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  • Writer's pictureThe Gender Security Project

A setback for women’s rights

By Kirthi Jayakumar

In a major setback to women’s rights against violence, Poland has decided to withdraw from its engagement under The Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention, which it had ratified in 2015. Zbigniew Ziobro, the Polish Minister of Justice, said that the Istanbul Convention was “harmful” because it called for schools to educate children on gender, and that the reforms in Poland in the last few years has enabled “sufficient protection for women.” Starting Monday, August 3, 2020, the process of formal withdrawal from the treaty will begin.

The Istanbul Convention

The Istanbul Convention is a human rights treaty passed by the Council of Europe against violence against women and domestic violence. It opened for signatures in May 2011, in Istanbul, Turkey. The convention aims at preventing violence, providing victim protection, and ending the impunity of perpetrators. It is the first legally-binding instrument that both “creates a comprehensive legal framework and approach to combat violence against women,” and is specifically seeks to prevent gender-based violence, protect victims of violence and punish perpetrators.

Historically, the journey culminating in the fruition of the Convention comprises a series of initiatives that sought to protect women against violence, which began in the 1990s. Responding to the overarching call for attention to the magnitude of violence against women across Europe, as well as the variations in individual legal regimes, it was deemed necessary to identify a harmonised legal standard to ensure that all victims enjoy the benefits of the same level of protection all over Europe.

Article 3(a) of the convention specifically identifies violence against women as a violation of human rights and a form of discrimination. Article 3(c) defines gender as “the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men.” Article 5 calls for the exercise of due diligence while preventing violence, protecting victims and prosecuting perpetrators. In addition to these broad and overarching provisions, the convention also calls on states that ratify the convention to criminalize particular offences such as: psychological violence (Article 33); stalking (Article 34); physical violence (Article 35); sexual violence, including rape, explicitly covering all engagement in non-consensual acts of a sexual nature with a person (Article 36), forced marriage (Article 37); female genital mutilation (Article 38), forced abortion and forced sterilisation (Article 39). Under Article 40, the Convention calls for the criminal or legal sanction of sexual harassment. Article 42 addresses gender-based crimes committed in the name of so-called “honour.”

Poland’s decision

Poland’s decision to withdraw from the convention is evidently a major setback to the progress – to whatever extent – made in the women’s movement. Police statistics reveal that nearly 250,000 people in Poland are affected by domestic violence every year. Despite these high numbers, Poland’s proclivity toward treating the issue with a callous lens seems to have endured. In 2019, Poland drafted a bill to make the term “domestic violence” applicable only after spouses are beaten more than once – but had to rollback that plan when it faced heavy criticism.

The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) Party and its coalition pursue the goal of promoting traditional family values. Gender and sexuality rights took a beating in the process: especially seeing as how incumbent President Andrzej Duda was elected into office again. One of his campaign statements included a description of the “promotion of LGBT rights as an “ideology” more destructive than communism.” Deputy Justice Minister Marcin Romanowski describedthe convention as “gender gibberish” and called for Poland to withdraw from it as soon as possible. The move has received support, no less. For instance, a highly conservative association called Ordo Iuris campaigned in favor of the withdrawal, claiming that the Istanbul Convention solely aimed to impose controversial ideologies on gender.

Even as the withdrawal process is on schedule, Poland witnessed scores of protesters demonstrating across the nation – both against the government for its move as well as those who support it. Poland’s decision is a gross violation of human rights and presents a rather difficult challenge for the women in the future of the nation. Even during its days under the Istanbul Convention, as Amnesty International found, Poland failed to protect victims of domestic violence. Instead of working to remedy its poor compliance, Poland has decided to dispense with its commitment altogether.


1) Notes from Poland (Read)

2) Amnesty International (Read)

3) Deutsche Welle (Read)

4) Euronews (Read)


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