQ+ NGOs in Hungary, who have been portrayed as “foreign agents” that threaten Hungarian national sovereignty. Meanwhile, pro-government, conservative, family values charities have received government funding at the expense of more liberal NGOs working for women’s rights.

“What we are witnessing is the beginning of a new cultural era,” Korosi explains. “An era which is hostile towards feminists, and all women to some extent, members of the LGBT community, and minorities.”

The main pillar of this new cultural era is a belief in traditional family values, most of which are focused on framing women, Korosi argues, as “mere birthing machines.”

This has been reflected in the language coming from the highest level of government.

In a speech to the Fidesz Congress, the Speaker of the National Assembly of Hungary Laszlo Kover said "we don’t want to make Hungary a futureless society full of man-hating women and feminine men terrified of women, who see in children and in families only obstacles to self-fulfillment. We would like it if [...] our daughters would consider it the culmination of self-fulfillment to bear grandchildren for us."

Rhetoric that demands women view their life purpose as having children is being reflected in policy-making. In a deal designed to increase Hungary’s birth rate, Orban proposed “an agreement with Hungarian women” which could include tax breaks for parents who have two or more children, or increase the sum of money mothers receive from the state after birth.

While there is nothing wrong with child benefits, Orban’s deal leaves out men. The “deal” reinforces the belief that childbearing and childrearing are women’s concerns, and reward traditional family structures where women have as many children as possible.

Women’s rights and migration in Hungary

The tide against gender equality and liberalism has strong links to the migration crisis.

“The main narrative is the rejection of illegal migration and the need to defend the country,” Korosi explained. “But it’s all inter-linked. They say that if you are a true Hungarian you want to defend your country. If you are proud to be Hungarian, then you must be attracted to this nostalgic and traditional idea. If you are, then you support family. And if you support family then you cannot be a champion of women’s rights and gender equality.”

The growing focus on tackling the decreasing birth rate and emphasising the traditional family has not led to a restriction on women’s right to abortion. However, the newly-appointed Minister for Human Capacities, Miklos Kasler, wrote in 2017 that the terminations which followed legalized abortion caused "One of the worst demographic disasters in the Hungarian nation. If it had not been so, there would be over 20 million ethnic Hungarians in total.”

It’s a worrying precedent, and Korosi says she “wouldn’t be surprised if we start to hear more about the ‘downsides’ of abortion in the future”.

“I wouldn’t have guessed they would ban gender studies and now that is happening,” she tells me. “I don’t want to make guesses but I can honestly now think that other, even more concerning things could happen.”

To see how a rise in illiberalism and an emphasis on tradition can lead to attacks on abortion rights, you only have to look north of Hungary, to Poland.

Women on strike

From her desk in Wroclaw in 2016, Marta Lempart and a group of women set up a Facebook event. The event was a nationwide women’s strike, in response to Poland’s ruling Law And Justice party’s proposal to ban abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.

The current law criminalises abortion unless the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, or if the mother’s life is threatened. There are on average 100,000 clandestine abortions in the country each year.

“We were not involved in the feminist movement before,” Lempart told me over Skype. “We were just normal people. But when they proposed to tighten the abortion laws, many women had to start to imagine what could possibly happen. They had to remember all the most horrible stories they’ve heard or they’ve been through. And they saw that this was going to happen on a regular basis, if a new law was implemented.”

Tens of thousands of women came out onto the streets in protest at the proposed ban. But the threat to women’s reproductive rights in the country hasn’t gone away.  

Last year, the government banned the sale of emergency contraception in Poland, making it only available via prescription. Restricting the morning after pill’s availability is most likely to impact vulnerable women such as rape survivors, and women living in rural areas. Lempart believes that “if you live in a smaller community there’s no chance you’ll get it on time. It’s not banned, but you cannot get it.”

As with Romania and the impact of the Orthodox Church on women’s access to reproductive rights, the threats to Polish women’s freedoms are explicitly tied to the influence of the Catholic Church in the country. Although the Church provided a refuge during the repressive communist era, Lempart is unforgiving in her evaluation of their attitudes towards women.

“They hate women first,” she tells me. “We are the first target. Then you have homosexuals, and then you have people like immigrants. But women they hate the most.”

“The Catholic Church is incredibly influential in Poland,” Polish journalist Ada Petriczko explains to me over the phone. ‘For example, one of the most powerful people in the media -- Father Tadeusz Rydzyk -- runs a private TV and radio station, from which he influences public opinion. Many politicians have a respect for him that borders on fear.”

At the same time, the ruling Law And Justice party took over state television following the 2015 election. TV is increasingly used as a propaganda tool from both the religious and political right; promoting a populist agenda that has women’s and wider human rights in its sights.

A political pawn

Abortion is a hot topic in Poland, and the threats to women’s reproductive rights are frightening and real. However, the government also stands accused of using abortion as a smokescreen to distract attention from the wider rise in illiberalism in Poland -- creating a situation where women’s bodies are treated as pawns in an ugly political game.

“On the one hand the government is trying to impose themselves on women and women’s rights,” Petriczko explains to me. “But on the other, they are using attacks on abortion to appease to the church, appease to their right wing voters, and to distract attention when something else is happening politically or economically.”

For example, when the Polish government hastily backed out of its controversial Holocaust bill, which effectively criminalised people for speaking out against the state, they attempted to cover up the diplomatic debacle by resuming discussions on the abortion ban. Writing for News Mavens at the time, Petriczko stated “the cynical way in which the government uses women’s rights as a smoke screen shows just how much they disrespect us.”

Attack on justice

The Law and Justice party’s attacks on democracy also have implications for women’s access to justice. The new Supreme Court Bill changes the way judges are appointed, and has been accused of infringing judicial independence. The changes give the ruling Law and Justice Party greater say over the courts and more control over judges.

“I can no longer say with full certainty that we are a democracy,” Petriczko states.

The changes to the court system could have a direct impact on women’s access to justice, especially in cases of reproductive rights. Petriczko worries that, should a case go to the court where a woman has died as a result of being denied an  abortion, the government-backed judiciary would find against the woman’s family. Similarly, high rates of domestic abuse combined with an emphasis on traditional family structures could make it harder for women to secure justice following intimate partner violence.

Two sides of Polish tradition

As has been seen in Hungary and Romania, the push against women’s rights is tied to an emphasis on traditional family values. “It goes back,” says Petriczko, “to the idea that at the cornerstone of Polish civilisation is the Catholic Church and the family.”

But Poland has another tradition -- one of rebellion, revolution and resistance.

“Poles are very freedom-loving people,” Petriczko laughs. “We have a long tradition of uprisings. We are very good at protest.”

From the thousands of women who went on strike in 2016 and 2018, to the continued push back against government attacks on democracy, recent changes have galvanised Poles to protest for freedom and human rights.

“Before 2016, I knew abortion was hard to access and that women had illegal abortions,” Marta Lempart tells me. “We all knew this but we didn’t necessarily find it weird. The government’s actions pushed people to take notice of why this situation is wrong, and take action.”

Lempart also believes that the government's treatment of reproductive rights has encouraged more women to stand for office in the forthcoming local election -- her included. Lempart is now running to be mayor in her city.

“It’s like in the USA,” she states, referring to the rise of women running for Congress since Trump’s victory. “It’s always been hard to encourage women to run for office. But if the situation is so bad, we are forced to do that.”

What next for Poland -- and the rest of Europe?

Poland, Romania and Hungary are all witnessing a rising tide of right-wing, populist illiberalism that places an emphasis on traditional family values and attacks women’s rights. From making it harder for women to access contraception, sex education and reproductive healthcare, to banning gender studies and framing gender “ideology” as “a worse threat than Nazism and communism combined”, women’s bodies are on the frontline in the battle between liberal values and right wing populism.

“We have a neo-Nazi and neo-Fascist problem on the rise in Poland,” Lempart tells me. “And the neo-Nazis have this masculine, anti-woman, woman-as-objects, thing.”

But the rising tide of illiberalism is not confined to these three nations. Nor should the rest of Europe rest on its laurels when it comes to the resurgence of the far right and its attacks on women. The neo-Fascist movement is also growing in popularity in the UK, Austria, Germany, Italy and elsewhere.

“It’s quite possible that what has happened in Poland with the rise of the populist and far right will happen in the rest of Europe,’ Lempart warns. “We have European parliamentary elections next year. The same thing can happen to the European parliament. The same thing can happen to Europe as a whole. With this destruction of institutions, with this rise of a total attack on human rights and women’s rights.”

Lempart takes a deep sigh. “People look at me when I say this and think they are protected from it. But no country is.”

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