Header image for news printout

UN Human Rights Council Independent expert group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice

​Polish

Warsaw (13 December 2018) – During their 10-day mission to Poland, the expert group’s delegation, comprised of Ivana Radačić and Melissa Upreti, held meetings in Warsaw, Lodz, Gdansk, and Krakow. These are their preliminary findings.

We would like to extend our sincere appreciation to the Government of Poland for inviting us to undertake this official visit and for its excellent cooperation during the visit. This invitation demonstrates its openness for cooperation with the international human rights mechanisms. We would also like to thank sincerely all our interlocutors, the public officials, representatives of civil society, school teachers and pupils, prison staff, individuals, and UN officials for all the fruitful discussions. We are particularly grateful to all the strong, vocal and engaged women who shared their stories with us.

Context

The visit took place at a time of celebration of Poland’s 100 years of independence and women’s right to vote. The important role which women have played in the country’s history is being highlighted nationwide. At the same time, women’s place in society has been at the centre of increasingly polarised discussions; as noted by our interlocutors Poland is at ‘the critical moment of deciding about the women’s role in society’. As we have repeatedly heard, the rise of conservatism and the political influence of the Church has put into question some of the gains women have fought for, particularly in the area of sexual and reproductive rights.

At the same time, backlash on women’s human rights has generated renewed energy in women’s movement across the country, with increasing activism among young women and at the grassroots level. Women’s rights organizations have become more determined, united and visible through their continuous protests against the attempts to roll back their rights.

Legal, policy and institutional frameworks
Poland has a good record of ratification of international human rights treaties, having ratified seven of the nine core treaties. It has also ratified the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention). However, it has not ratified the International Convention for the Protection of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, which provides a comprehensive legal framework on migrants’ rights, which is an increasingly relevant issue in Poland. It has not ratified the ILO Domestic Workers Convention either (No. 189).

Since its accession to the European Union (EU) in 2004, the country has undertaken the required actions for bringing its legal, policy and institutional framework in line with the EU acquis. In 2010 Poland adopted the Act on the Implementation of Certain EU Regulations in the field of equal treatment (Act on Equal Treatment). The Act prohibits discrimination on the ground of sex among 10 other grounds. However, it is limited to the area of employment and access to goods and services, while it does not cover health and education. Polish Labour Law also defines different forms of gender-based discrimination.

At present Poland does not have a national strategy and plan for gender equality and women’s empowerment. The evaluation of the former National Action Plan for Equal Treatment (2013-2016) has still not been published. We call on the Government to introduce a new plan in a timely manner and ensure appropriate budget allocations for it.

Poland does not have a dedicated institution focusing on women empowerment and gender equality. Rather, the Government Plenipotentiary for Civil Society and Equal Treatment is responsible for promoting and enhancing equal treatment, including on the basis of sex. The institution has undergone various structural changes and currently equality issues are delegated to a small unit with a small budget. The Government Plenipotentiary informed us that gender equality is only a narrow aspect of its work and it does not cover issues related to reproductive rights.

Plenipotentiaries for equal treatment in voivodeship (regions) and coordinators for gender equality in ministries have been officially in place, but interlocutors informed us that they are not very active. It is essential that all the anti-discrimination entities are led by people with the necessary professional competence and relevant experience on anti-discrimination and allocated sufficient resources.

The Commissioner for Human Rights, as a long standing independent human rights institution, is the designated equal treatment body pursuant to the 2010 Act. The Commissioner has been very active in promoting and protecting women’s rights, and the office has gained international recognition. However, the institution is confronted with serious challenges of inadequate resources as well as insufficient cooperation with some relevant Governmental bodies. Moreover, it is facing increasing attacks, including by some politicians and media, over which we express serious concern. We call on the Government to cooperate with the Commissioner and ensure an enabling environment for its work, including allocation of sufficient resources.

During the visit, we met with representatives from local authorities to learn about relevant policies at the local level. Particularly worth mentioning is the model for equal treatment in Gdansk, developed through a broad consultation process. We are concerned that the model has been challenged by the regional governor. We consider it a good practice and hope this will be replicated by other municipalities. Local governments are also stepping up their support in funding women’s organizations and covering areas such as sexuality education and reproductive health.

We strongly believe that there is a need for the Government to take immediate steps to ensure that gender equality is comprehensively addressed in all its legislative, policy and institutional frameworks. The limited understanding of equality as equal treatment and the lack of explicit focus on addressing women’s disadvantage in society undermines the potential for developing targeted gender equality measures on both structural and identity levels that tackle gender-based violence and gender stereotypes, women’s participation, advancement and empowerment in public political and economic life and securing equality in the family. Furthermore, particular attention to women who experience multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination is of paramount importance.

Political and public life

We are pleased to note some improvements in the political representation of women, as a result of the adoption of the Electoral Code in 2011, which requires that at least 35% of candidates of either sex are represented in political party lists in proportional elections at European, national and local levels. The local elections of last October have seen progress in women’s participation and representation, from 24% in 2010 to 30% in 2018. However, progress in the Parliament has been much more limited. While there was a significant increase in women candidates (42% in 2011 and 2015 from 23% in 2007), it has only lead to a 4% increase in membership in the Sejm (lower chamber of the Parliament) in each of the two elections because, in 2011 and 2015, women were placed further down in the list. The Act does not apply to elections for the Senate. Currently only 14% of senators are women which is significantly below the world average of 24.1% and the regional average of 27.2%.1

Women in Poland are generally well represented in the public administration and institutions. However, their representation systematically drops when it comes to the most senior positions. Currently there are six women cabinet members out of 23. In the Foreign Service, the number of women in senior positions has gradually increased, though it is still much lower in comparison to men (e.g. only 29.3% of heads of missions are women).

In the judiciary, women are well represented at all levels including as presidents of the courts. However, at the most senior level, their representation drops significantly. The current Constitutional Tribunal has three women out 15 judges.

During our visit, it has been widely acknowledged that women face social and cultural barriers preventing them from occupying most senior level positions. We welcome the initiatives taken by NGOs aimed at encouraging women to be interested and equipped as candidates. The Government needs to introduce further legal and policy measures to ensure the full and effective participation of women, including the measure to support women candidates. Moreover, the effect of recent legislative and policy initiative in the areas of the judiciary, civil service, and media need to be monitored for how they may affect women’s political and public participation.

Women human rights defenders

In Poland women have been at the forefront of the country’s social and political developments throughout history. Women’s rights organizations have been a key part of the vibrant civil society in Poland and have an essential role to play in the country’s effort in eliminating discrimination against women and ensuring the empowerment of women. We are therefore concerned that their capacity to operate is being undermined, with cuts in state funding and the increasingly intimidating atmosphere. The simultaneous search of premises and seizure of computer hard drives containing sensitive information of four women’s rights organizations by the police in October 2017, a day after the ‘Black protests’ in which the leaders of organisations actively participated, has left a lingering effect of fear and uncertainty.

Several well-established NGOs, with a proven record in providing services for women victims/survivors of domestic violence and trainings on gender equality in schools experienced funding cuts since 2016. Some of them received explanation that providing support only to women violated gender equality principle, as it discriminated against men. This demonstrates a profound lack of understanding of the concept of substantive gender equality and the state’s obligations with respect to protecting women against gender-based violence.

We have learnt that in recent years there has been a trend of excluding women’s rights groups from funding, while preference seems to be given to organisations affiliated with the Church. As women’s rights organisations have a strong and long record on working on gender-based violence, their exclusion from funding might undermine the whole system of protection. 

We are particularly pleased to learn that local councils in several cities are stepping up their effort in filling some of the gap caused by the lack of state funding and solidarity among women’s organizations in working together and supporting each other. The existence of an informal fund by a feminist group also plays an important role in filling the gap, while its informal flexible working methods make it accessible to grassroots women in small towns and rural areas.

We call on the Government to cooperate with women’s rights organisations and experts, as they have valuable knowledge and experiences which should not be dismissed. Not only should they receive the appropriate funding, their voices must be heard in the formulation of the government policies and strategies. International and regional support needs to also prioritise women’s rights organizations in today’s context of the shrinking space.

Participation of women in social and economic life

The Labour Code provides for protection against discrimination on the grounds of (inter alia) gender. Employees who have been discriminated against have the right to sue for compensation in the areas of: establishing and terminating employment relationships, employment conditions, promotion at work and access to training for the purpose of raising professional qualifications. Employees who have been discriminated against in the aforementioned areas have the right to sue for compensation for material as well as non-material damage.

Women have a strong participation in the labour force in Poland. Throughout history they have contributed significantly to the nation’s economy while standing up for the rights of all workers to decent conditions of work. Stories of the women workers of the Gdansk Shipyard (5,000) are a humbling example.

Still, women represent over half of those not gainfully employed (61.5%) and there are twice as many women (10.8%) in part time jobs than men (4.7%); among those not working full time the majority who want to work full time are women. Labour participation of women with young children and older women drops significantly, and the participation of women with disabilities in the market is very low, as we have learnt during our visit. These are important concerns because of the implications for women’s financial independence in the short- and long-term and retirement benefits, where we see additional disparities. For example, we learned that the majority of women collect a much lower level of retirement benefits than men and among those collecting the highest level of benefits, 5% are men and only 0.6% are women.

We are also concerned that many women are concentrated in the low paying sectors, where the wage gap is high and working conditions are less favourable. Moreover, we are concerned about the conditions of workers in the informal economy, such as domestic workers, many of whom are migrant women (Ukrainian, as we have learnt). This appears to be an under-studied phenomenon and requires further attention by the Government.

Moreover, while not as significant as in other European countries, there is still a gender pay gap, particularly in the private sector, and it is wider for both lower and higher paying positions. We acknowledge the Government’s recent efforts to address the problem by introducing a new software to enable private businesses to assess whether there is a wage gap in their company. We consider this a good practice.

We were also pleased to learn that the Government has introduced temporary special measures to achieve equal participation of women in the supervisory boards of state-owned companies. The 30% quota has already been met and 35% is set for 2020. We encourage the adoption of measures which would include publicly listed companies. This places Poland in a leading position in this field, as one of the few countries which have adopted effective temporary special measures specifically directed at accelerating de facto equality for women in corporate leadership, entrepreneurship and trade and shows their effectiveness. We hope that other measures will be taken to address vertical segregation in all economic sectors.

We welcome the adoption by Poland of various measures for social protection. However, concerns have been expressed about the possible negative effects some of them can have on participation of women in the labour force and their long-term economic independence, such as the 500+ cash transfer program. While many viewed it as a positive measure, concerns were expressed that it could pull women out of the labour market. Indeed, while recognising the positive impact this measure has on the economic situation of women, particularly for those in precarious situations, we call on the Government to monitor the possible negative impacts of these measures. The implementation of the measures should not create a shift towards confining women solely to the role of mothers and carers in service of the family at the expense of their participation in the formal economy, as well as in other spheres of public life. 

Poland has generous legal provisions for maternal, paternal and parental leave which allow the possibility of sharing some of the entitlements between the couples. However, further measures are needed to encourage more fathers to make use of such provisions.

We welcome the efforts of the Government in increasing the availability of child care facilities, especially for children below the age of three, including the adoption of the 2011 Act on Care for Children up to the Age of Three, which has raised the number of facilities from 500 to 5,000, according to information received during the visit. We were also pleased to learn of the increase in funding for the Baby Care Plus programme which gives financial support to municipalities and individuals to set up child care facilities. We encourage the Government to continue with its efforts.

Education

As stated above, we are pleased to note the high level of educational attainment for girls at all levels, particularly at the university-level education, where women constitute the majority of those studying or who have graduated. However, as noted in the previous section, this does not fully match women’s participation in the economic and public spheres and their career advancement. Even in the institutions of higher education, women constitute the minority of academic employees (44%).

Reasons for women’s under-representation in public and economic life, despite their high level of educational attainment, lie in the wider context of gender inequality fuelled by gender stereotypes, which are problems that persist in countries around the world. States therefore have the obligation to ensure the provision of human rights education at all levels of education, which address specifically gender equality issues, including violence against girls/women.

Many of our interlocutors felt that Poland is currently failing in this regard and that anti-discrimination and anti-violence education is lacking. Some municipalities have therefore been undertaking their own efforts to secure that such programmes are developed in schools. We were very pleased to learn that Gdansk Equality Council, which has school teachers among its members, has been developing human rights education programmes, among many other praise-worthy activities. However, they have been facing resistance from ultra-conservative groups. Generally, it seems that it has become much more difficult to implement activities concerning human rights and anti-discrimination in schools, and that civil society organisations’ access to schools has become limited. For example, many of our interlocutors talked about the cancellation of the Rainbow Friday event, an important initiative undertaken by different schools to address homophobia, after the pressure they were facing from ultra-conservative groups, often supported by authorities. We express concern about these trends and call on the Government to ensure comprehensive human rights education.

We were also informed of the problems with sexuality education, which is indispensable for securing women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive rights, and therefore full gender equality. First of all, it seems to be treated as optional. Second, according to what we  heard (and judging from the title of the programme – Education for Family Life), the focus is on preparation for (heterosexual) marriage and women’s (and men’s) traditional roles in the family, while important dimensions of health and individual well-being seem not to be addressed. Indeed, concerns have been raised that the textbooks for this subject contain information that does not reflect the current state of knowledge and fails to respect the principle of gender equality. We therefore call on the Government to ensure comprehensive scientifically-based sexuality education, as well as remove any stereotypical content and inaccurate, incorrect and misleading information from curricula and textbooks.

As already stated, sexuality education, together with human rights education, is indispensable for addressing the problem of gender-based violence, including harassment and sexual harassment. While we received no data regarding the extent of the problem in primary and secondary education, a study from the Human Rights Commissioner indicate that many female university students have experienced some form of harassment or sexual harassment during their studies, often from the university employees.

Moreover, we are concerned about the threats to freedom of expression in educational institutions (and more broadly), including academic freedom, a trend we observe in many countries. We have received information that teachers who participated in the Black protests were disciplined. Moreover, we have heard that funding for gender studies research, for which Poland has been known in the region, is becoming more restrictive. We urge the Government to ensure respect for freedom of expression in all educational institutions.

Health

The Constitution provides for universal health-care for its citizens, while the 2014 Act Concerning the Public Funding of Health Care extends the coverage to those granted refugee status or subsidiary protection in Poland. However, we have heard that in certain places rural women face obstacles to access health services, such as gynaecologists, for example due to distance. Additionally, we have also heard that other vulnerable populations such as women with disabilities, LBTI persons and sex workers have limited access. Further, as noted above, the Act on Equal Treatment does not guarantee legal protection against discrimination in the area of health, which is an important gap.

Sexual and reproductive health and rights

Sexual and reproductive rights include the right to decide whether or not to have children, determine the number, timing and spacing of children, as well as the right to have information and the means to do so, and to enjoy sexual and reproductive well-being. All these aspects are currently challenged in Poland. The discourse on women’s sexual and reproductive rights is taking place in the current context of rising fundamentalisms and backlashes against women’s rights. The issue has been under intense spotlight since the last two years when a legislative initiative seeking to introduce a total ban on abortion and a second one limiting access to abortion were tabled in 2016 and 2018 respectively, sparking large scale national protests. 

The main legal framework for reproductive health services is the 1993 Family Planning Act, which contains many provisions restricting women’s access to reproductive health services based on legal recognition of a right to life in the prenatal phase. As confirmed by many interlocutors, the Government’s approach to women’s reproductive health gives precedence to foetal life over a woman’s life which translates into a disproportionate emphasis on childbirth and the attainment of motherhood, without regard for women’s rights, especially their right to autonomous decision making.

We are concerned that a full range of modern contraceptives and related information and services are not readily available to women and that voluntary female sterilisation is prohibited. On the other hand, we have heard that women with intellectual disabilities are sterilized without their free and informed consent. We have learnt that only a select number of contraceptives are subsidised. Further, emergency contraceptive pills, which were previously available over the counter, can now only be obtained with a prescription. Considering the circumstances in which emergency contraceptive pills are typically used, this requirement poses a significant barrier, and defeats the very purpose of its use which is to prevent an unplanned pregnancy. Moreover, we have heard that doctors are often unwilling to prescribe them and rely on the conscientious objection clause to do so and that some pharmacists refuse to provide them, even though this is illegal. This all constitutes a major barrier to access to contraceptives, which is further exacerbated for adolescents up to the age of 18 who are required to have parental consent.   

Poland has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. Access to legal abortion is permitted only in cases when the pregnancy threatens the health or life of the pregnant woman, when tests indicate the high probability of severe or irreversible impairment to the foetus or an incurable disease threatening its life, or when there is reasonable suspicion that the pregnancy resulted from a crime. Even in legally prescribed situations, abortion is often not available in practice, as we have repeatedly heard. First of all, there is a lack of appropriate regulatory framework on the exercise of contentious objection, which results in situations where entire medical institutions do not perform abortions.  Sometimes there are no abortion providers in an entire area and there have been attempts to create abortion free zones. Moreover, doctors are not obliged to provide referrals since a Constitutional Court ruling in October 2015. In addition, as we have heard, even pre-natal testing is sometimes denied, or information is withheld from women. Furthermore, as we have learnt during the visit, some hospitals have their own additional requirements, such as requesting additional opinions or instituting waiting periods.

Furthermore, the mechanism for resolving conflicts between the doctors and pregnant women in cases of therapeutic abortion is not fully effective. While the Government has established the Patients’ Ombudsperson as such mechanism, we express concern about the long time-limit (30 days) for decision making in such a time sensitive procedure.  Moreover, the fact that the Ombudsperson received only four complaints and all of them were rejected raises questions about the effectiveness of the mechanism. Indeed, analysis undertaken by the Human Rights Commissioner has found significant irregularities.

We have heard from interlocutors that the harmful narrative on abortion espoused by opponents of abortion and their public calls to prosecute those who help women, as well as intimidation campaigns, has created a very stigmatizing environment for doctors, many of whom as a result are hesitant to provide abortion services. We were informed that frequent instances of conscientious objection are not only based on personal religious convictions but abortion stigma and the fear of prosecution. Legal provisions that create criminal liability for those who assist a pregnant woman with an abortion is a serious impediment to the provision of post abortion care and should be amended.

Many women in Poland opt for ‘underground’ abortion or travel abroad for abortion services without the opportunity for follow up medical care should a complication arise. In both circumstances, women have to bear the high cost of procuring the procedure while being fearful of the legal consequences. The absence of a post-abortion care policy guaranteeing compassionate and non-judgmental medical treatment to women for complications from unsafe abortion is a critical gap that must be filled. Women’s human rights must be placed at the centre of policy considerations regarding termination of their pregnancy. The right of a woman or girl to make autonomous decisions about her pregnancy is at the very core of her fundamental right to equality and privacy, involving intimate matters of physical and psychological integrity, and is a precondition for the enjoyment of other rights.

Women’s autonomy needs also to be at the centre of policies regarding birth and peri-natal care. We commend the Polish government, particularly the previous administration, for their effort to improve the quality of care and women’s experience during childbirth by standardising medical procedures with the introduction of the Act of Polish Minister of Public Health on Medical Standards for Complication-free Pregnancy, Complication-free Childbirth, Postpartum and Postnatal Care, which is reportedly one of the most progressive in the EU.

However, we are concerned that this law has not been fully implemented as a result of which cases of negligence, mistreatment, and various types of abuse (obstetric violence), are frequently experienced by pregnant women in health facilities, as we have learnt during our visit. We have learnt that the Government will introduce a new law concerning prenatal care in January 2019, to address existing gaps in the quality of pre-and post-natal care and address disparities in access to services.

We express concern about the withdrawal of funding for in vitro fertilization and we commend the local authorities in Lodz and Gdansk for funding the procedures.

Family and culture

We note the richness of the Polish culture, as well the existence of different family forms and intimate relationships. However, we are concerned with the trend which we have observed at normalising only certain cultural and family norms and practices which fit in the traditional image of roles of women and men in society. As other international mechanisms have done, we express our regret that same sex partnerships are not legally recognised and that transgender persons face difficulties in having their assumed gender identity legally recognised. We are also concerned with the rise of homophobic speech and other forms of hate speech, as well as the increasing attacks on gender equality efforts, which are presented as ‘gender ideology’ and pit against family and culture, which have been led by certain conservative elements in Church, ultra-conservative civil society organizations and politicians. While the concept of a ‘traditional Polish family’ seems to be actively promoted through laws and policies, advocates for gender equality are increasingly being characterised as ‘anti-family’ and ‘anti-Polish’. The concept of ‘gender ideology’ is being used as a political tool to attack, intimidate, undermine and stigmatise women human rights defenders, as well as the whole academic field of gender studies.

There seems to be pressure for women to take on more traditional roles of mothers and caregivers, in a context where there is already an unequal division of care and household tasks in the family, which often result in women’s disadvantaged positions in other spheres of life, including economic and public and political. Indeed, the study by the Human Rights Commissioner points to the widely held stereotypes in Polish society concerning women’s and men’s professional and familial responsibilities: the respondents’ statements indicate that the deep rooted belief that it is women’s duty to be fully engaged in the care of children, while it would be ‘non-masculine’ for men to take a break from employment to assume parental duties.

The problem of gender stereotypes in the media was also noted. According to our interlocutors, women are under-represented in the media, particularly in political shows, while their representation mostly concerns advice about looks. Moreover, we have learnt of the radio programme which had inappropriate jokes about Ukrainian women, inappropriate touching of women contestants at Top Model TV show, as well as a TV commercial which included comments which could be read as promoting sexual violence. We were pleased to hear of the successful interventions in these cases by the National Broadcasting Council. However, we are concerned by their most recent negative decision regarding the allegation of homophobic content on TVP in Poznan.

Gender-based violence against women

Gender segregated statistics collected by the Ministry of Family, Labour and Social Policy on domestic violence demonstrate that women and children are mostly the victims of domestic violence in Poland (67% and 22% of all victims, respectively), while men predominate among the perpetrators (92% of all perpetrators). The study Breaking the Taboo shows that 87% of the women who participated in their study faced some form of sexual harassment, while 62% experienced sexual activity against their will.

We note that Poland has been taking measures to prevent and combat violence against women. As stated above, it ratified the Istanbul Convention. The political and public discourse on the ratification process (which lasted for three years) exposed some misunderstandings of the phenomenon, such as an opposition to the fact that women are regarded as the main victims of domestic violence, as well as the concept of ‘gender’ and its significance to the phenomenon of violence against women. While there were some attempts to initiate the process of Poland’s renunciation of the Convention, we were pleased to learn from the Ministry of Justice that no steps are being taken in this direction. We call on the Government to ensure effective implementation of the Istanbul Convention and we welcome the application of the Convention to the asylum procedure cases. We also call on the Government to ensure full implementation of the so-called Victim Directive (Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council 2012/29/EU dated 25 October 2012 establishing minimum standards in the matter of rights, support and protection of crime victims), taking into account the suggestions of the Commissioner for Human Rights.

Domestic violence

We commend Poland for adopting the Act on Preventing Domestic Violence in 2005, as well as the Programme to Combat Family Violence, 2014-2020. The Act provides for the legal, medical and psychological support of the survivor/victim, crisis intervention, provision of shelters and assistance in finding accommodation, as well as the possibility for the removal of the perpetrator from the common dwelling, The Act institutes the so-called Blue Card procedure in cases of suspected domestic violence, which provides for a multi-disciplinary approach and action by different relevant bodies.

While the interdisciplinary, comprehensive approach of the law is commended, we have learnt of some problems in the law and its implementation. First of all, it needs to be modified with respect to the scope of protected persons and types of violence, for it to be compliant with the Istanbul Convention, as the current definition of protected persons is too narrow, and economic violence is excluded. Moreover, the efficiency of the measure to order the perpetrator of domestic violence to vacate the family dwelling should be improved, as we have heard of delays in the civil proceedings. While we are pleased to know that these proceedings have now been considered urgent (upon the recommendation of the Human Rights Commissioner), we call on the Government to further ensure the efficiency of the proceedings. In addition, we call for the introduction of emergency barring orders as mandated by the Istanbul Convention.

Moreover, concerns were expressed by our interlocutors about the inadequate number of specialised support centres and shelters, as well as the lack of adequate support services, and the limited duration of the provision of accommodation in shelters. We call on the Government to secure adequate services to women victims/survivors of domestic violence, including access to shelter for the period needed, as well as preferential access to municipal housing assistance, taking into account specifically the needs of women in vulnerable situations, such as minority women, older women, women and girls with disabilities, young women, and migrant women.2 Data on women in vulnerable situations have been missing and efforts should be made toward its collection it should serve as the basis for adopting and implementing targeted policies.

In addition, we call on the Government to ensure funding for the women’s rights organisations working on domestic violence and utilise their knowledge. Respect for the principle of gender equality requires that specialised assistance is given to women victims/survivors of domestic violence by competent organisations.

Moreover, further efforts should be made to address the attitudes of State officials through trainings and other appropriate measures. While we have heard of the positive changes in attitudes of law enforcement and judicial actors, as in other countries domestic violence is still often considered as a private issue, which leads to lack of intervention or a ‘mild’ reaction. Indeed, we have heard that around 86% of domestic violence cases end with a suspended sentence. Moreover, the limited number of successful prosecutions is often explained by referring to the problem of withdrawal of complaints by the victims/survivors. Measures should be taken to ensure victims’ trust in the system, enhance their security and economic independence, as well as sensitise personnel about the reasons why women might withdraw their complaints. Furthermore, investigative efforts must be focused on all relevant evidence.

Sexual violence

We noted that the Government has taken measures to improve legislation in the area of sexual violence, including by amending the Code of Criminal Proceedings to introduce prosecution ex officio of sexual offences and provide for special hearing procedures for victims of sexual violence, aimed at minimising their re-victimisation. However, the rules do not specify the time-limit, and according to what we have heard, sometimes take as long as three months. The delays have a negative impact both on the rights of victims/survivors and effectiveness of the investigation. We are pleased to hear that this has been recognised by the Minister of Justice, in reply to the Commissioner’s recommendations, and that work had been initiated on changing criminal procedures, to secure timely examinations. Additional measures should be taken to further improve the rights of minor victims/survivors.

Concerns have also been expressed about the definition of rape, which is defined by specific types of coercion, rather than consent, and can result in some cases being dismissed. Indeed, there seems to be a problem of a high percentage of dismissal of rape cases by prosecutors. Taking into account the well-documented worldwide problem of gender-stereotyping in rape proceedings, efforts should be made to ensure that all instances of non-consensual sex are prosecuted as rape and that rape is treated as a serious offence. According to official data, two years imprisonment was the most frequently issued sentence in the period 2010-2014.  

Further, awareness raising and training activities need to be implemented to ensure women’s access to justice. Moreover, we observed the need for a greater understanding by justice officials of women’s barriers to access to justice, which exist at the legal, institutional, structural, socio-economic and cultural levels. These include discriminatory or insensitive legal provisions, existence of gender stereotypes in society and judiciary, women’s economic dependence and responsibility for children, and gender bias in the system which stems not only from discriminatory laws, but the failure to take into account the biases that exist at the socio-cultural level.

Conclusion

Poland was one of the first countries in Europe to grant women voting rights and has had a history of a very active and vibrant women’s movement. Moreover, in the context of the EU accession it has built a solid legal framework on anti-discrimination. In addition, Poland has instituted measures to secure greater participation of women in political, as well as social and economic life. Moreover, it has various measures of social protection, and has been undertaking efforts to improve child care services. In addition, Poland has been building a legislative framework to effectively address gender-based violence against women.

However, we have observed some serious challenges to women’s rights. Gender equality does not seem to be a priority for the Government at the moment, as there is no designated state authority on women’s rights issues, and no national strategies and plans on gender equality and women’s empowerment. Moreover, the understanding of equality seems to be limited to equal treatment in law, while addressing women’s structural disadvantage requires the adoption of specific measures, including temporary special measures. It also requires the State to effectively tackle gender-based violence against women. Therefore, excluding women’s rights organisations from state funding on the basis that the provision of services only to women victims/survivors of domestic violence violates the principle of equality is extremely problematic. Furthermore, gender equality cannot be fully achieved without respecting women’s reproductive rights. In Poland, however, access to reproductive health-care services has become even more restrictive as there are continuous attempts at making them even more so.

Furthermore, we are concerned with the increasing attacks on gender equality efforts, which are presented as ‘gender ideology’ by different conservative actors. While women’s traditional role in the family is being actively promoted through laws and policies, advocates for gender equality are increasingly being characterised as ‘anti-family’. The concept of ‘gender ideology’ is being used also to undermine and stigmatise women human rights defenders, whose space has been increasingly shrinking. However, we are incredibly encouraged to see that this has also resulted in increased activism of women at the grassroot level demanding their rights to equality.

Our conclusions and recommendations will be more fully developed in a report that will be presented to the Human Rights Council in June 2019.

END

The UN Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice was created by the Human Rights Council in 2011 to identify, promote and exchange views, in consultation with States and other actors, on good practices related to the elimination of laws that discriminate against women. The Group is also tasked with developing a dialogue with States and other actors on laws that have a discriminatory impact where women are concerned.

The Working Group is composed of five independent experts.Ivana Radačić (Croatia), Chairperson, Alda Facio (Costa Rica), Elizabeth Broderick (Australia), Meskerem Geset Techane (Ethiopia) and Melissa Upreti (Nepal). To learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Women/WGWomen/Pages/WGWomenIndex.aspx

___________

2/ In that respect we commend the Government for having a centre for migrant women.