March 8 in Poland: Still Marching Together for Freedom and Equality

The 8th of March, Women’s Day, in Poland is a event that used to be just another opportunity for men to buy their girlfriends, wives and mothers flowers and chocolates. For some time, however, it’s been known as the biggest festival of women’s rights. That is the day women come out on the streets of Polish cities.

For 10 years now, the International Women’s Day has been an opportunity for women to voice their opinions and persuade people that women share common interests and promote the idea that they should be more active and independent: do business, get into politics, demand equality within the family and in the workplace. For 10 years, the Polish organization called Porozumienie Kobiet 8 Marca (March 8 Women’s Alliance), supported by many women’s groups, has been organizing the biggest demonstration of women’s rights supporters, widely known as Manifa (march of protesters). It has become a grassroots democratic movement. The Manifas are being organized in many Polish cities, by local committees, comprised of NGOs, university gender studies programs, scientific associations, and informal groups or individuals.

When organized for the first time, Manifa gathered only 200 participants, but last year there were almost 4,000 people. That also demonstrates the great need for having initiatives like that and for creating a spectacular event highlighting the role of women and the concerns and problems women face in our country. But in the beginning, media perceived these demonstrations as gatherings of “strange women feminists, showing their dislike of men.” Today though, they already know that instead of, or rather, in addition to, flowers, women deserve to change of discrimination and stereotyped beliefs they suffer from. As one of the protesters in 2008 said, “Women are everywhere, they are 50% of the society. Yet their voice is not being heard. Women issues and problems women have are ignored and marginalised. We are fed up with this. Therefore it’s high time we did something about it.”

Each year Polish women taking part in Manifas are voicing different priorities within the area of women’s rights, which for them seem to be the most important and need to be addressed immediately. Among the demands, they make are: easy access to contraception; abolishing the gender role stereotypes that people are socialized into; right to decide about oneself and one’s body; no more treating women as sexual objects; proper sex education in schools; and treating equally women who are elderly, poor, homosexual, of different ethnicity, of low social standing or handicapped.

This year’s Manifa, to be held on Sunday, March 8, 2009, is advertised by many women’s organizations using the following words: “Come and Join Us Because … Poland is Ill.” It is therefore aiming to highlight the problems connected with health, including a new law addressing in-vitro fertilization, which is currently being drafted by a bioethics committee. The project is expected to regulate in vitro procedures including protecting the rights of an embryo, forbidding the sale of sperm and eggs, as well as banning the selection of eggs for fertilization. But, women’s groups claim, the draft law is very much influenced by the Catholic ideology – the law will prevent single persons and also homosexual couples for accessing IVF. Also, the law will change the existing provisions which oblige a doctor to inform its patient who wants to undergo abortion about another doctor or clinic where such a procedure may be performed if he or she refuses to perform one. After adoption of a new law, a woman will not have a right to be provided with such information. The law may also criminalize the use of certain types of contraceptives, like coil, or morning-after pills, like Postinor.

The demonstrators will also underline controversial ideas of the Ministry of Health regarding registering pregnancies in Poland (see: Pregnant in Poland? Government Considers Tracking You for Illegal Abortion, and not allowing for voluntary anesthetization during delivery (see: Poland Says No to Pain-Free Childbirth, all of which raised serious concerns among women as to whether they are willing to become mothers, if basic health guarantees are not ensured or seem to be at stake.

It is clear that health is a fundamental prerequisite for a good life, for the ability to support oneself, and for the enjoyment of other human rights. Of course, the health of women matters, most of all, to women themselves. But it also matters to their families, communities and societies. Therefore, it should not be considered in isolation. In order to improve the health of women, other determinants of women’s health status need to be analyzed. That includes, among others, inequality in employment between women and men, where equal pay is still practically inexistent – women are still paid 25% less than men while holding the same positions. And unemployment, where 60% of all unemployed are women. Both of which influence their ability to support themselves and their families, also in relation to healthcare.

Manifas are designed to be cheerful events with lots of open-minded people, colorful clothes, but with a serious message. By organizing manifas in many various cities in Poland as part of the International Women’s Day celebrations, this serious message could be heard more easily by a wider audience.

Anna Wilkowska-Landowska’s blog


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