For 27 years, Ewa Wnorowska has dedicated her life to helping students at a school for children with disabilities in Poland. On the day of the first Black Protest, as the movement in support of women’s rights in Poland became known, she took a photograph with eleven other colleagues, all wearing black, to show solidarity with the cause. Ewa told Human Rights Watch (HRW) that they had chosen to come in to work, even though other people were taking the day off to join the protests, because they had a duty to the children in their care.
Since that day, October 3, 2016, that one simple photograph which first appeared on Facebook, has been splashed over Polish newspapers, social media, and debated far and wide. Some of the women in it have been ostracized by colleagues, seen their careers suffer, and even become ill because of the strain they are under.
They are suffering the now all-too common consequences of standing up for women’s rights in Poland. Ewa, a therapist at the school in the small city of Zabrze, told HRW researcher Hillary Margolis that she and others in the photo were retaliated against to make people think twice before taking to the streets.
“The goal was a chilling effect to scare people not to go into the streets, to stay home,” she said. “We faced the possibility of public criticism or being fired or being dismissed from ever being able to teach again.”
The Black Protests in October 2016 were the first mass demonstrations in Poland where people took to the streets to campaign for equality and rally against the government’s efforts to enact a total abortion ban in the country. More than two years after the first Black Protests, the rights of women in Poland are still under attack.
In a new report, “`The Breath of the Government on My Back’ : Attacks on Women’s Rights in Poland”, HRW shows how, since coming to power in 2015, the ruling party in Poland – the Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość or PiS) – has targeted women’s rights groups through raids and defunding, often with little warning.
It isn’t just activists and nongovernmental groups that are under fire. Government employees who support women’s rights protests or collaborate with women’s rights groups have been dragged in front of disciplinary committees and had their jobs threatened.