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defend the defenders

Poland

Story

Women human rights defenders fight for sexual and reproductive freedom in Poland

Human rights defenders in Poland have been working tirelessly for years to fight the dismantling of the rule of law and human rights. They continue to do so in the face of increasing oppression.
defend the defenders
story

| 17 February 2022

Women human rights defenders fight for sexual and reproductive freedom in Poland

Human rights defenders in Poland have been working tirelessly for years to fight the dismantling of the rule of law and human rights. They continue to do so in the face of increasing oppression, orchestrated and encouraged by the government – including intimidation, detention, and criminal charges. Many have been subjected to threats and attacks, both from state actors and far-right groups. The Polish Women’s Strike and other organisations have received bomb threats and now need to have security at their buildings. Activists are also being targeted with smear campaigns in state-owned media. The actions of the police have been insufficient to ensure their protection. These are their stories.

defend the defenders
story

| 17 February 2022

Women human rights defenders fight for sexual and reproductive freedom in Poland

Human rights defenders in Poland have been working tirelessly for years to fight the dismantling of the rule of law and human rights. They continue to do so in the face of increasing oppression, orchestrated and encouraged by the government – including intimidation, detention, and criminal charges. Many have been subjected to threats and attacks, both from state actors and far-right groups. The Polish Women’s Strike and other organisations have received bomb threats and now need to have security at their buildings. Activists are also being targeted with smear campaigns in state-owned media. The actions of the police have been insufficient to ensure their protection. These are their stories.

Iwona Ochocka Gdańsk Pamela Palma Zapata21.jpg
story

| 17 January 2022

Iwona: Teacher With A Mission

Women’s rights defenders in Poland have faced violence from law enforcement and far-right groups, as well as smear campaigns in state-controlled media and excessive criminal charges. This harassment has been orchestrated and encouraged by the government. This is Iwona's story. For Iwona, the last six months have been the toughest of her life – emotionally, physically and financially. Iwona has been actively involved in the Women’s Strike movement – the biggest women and social justice movement revolt since the 80s – in a small town with 60,279 inhabitants – ever since Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, dominated by right-wing judges and backed by Julia Przyłębska who presides over the illegitimate Constitutional Tribunal, banned abortion on the grounds of foetal abnormality on 22 October 2020. Since then, the teacher turned activist has organised six “Walk for Freedom and Women’s Rights” protests in her home city. The first of these was held on Sunday 25 October amassing around two thousand people. Three days later, after President Kaczynski's famous "address", where he urged Neo Nazis to defend the churches from “Bad feminist abortion b**ches from hell”, about 5,000 people came to "walk" with the activist, holding a banner: "Forgive the obstruction, Tczew has a government to overthrow".   Someone Had To Light The First Match As the headmistress of a non-public school, she was previously only known within the teaching community. Iwona had yet to catch on to the growing feminist movement in Poland kickstarted by the first All-Poland Women’s Strike (Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet, OSK) in 2016 against proposed legislation to tighten abortion laws. However, two years later she was protesting to defend courts free from political influence, the rights of teachers, and the rights of LGBTQI+ people. She travelled to Poland’s Tri-City area for Manifa, an annual demonstration organized around International Women’s Day on March 8 and across Poland for Gay Pride marches. There have never been such large-scale demonstrations in Tczew before, especially anti-government ones. Iwona admits that she herself was surprised by the turnout and the response to the slogan: “I took part in the protests anonymously, without party symbols. First in a rainbow mask, then one bearing a lightning bolt. I didn’t want to appear party-affiliated. The demands were more important than the emblems. My data was later leaked by a Tczew paper, the local propaganda mouthpiece of the PiS (Law and Justice) Party.” Tczew has a population of around 53,000. During one of the protests Iwona “brought” almost 10% of the community onto the streets, much to the annoyance of a prominent and unscrupulous Member of Parliament (MP) from PiS, who is also a dangerous Catholic fundamentalist, chauvinist and homophobe. The activist and her entire family were immediately affected by the street actions.   PiS Won’t Forgive And Forget Soon after the first protests, Iwona’s husband lost his job at a state-owned company. “His qualifications relate to big industry, which at the moment either has ties to the authorities or belongs to the authorities,” says Iwona. In response, on 15 November, over 300 people took to the streets of Tczew in solidarity. Although encouraging, it did little to change the situation. He became one of the “unemployables”. In turn, a government-run campaign was unleashed against her and continues. Disciplinary proceedings against her by the Board of Education are underway. In November, she was officially charged with incitement to animal abuse. An absurd move, which was orchestrated by the same fundamentalist PiS MP,  Kazimierz Smolinski. Over several months, the teacher has been summoned to successive “hearings” at the Department of Education. She is now at risk of losing her teaching licence. This is a textbook example of the regime’s repression of rebellious citizens.

Iwona Ochocka Gdańsk Pamela Palma Zapata21.jpg
story

| 08 July 2021

Iwona: Teacher With A Mission

Women’s rights defenders in Poland have faced violence from law enforcement and far-right groups, as well as smear campaigns in state-controlled media and excessive criminal charges. This harassment has been orchestrated and encouraged by the government. This is Iwona's story. For Iwona, the last six months have been the toughest of her life – emotionally, physically and financially. Iwona has been actively involved in the Women’s Strike movement – the biggest women and social justice movement revolt since the 80s – in a small town with 60,279 inhabitants – ever since Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, dominated by right-wing judges and backed by Julia Przyłębska who presides over the illegitimate Constitutional Tribunal, banned abortion on the grounds of foetal abnormality on 22 October 2020. Since then, the teacher turned activist has organised six “Walk for Freedom and Women’s Rights” protests in her home city. The first of these was held on Sunday 25 October amassing around two thousand people. Three days later, after President Kaczynski's famous "address", where he urged Neo Nazis to defend the churches from “Bad feminist abortion b**ches from hell”, about 5,000 people came to "walk" with the activist, holding a banner: "Forgive the obstruction, Tczew has a government to overthrow".   Someone Had To Light The First Match As the headmistress of a non-public school, she was previously only known within the teaching community. Iwona had yet to catch on to the growing feminist movement in Poland kickstarted by the first All-Poland Women’s Strike (Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet, OSK) in 2016 against proposed legislation to tighten abortion laws. However, two years later she was protesting to defend courts free from political influence, the rights of teachers, and the rights of LGBTQI+ people. She travelled to Poland’s Tri-City area for Manifa, an annual demonstration organized around International Women’s Day on March 8 and across Poland for Gay Pride marches. There have never been such large-scale demonstrations in Tczew before, especially anti-government ones. Iwona admits that she herself was surprised by the turnout and the response to the slogan: “I took part in the protests anonymously, without party symbols. First in a rainbow mask, then one bearing a lightning bolt. I didn’t want to appear party-affiliated. The demands were more important than the emblems. My data was later leaked by a Tczew paper, the local propaganda mouthpiece of the PiS (Law and Justice) Party.” Tczew has a population of around 53,000. During one of the protests Iwona “brought” almost 10% of the community onto the streets, much to the annoyance of a prominent and unscrupulous Member of Parliament (MP) from PiS, who is also a dangerous Catholic fundamentalist, chauvinist and homophobe. The activist and her entire family were immediately affected by the street actions.   PiS Won’t Forgive And Forget Soon after the first protests, Iwona’s husband lost his job at a state-owned company. “His qualifications relate to big industry, which at the moment either has ties to the authorities or belongs to the authorities,” says Iwona. In response, on 15 November, over 300 people took to the streets of Tczew in solidarity. Although encouraging, it did little to change the situation. He became one of the “unemployables”. In turn, a government-run campaign was unleashed against her and continues. Disciplinary proceedings against her by the Board of Education are underway. In November, she was officially charged with incitement to animal abuse. An absurd move, which was orchestrated by the same fundamentalist PiS MP,  Kazimierz Smolinski. Over several months, the teacher has been summoned to successive “hearings” at the Department of Education. She is now at risk of losing her teaching licence. This is a textbook example of the regime’s repression of rebellious citizens.

Poland Marta Lempart
story

| 17 January 2022

Marta: The Freedom Fighter – “The Only Thing I Have Left is to Keep Running”

It is said that no one is irreplaceable. If this is true, Marta Lempart is the exception that proves the rule. For most female activists who have been in the Women’s Strike since the beginning, this is obvious. Although she herself usually says otherwise: “I am not indispensable”. But she is. Without her, this speeding train would not go on. Yes, a whole group of people contribute to the success of the Strike’s work, but Marta is the engine. She is the one who sets the tone and gives a ‘face’ to the social movement. It is thanks to her instinct and strategic sense that this crazy train has not yet derailed and landed in a ditch somewhere. Those who work most closely with her on a daily basis look after her health and well-being, because they know that the movement leader’s charisma drives activists across the country. This locomotive has to deliver, it has to keep giving. And yet it is pulling more and more carriages behind it. Because the Strike is growing, spreading endlessly to new places. There are more and more duties, tasks to be fulfilled, new challenges that appear, problems to be solved. Marta is crucial to the Strike because for a long time she carried it almost on her own shoulders. “There were times when we were carrying out these daily duties and running the [Polish Women’s Strike] Foundation practically alone with my partner and co-founder.” She has the contacts, the Strike’s history and the narrative at her fingertips. And she has kind of gotten people used to the idea that she takes care of everything herself. She has a tendency to take on too much, but she is working on this, learning to delegate tasks, to involve other people in her work and to distribute responsibilities. She knows she has to, because this social movement is expanding and developing at great pace and needs more and more people to support it. The central helpdesk team needs to grow with it.   An Influential Woman Of The Year Marta was awarded this title by Forbes Magazine in 2020. She was also voted Superheroine of 2020 by High Heels, a weekly magazine connected with Gazeta Wyborcza. When she’s on top form, Marta is fearless, relentless, focused, deadly logical and unflappable. She writes brilliantly and performs even better live. She gets to the point, speaks simply, clearly and lucidly, and knows how to reach out to anyone. At the same time, she is able to appeal to people’s emotions and get the crowd behind her. She is known for not throwing words to the wind and for being able to condense the message into a single word, as with the famous “F*©µ off!” She describes herself as “selectively high functioning”. She gives her best when she needs to give her best. She rises to the occasion. But after she gets to the peak of what she can do, a dip in form and a slump inevitably follow. Or, as in the last few months, a real crisis and depression.

Poland Marta Lempart
story

| 16 July 2021

Marta: The Freedom Fighter – “The Only Thing I Have Left is to Keep Running”

It is said that no one is irreplaceable. If this is true, Marta Lempart is the exception that proves the rule. For most female activists who have been in the Women’s Strike since the beginning, this is obvious. Although she herself usually says otherwise: “I am not indispensable”. But she is. Without her, this speeding train would not go on. Yes, a whole group of people contribute to the success of the Strike’s work, but Marta is the engine. She is the one who sets the tone and gives a ‘face’ to the social movement. It is thanks to her instinct and strategic sense that this crazy train has not yet derailed and landed in a ditch somewhere. Those who work most closely with her on a daily basis look after her health and well-being, because they know that the movement leader’s charisma drives activists across the country. This locomotive has to deliver, it has to keep giving. And yet it is pulling more and more carriages behind it. Because the Strike is growing, spreading endlessly to new places. There are more and more duties, tasks to be fulfilled, new challenges that appear, problems to be solved. Marta is crucial to the Strike because for a long time she carried it almost on her own shoulders. “There were times when we were carrying out these daily duties and running the [Polish Women’s Strike] Foundation practically alone with my partner and co-founder.” She has the contacts, the Strike’s history and the narrative at her fingertips. And she has kind of gotten people used to the idea that she takes care of everything herself. She has a tendency to take on too much, but she is working on this, learning to delegate tasks, to involve other people in her work and to distribute responsibilities. She knows she has to, because this social movement is expanding and developing at great pace and needs more and more people to support it. The central helpdesk team needs to grow with it.   An Influential Woman Of The Year Marta was awarded this title by Forbes Magazine in 2020. She was also voted Superheroine of 2020 by High Heels, a weekly magazine connected with Gazeta Wyborcza. When she’s on top form, Marta is fearless, relentless, focused, deadly logical and unflappable. She writes brilliantly and performs even better live. She gets to the point, speaks simply, clearly and lucidly, and knows how to reach out to anyone. At the same time, she is able to appeal to people’s emotions and get the crowd behind her. She is known for not throwing words to the wind and for being able to condense the message into a single word, as with the famous “F*©µ off!” She describes herself as “selectively high functioning”. She gives her best when she needs to give her best. She rises to the occasion. But after she gets to the peak of what she can do, a dip in form and a slump inevitably follow. Or, as in the last few months, a real crisis and depression.

vaska--smiling--with--bg.jpg
story

| 17 January 2022

My friends think I’m crazy, because I only have one child. But I know I can decide when to have another. Vaska's Story

“I got married quite early, when I was 17. A year and a half later I got pregnant and had a baby girl. Now she is 18 months old. My husband started a job in the city in a company which is popular among Roma people, and I stayed home to look after our child.  Last year I met Valya, the health mediator. She told me they organize meetings, and she invited me to take part in a women’s group. Initially I didn’t know what we would do, but it was interesting as there were other women like me. During these meetings we spoke very often about contraception in general, and especially about IUDs. The women shared what they had heard and what they knew about them. It was strange, but most of them said that IUDs harm women’s health. I also understood that the men are worried about their wives’ health and that that’s why they don’t approve of contraception. I heard women say other things as well, like you can still get pregnant with an IUD, that you may gain weight, that IUDs move in the body, and so on and so forth.  One day, during a meeting, we spoke again about contraception, and more precisely, what we thought was a good family size. People had different views. I personally think that it is not so much about the number of children as it is about being able to make sure you have everything you need - clothes, food, the possibility to educate them. Everyone should take these issues into consideration before having children.  I thought more often about myself and my family. We didn’t have high incomes and we could barely afford our bills. Our daughter was a baby and it was challenge to provide for her. My husband and I started to talk about it, and I started to think about getting an IUD. That’s why six months ago I decided to have one fitted, and I feel fine. It isn’t painful and I haven’t gained weight. My friends think I’m crazy, because I only have one child. But I know that I’ll be able to decide when to have another one.” When vulnerable communities, volunteers and professionals unite for reproductive freedom, they are a powerful force for change. Watch Vaska’s story and others in our short film about the amazing work our members in Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia are doing to support the lifelong reproductive health and safety of Roma girls, women and young people.

vaska--smiling--with--bg.jpg
story

| 20 September 2021

My friends think I’m crazy, because I only have one child. But I know I can decide when to have another. Vaska's Story

“I got married quite early, when I was 17. A year and a half later I got pregnant and had a baby girl. Now she is 18 months old. My husband started a job in the city in a company which is popular among Roma people, and I stayed home to look after our child.  Last year I met Valya, the health mediator. She told me they organize meetings, and she invited me to take part in a women’s group. Initially I didn’t know what we would do, but it was interesting as there were other women like me. During these meetings we spoke very often about contraception in general, and especially about IUDs. The women shared what they had heard and what they knew about them. It was strange, but most of them said that IUDs harm women’s health. I also understood that the men are worried about their wives’ health and that that’s why they don’t approve of contraception. I heard women say other things as well, like you can still get pregnant with an IUD, that you may gain weight, that IUDs move in the body, and so on and so forth.  One day, during a meeting, we spoke again about contraception, and more precisely, what we thought was a good family size. People had different views. I personally think that it is not so much about the number of children as it is about being able to make sure you have everything you need - clothes, food, the possibility to educate them. Everyone should take these issues into consideration before having children.  I thought more often about myself and my family. We didn’t have high incomes and we could barely afford our bills. Our daughter was a baby and it was challenge to provide for her. My husband and I started to talk about it, and I started to think about getting an IUD. That’s why six months ago I decided to have one fitted, and I feel fine. It isn’t painful and I haven’t gained weight. My friends think I’m crazy, because I only have one child. But I know that I’ll be able to decide when to have another one.” When vulnerable communities, volunteers and professionals unite for reproductive freedom, they are a powerful force for change. Watch Vaska’s story and others in our short film about the amazing work our members in Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia are doing to support the lifelong reproductive health and safety of Roma girls, women and young people.

patrick-tomasso-Oaqk7qqNh_c-unsplash.jpg
story

| 07 December 2016

Sexual health empowerment for young people with disabilities

In Macedonia, HERA's special educator, Zaklina Stepanoska, recalls the reactions of parents when she explained the programme. They were running an inititiave for young people with disabilities to learn about their sexual health. “There were parents who cried when I told them about this,” she says. “I asked them why and they told me it was because they had thought their children, who were in their mid 20s, would never fall in love or have girlfriends. It touched them very much and surprised them that somebody had thought about their children receiving this education and maybe having a relationship.” The programme has already been useful in changing behaviour in the centre. “In the spring and summer, when we're outside in the garden a lot, the girls will go crazy when some guy walks past, because they like boys,” Zaklina explains. “They will shout and talk to them even though they don't know them. So we make them understand that they can say 'hi' to people they already know, but not strangers, unless we allow them to. “We also had a big problem with boys masturbating. Since the sessions on public and private space we don't have this problem any more. When a staff member sees that someone is going to start doing it, they ask them to go to the toilet, or they take them to a private space. They don't say 'stop', because if they're stopped they can become aggressive. Back then they didn't know how to deal with this. Now they tell them it's not suitable to do in public. And the boys hardly ever try to do it any more. “We had a problem, too, with girls not knowing how to put sanitary towels in. Their parents would put a towel in at home and the girl would forget about it. Now they bring towels themselves and they know how to change them. “The young people are very interested in the programme. It's something new. They're very interested in the fact that can become independent outside the centre, that they can go out alone, that they can be with someone, with a boyfriend or girlfriend, and that they are allowed to do that. Because their parents usually scorn them when they started talking about these things. “There are changes in the way they behave. They don't talk to strangers any more. They know the appropriate words for parts of the body, and they're not embarrassed to say them out loud any more. In the beginning when we had individual sessions the girls would start crying and saying 'this is shameful'. They would not even utter the words. Now they're free to talk about it. They have become closer to us. They would come to us and say if they have a crush on somebody. They laugh about it, they tease each other. They're much more relaxed than they used to be. “There are two users here who act as boyfriend and girlfriend in the centre. They live far apart but here they watch films together, they dance, they kiss. They can't be separated! It's a positive thing; they are happier.”

patrick-tomasso-Oaqk7qqNh_c-unsplash.jpg
story

| 26 May 2022

Sexual health empowerment for young people with disabilities

In Macedonia, HERA's special educator, Zaklina Stepanoska, recalls the reactions of parents when she explained the programme. They were running an inititiave for young people with disabilities to learn about their sexual health. “There were parents who cried when I told them about this,” she says. “I asked them why and they told me it was because they had thought their children, who were in their mid 20s, would never fall in love or have girlfriends. It touched them very much and surprised them that somebody had thought about their children receiving this education and maybe having a relationship.” The programme has already been useful in changing behaviour in the centre. “In the spring and summer, when we're outside in the garden a lot, the girls will go crazy when some guy walks past, because they like boys,” Zaklina explains. “They will shout and talk to them even though they don't know them. So we make them understand that they can say 'hi' to people they already know, but not strangers, unless we allow them to. “We also had a big problem with boys masturbating. Since the sessions on public and private space we don't have this problem any more. When a staff member sees that someone is going to start doing it, they ask them to go to the toilet, or they take them to a private space. They don't say 'stop', because if they're stopped they can become aggressive. Back then they didn't know how to deal with this. Now they tell them it's not suitable to do in public. And the boys hardly ever try to do it any more. “We had a problem, too, with girls not knowing how to put sanitary towels in. Their parents would put a towel in at home and the girl would forget about it. Now they bring towels themselves and they know how to change them. “The young people are very interested in the programme. It's something new. They're very interested in the fact that can become independent outside the centre, that they can go out alone, that they can be with someone, with a boyfriend or girlfriend, and that they are allowed to do that. Because their parents usually scorn them when they started talking about these things. “There are changes in the way they behave. They don't talk to strangers any more. They know the appropriate words for parts of the body, and they're not embarrassed to say them out loud any more. In the beginning when we had individual sessions the girls would start crying and saying 'this is shameful'. They would not even utter the words. Now they're free to talk about it. They have become closer to us. They would come to us and say if they have a crush on somebody. They laugh about it, they tease each other. They're much more relaxed than they used to be. “There are two users here who act as boyfriend and girlfriend in the centre. They live far apart but here they watch films together, they dance, they kiss. They can't be separated! It's a positive thing; they are happier.”

patrick-tomasso-Oaqk7qqNh_c-unsplash.jpg
story

| 07 December 2016

Responsibility for sexual health brings happiness in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Borislav is a 22-year-old gay man living in Sarajevo. Bosnia and Herzegovina is a country with deep-rooted patriarchal values in many segments of society, very resistant to change, especially when it comes to sexual orientation. Negative attitudes and harassment towards the LGBTI community remains an issue. Association XY provides services to marginalized populations, including LGBTI individuals. “Noticing how people spoke about homosexuals, I came to the conclusion that being gay was bad. I decided to shut it out, forget about it. What else could I do? I couldn't change and was terrified of revealing my secret. I became introverted and kept a low profile, so as not to draw attention to myself. My main anxiety was the prospect of telling my parents that I was gay. Recently, I came out to my family. Since then my life has turned upside down. My parents didn’t deal with it very well, and they think it’s an illness. They have been controlling almost every move I make since then and they even had taken me to the psychologist. Apparently, no one noticed my depression, no one noticed my sadness. I felt alone. I started to feel depressed and I desperately needed someone to talk with. And one day on social network for gay people, I saw a profile for Association XY.  After some time, I decided to go to the drop-in-centre in Sarajevo. Their welcome was very warm, friendly; they offered me coffee and some refreshment. Then I had strictly confidential talk with coordinator of the drop-in-centre. I talked to this guy and he helped me realize a few very important things. He helped me to bring out happiness in me that I thought I lost. I know I have a long way ahead of me but this guy helped me to find a right way to go. Further, I’ve found myself ready to test myself on HIV and, thanks to Association XY, I feel like a more responsible and aware person when it comes to my health. In some way, they helped me to help myself and I am thankful for that.” Association XY is a non-governmental, non-political, non-profitable organization which works to improve sexual and reproductive health for all in Bosnia and Herzegovina, including the LGBTI community. It runs one main clinic which promotes equal access to SRH information, education and services, and it advocates at government level for the adoption of improved SRH policies.

patrick-tomasso-Oaqk7qqNh_c-unsplash.jpg
story

| 26 May 2022

Responsibility for sexual health brings happiness in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Borislav is a 22-year-old gay man living in Sarajevo. Bosnia and Herzegovina is a country with deep-rooted patriarchal values in many segments of society, very resistant to change, especially when it comes to sexual orientation. Negative attitudes and harassment towards the LGBTI community remains an issue. Association XY provides services to marginalized populations, including LGBTI individuals. “Noticing how people spoke about homosexuals, I came to the conclusion that being gay was bad. I decided to shut it out, forget about it. What else could I do? I couldn't change and was terrified of revealing my secret. I became introverted and kept a low profile, so as not to draw attention to myself. My main anxiety was the prospect of telling my parents that I was gay. Recently, I came out to my family. Since then my life has turned upside down. My parents didn’t deal with it very well, and they think it’s an illness. They have been controlling almost every move I make since then and they even had taken me to the psychologist. Apparently, no one noticed my depression, no one noticed my sadness. I felt alone. I started to feel depressed and I desperately needed someone to talk with. And one day on social network for gay people, I saw a profile for Association XY.  After some time, I decided to go to the drop-in-centre in Sarajevo. Their welcome was very warm, friendly; they offered me coffee and some refreshment. Then I had strictly confidential talk with coordinator of the drop-in-centre. I talked to this guy and he helped me realize a few very important things. He helped me to bring out happiness in me that I thought I lost. I know I have a long way ahead of me but this guy helped me to find a right way to go. Further, I’ve found myself ready to test myself on HIV and, thanks to Association XY, I feel like a more responsible and aware person when it comes to my health. In some way, they helped me to help myself and I am thankful for that.” Association XY is a non-governmental, non-political, non-profitable organization which works to improve sexual and reproductive health for all in Bosnia and Herzegovina, including the LGBTI community. It runs one main clinic which promotes equal access to SRH information, education and services, and it advocates at government level for the adoption of improved SRH policies.

defend the defenders
story

| 17 February 2022

Women human rights defenders fight for sexual and reproductive freedom in Poland

Human rights defenders in Poland have been working tirelessly for years to fight the dismantling of the rule of law and human rights. They continue to do so in the face of increasing oppression, orchestrated and encouraged by the government – including intimidation, detention, and criminal charges. Many have been subjected to threats and attacks, both from state actors and far-right groups. The Polish Women’s Strike and other organisations have received bomb threats and now need to have security at their buildings. Activists are also being targeted with smear campaigns in state-owned media. The actions of the police have been insufficient to ensure their protection. These are their stories.

defend the defenders
story

| 17 February 2022

Women human rights defenders fight for sexual and reproductive freedom in Poland

Human rights defenders in Poland have been working tirelessly for years to fight the dismantling of the rule of law and human rights. They continue to do so in the face of increasing oppression, orchestrated and encouraged by the government – including intimidation, detention, and criminal charges. Many have been subjected to threats and attacks, both from state actors and far-right groups. The Polish Women’s Strike and other organisations have received bomb threats and now need to have security at their buildings. Activists are also being targeted with smear campaigns in state-owned media. The actions of the police have been insufficient to ensure their protection. These are their stories.

Iwona Ochocka Gdańsk Pamela Palma Zapata21.jpg
story

| 17 January 2022

Iwona: Teacher With A Mission

Women’s rights defenders in Poland have faced violence from law enforcement and far-right groups, as well as smear campaigns in state-controlled media and excessive criminal charges. This harassment has been orchestrated and encouraged by the government. This is Iwona's story. For Iwona, the last six months have been the toughest of her life – emotionally, physically and financially. Iwona has been actively involved in the Women’s Strike movement – the biggest women and social justice movement revolt since the 80s – in a small town with 60,279 inhabitants – ever since Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, dominated by right-wing judges and backed by Julia Przyłębska who presides over the illegitimate Constitutional Tribunal, banned abortion on the grounds of foetal abnormality on 22 October 2020. Since then, the teacher turned activist has organised six “Walk for Freedom and Women’s Rights” protests in her home city. The first of these was held on Sunday 25 October amassing around two thousand people. Three days later, after President Kaczynski's famous "address", where he urged Neo Nazis to defend the churches from “Bad feminist abortion b**ches from hell”, about 5,000 people came to "walk" with the activist, holding a banner: "Forgive the obstruction, Tczew has a government to overthrow".   Someone Had To Light The First Match As the headmistress of a non-public school, she was previously only known within the teaching community. Iwona had yet to catch on to the growing feminist movement in Poland kickstarted by the first All-Poland Women’s Strike (Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet, OSK) in 2016 against proposed legislation to tighten abortion laws. However, two years later she was protesting to defend courts free from political influence, the rights of teachers, and the rights of LGBTQI+ people. She travelled to Poland’s Tri-City area for Manifa, an annual demonstration organized around International Women’s Day on March 8 and across Poland for Gay Pride marches. There have never been such large-scale demonstrations in Tczew before, especially anti-government ones. Iwona admits that she herself was surprised by the turnout and the response to the slogan: “I took part in the protests anonymously, without party symbols. First in a rainbow mask, then one bearing a lightning bolt. I didn’t want to appear party-affiliated. The demands were more important than the emblems. My data was later leaked by a Tczew paper, the local propaganda mouthpiece of the PiS (Law and Justice) Party.” Tczew has a population of around 53,000. During one of the protests Iwona “brought” almost 10% of the community onto the streets, much to the annoyance of a prominent and unscrupulous Member of Parliament (MP) from PiS, who is also a dangerous Catholic fundamentalist, chauvinist and homophobe. The activist and her entire family were immediately affected by the street actions.   PiS Won’t Forgive And Forget Soon after the first protests, Iwona’s husband lost his job at a state-owned company. “His qualifications relate to big industry, which at the moment either has ties to the authorities or belongs to the authorities,” says Iwona. In response, on 15 November, over 300 people took to the streets of Tczew in solidarity. Although encouraging, it did little to change the situation. He became one of the “unemployables”. In turn, a government-run campaign was unleashed against her and continues. Disciplinary proceedings against her by the Board of Education are underway. In November, she was officially charged with incitement to animal abuse. An absurd move, which was orchestrated by the same fundamentalist PiS MP,  Kazimierz Smolinski. Over several months, the teacher has been summoned to successive “hearings” at the Department of Education. She is now at risk of losing her teaching licence. This is a textbook example of the regime’s repression of rebellious citizens.

Iwona Ochocka Gdańsk Pamela Palma Zapata21.jpg
story

| 08 July 2021

Iwona: Teacher With A Mission

Women’s rights defenders in Poland have faced violence from law enforcement and far-right groups, as well as smear campaigns in state-controlled media and excessive criminal charges. This harassment has been orchestrated and encouraged by the government. This is Iwona's story. For Iwona, the last six months have been the toughest of her life – emotionally, physically and financially. Iwona has been actively involved in the Women’s Strike movement – the biggest women and social justice movement revolt since the 80s – in a small town with 60,279 inhabitants – ever since Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, dominated by right-wing judges and backed by Julia Przyłębska who presides over the illegitimate Constitutional Tribunal, banned abortion on the grounds of foetal abnormality on 22 October 2020. Since then, the teacher turned activist has organised six “Walk for Freedom and Women’s Rights” protests in her home city. The first of these was held on Sunday 25 October amassing around two thousand people. Three days later, after President Kaczynski's famous "address", where he urged Neo Nazis to defend the churches from “Bad feminist abortion b**ches from hell”, about 5,000 people came to "walk" with the activist, holding a banner: "Forgive the obstruction, Tczew has a government to overthrow".   Someone Had To Light The First Match As the headmistress of a non-public school, she was previously only known within the teaching community. Iwona had yet to catch on to the growing feminist movement in Poland kickstarted by the first All-Poland Women’s Strike (Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet, OSK) in 2016 against proposed legislation to tighten abortion laws. However, two years later she was protesting to defend courts free from political influence, the rights of teachers, and the rights of LGBTQI+ people. She travelled to Poland’s Tri-City area for Manifa, an annual demonstration organized around International Women’s Day on March 8 and across Poland for Gay Pride marches. There have never been such large-scale demonstrations in Tczew before, especially anti-government ones. Iwona admits that she herself was surprised by the turnout and the response to the slogan: “I took part in the protests anonymously, without party symbols. First in a rainbow mask, then one bearing a lightning bolt. I didn’t want to appear party-affiliated. The demands were more important than the emblems. My data was later leaked by a Tczew paper, the local propaganda mouthpiece of the PiS (Law and Justice) Party.” Tczew has a population of around 53,000. During one of the protests Iwona “brought” almost 10% of the community onto the streets, much to the annoyance of a prominent and unscrupulous Member of Parliament (MP) from PiS, who is also a dangerous Catholic fundamentalist, chauvinist and homophobe. The activist and her entire family were immediately affected by the street actions.   PiS Won’t Forgive And Forget Soon after the first protests, Iwona’s husband lost his job at a state-owned company. “His qualifications relate to big industry, which at the moment either has ties to the authorities or belongs to the authorities,” says Iwona. In response, on 15 November, over 300 people took to the streets of Tczew in solidarity. Although encouraging, it did little to change the situation. He became one of the “unemployables”. In turn, a government-run campaign was unleashed against her and continues. Disciplinary proceedings against her by the Board of Education are underway. In November, she was officially charged with incitement to animal abuse. An absurd move, which was orchestrated by the same fundamentalist PiS MP,  Kazimierz Smolinski. Over several months, the teacher has been summoned to successive “hearings” at the Department of Education. She is now at risk of losing her teaching licence. This is a textbook example of the regime’s repression of rebellious citizens.

Poland Marta Lempart
story

| 17 January 2022

Marta: The Freedom Fighter – “The Only Thing I Have Left is to Keep Running”

It is said that no one is irreplaceable. If this is true, Marta Lempart is the exception that proves the rule. For most female activists who have been in the Women’s Strike since the beginning, this is obvious. Although she herself usually says otherwise: “I am not indispensable”. But she is. Without her, this speeding train would not go on. Yes, a whole group of people contribute to the success of the Strike’s work, but Marta is the engine. She is the one who sets the tone and gives a ‘face’ to the social movement. It is thanks to her instinct and strategic sense that this crazy train has not yet derailed and landed in a ditch somewhere. Those who work most closely with her on a daily basis look after her health and well-being, because they know that the movement leader’s charisma drives activists across the country. This locomotive has to deliver, it has to keep giving. And yet it is pulling more and more carriages behind it. Because the Strike is growing, spreading endlessly to new places. There are more and more duties, tasks to be fulfilled, new challenges that appear, problems to be solved. Marta is crucial to the Strike because for a long time she carried it almost on her own shoulders. “There were times when we were carrying out these daily duties and running the [Polish Women’s Strike] Foundation practically alone with my partner and co-founder.” She has the contacts, the Strike’s history and the narrative at her fingertips. And she has kind of gotten people used to the idea that she takes care of everything herself. She has a tendency to take on too much, but she is working on this, learning to delegate tasks, to involve other people in her work and to distribute responsibilities. She knows she has to, because this social movement is expanding and developing at great pace and needs more and more people to support it. The central helpdesk team needs to grow with it.   An Influential Woman Of The Year Marta was awarded this title by Forbes Magazine in 2020. She was also voted Superheroine of 2020 by High Heels, a weekly magazine connected with Gazeta Wyborcza. When she’s on top form, Marta is fearless, relentless, focused, deadly logical and unflappable. She writes brilliantly and performs even better live. She gets to the point, speaks simply, clearly and lucidly, and knows how to reach out to anyone. At the same time, she is able to appeal to people’s emotions and get the crowd behind her. She is known for not throwing words to the wind and for being able to condense the message into a single word, as with the famous “F*©µ off!” She describes herself as “selectively high functioning”. She gives her best when she needs to give her best. She rises to the occasion. But after she gets to the peak of what she can do, a dip in form and a slump inevitably follow. Or, as in the last few months, a real crisis and depression.

Poland Marta Lempart
story

| 16 July 2021

Marta: The Freedom Fighter – “The Only Thing I Have Left is to Keep Running”

It is said that no one is irreplaceable. If this is true, Marta Lempart is the exception that proves the rule. For most female activists who have been in the Women’s Strike since the beginning, this is obvious. Although she herself usually says otherwise: “I am not indispensable”. But she is. Without her, this speeding train would not go on. Yes, a whole group of people contribute to the success of the Strike’s work, but Marta is the engine. She is the one who sets the tone and gives a ‘face’ to the social movement. It is thanks to her instinct and strategic sense that this crazy train has not yet derailed and landed in a ditch somewhere. Those who work most closely with her on a daily basis look after her health and well-being, because they know that the movement leader’s charisma drives activists across the country. This locomotive has to deliver, it has to keep giving. And yet it is pulling more and more carriages behind it. Because the Strike is growing, spreading endlessly to new places. There are more and more duties, tasks to be fulfilled, new challenges that appear, problems to be solved. Marta is crucial to the Strike because for a long time she carried it almost on her own shoulders. “There were times when we were carrying out these daily duties and running the [Polish Women’s Strike] Foundation practically alone with my partner and co-founder.” She has the contacts, the Strike’s history and the narrative at her fingertips. And she has kind of gotten people used to the idea that she takes care of everything herself. She has a tendency to take on too much, but she is working on this, learning to delegate tasks, to involve other people in her work and to distribute responsibilities. She knows she has to, because this social movement is expanding and developing at great pace and needs more and more people to support it. The central helpdesk team needs to grow with it.   An Influential Woman Of The Year Marta was awarded this title by Forbes Magazine in 2020. She was also voted Superheroine of 2020 by High Heels, a weekly magazine connected with Gazeta Wyborcza. When she’s on top form, Marta is fearless, relentless, focused, deadly logical and unflappable. She writes brilliantly and performs even better live. She gets to the point, speaks simply, clearly and lucidly, and knows how to reach out to anyone. At the same time, she is able to appeal to people’s emotions and get the crowd behind her. She is known for not throwing words to the wind and for being able to condense the message into a single word, as with the famous “F*©µ off!” She describes herself as “selectively high functioning”. She gives her best when she needs to give her best. She rises to the occasion. But after she gets to the peak of what she can do, a dip in form and a slump inevitably follow. Or, as in the last few months, a real crisis and depression.

vaska--smiling--with--bg.jpg
story

| 17 January 2022

My friends think I’m crazy, because I only have one child. But I know I can decide when to have another. Vaska's Story

“I got married quite early, when I was 17. A year and a half later I got pregnant and had a baby girl. Now she is 18 months old. My husband started a job in the city in a company which is popular among Roma people, and I stayed home to look after our child.  Last year I met Valya, the health mediator. She told me they organize meetings, and she invited me to take part in a women’s group. Initially I didn’t know what we would do, but it was interesting as there were other women like me. During these meetings we spoke very often about contraception in general, and especially about IUDs. The women shared what they had heard and what they knew about them. It was strange, but most of them said that IUDs harm women’s health. I also understood that the men are worried about their wives’ health and that that’s why they don’t approve of contraception. I heard women say other things as well, like you can still get pregnant with an IUD, that you may gain weight, that IUDs move in the body, and so on and so forth.  One day, during a meeting, we spoke again about contraception, and more precisely, what we thought was a good family size. People had different views. I personally think that it is not so much about the number of children as it is about being able to make sure you have everything you need - clothes, food, the possibility to educate them. Everyone should take these issues into consideration before having children.  I thought more often about myself and my family. We didn’t have high incomes and we could barely afford our bills. Our daughter was a baby and it was challenge to provide for her. My husband and I started to talk about it, and I started to think about getting an IUD. That’s why six months ago I decided to have one fitted, and I feel fine. It isn’t painful and I haven’t gained weight. My friends think I’m crazy, because I only have one child. But I know that I’ll be able to decide when to have another one.” When vulnerable communities, volunteers and professionals unite for reproductive freedom, they are a powerful force for change. Watch Vaska’s story and others in our short film about the amazing work our members in Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia are doing to support the lifelong reproductive health and safety of Roma girls, women and young people.

vaska--smiling--with--bg.jpg
story

| 20 September 2021

My friends think I’m crazy, because I only have one child. But I know I can decide when to have another. Vaska's Story

“I got married quite early, when I was 17. A year and a half later I got pregnant and had a baby girl. Now she is 18 months old. My husband started a job in the city in a company which is popular among Roma people, and I stayed home to look after our child.  Last year I met Valya, the health mediator. She told me they organize meetings, and she invited me to take part in a women’s group. Initially I didn’t know what we would do, but it was interesting as there were other women like me. During these meetings we spoke very often about contraception in general, and especially about IUDs. The women shared what they had heard and what they knew about them. It was strange, but most of them said that IUDs harm women’s health. I also understood that the men are worried about their wives’ health and that that’s why they don’t approve of contraception. I heard women say other things as well, like you can still get pregnant with an IUD, that you may gain weight, that IUDs move in the body, and so on and so forth.  One day, during a meeting, we spoke again about contraception, and more precisely, what we thought was a good family size. People had different views. I personally think that it is not so much about the number of children as it is about being able to make sure you have everything you need - clothes, food, the possibility to educate them. Everyone should take these issues into consideration before having children.  I thought more often about myself and my family. We didn’t have high incomes and we could barely afford our bills. Our daughter was a baby and it was challenge to provide for her. My husband and I started to talk about it, and I started to think about getting an IUD. That’s why six months ago I decided to have one fitted, and I feel fine. It isn’t painful and I haven’t gained weight. My friends think I’m crazy, because I only have one child. But I know that I’ll be able to decide when to have another one.” When vulnerable communities, volunteers and professionals unite for reproductive freedom, they are a powerful force for change. Watch Vaska’s story and others in our short film about the amazing work our members in Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia are doing to support the lifelong reproductive health and safety of Roma girls, women and young people.

patrick-tomasso-Oaqk7qqNh_c-unsplash.jpg
story

| 07 December 2016

Sexual health empowerment for young people with disabilities

In Macedonia, HERA's special educator, Zaklina Stepanoska, recalls the reactions of parents when she explained the programme. They were running an inititiave for young people with disabilities to learn about their sexual health. “There were parents who cried when I told them about this,” she says. “I asked them why and they told me it was because they had thought their children, who were in their mid 20s, would never fall in love or have girlfriends. It touched them very much and surprised them that somebody had thought about their children receiving this education and maybe having a relationship.” The programme has already been useful in changing behaviour in the centre. “In the spring and summer, when we're outside in the garden a lot, the girls will go crazy when some guy walks past, because they like boys,” Zaklina explains. “They will shout and talk to them even though they don't know them. So we make them understand that they can say 'hi' to people they already know, but not strangers, unless we allow them to. “We also had a big problem with boys masturbating. Since the sessions on public and private space we don't have this problem any more. When a staff member sees that someone is going to start doing it, they ask them to go to the toilet, or they take them to a private space. They don't say 'stop', because if they're stopped they can become aggressive. Back then they didn't know how to deal with this. Now they tell them it's not suitable to do in public. And the boys hardly ever try to do it any more. “We had a problem, too, with girls not knowing how to put sanitary towels in. Their parents would put a towel in at home and the girl would forget about it. Now they bring towels themselves and they know how to change them. “The young people are very interested in the programme. It's something new. They're very interested in the fact that can become independent outside the centre, that they can go out alone, that they can be with someone, with a boyfriend or girlfriend, and that they are allowed to do that. Because their parents usually scorn them when they started talking about these things. “There are changes in the way they behave. They don't talk to strangers any more. They know the appropriate words for parts of the body, and they're not embarrassed to say them out loud any more. In the beginning when we had individual sessions the girls would start crying and saying 'this is shameful'. They would not even utter the words. Now they're free to talk about it. They have become closer to us. They would come to us and say if they have a crush on somebody. They laugh about it, they tease each other. They're much more relaxed than they used to be. “There are two users here who act as boyfriend and girlfriend in the centre. They live far apart but here they watch films together, they dance, they kiss. They can't be separated! It's a positive thing; they are happier.”

patrick-tomasso-Oaqk7qqNh_c-unsplash.jpg
story

| 26 May 2022

Sexual health empowerment for young people with disabilities

In Macedonia, HERA's special educator, Zaklina Stepanoska, recalls the reactions of parents when she explained the programme. They were running an inititiave for young people with disabilities to learn about their sexual health. “There were parents who cried when I told them about this,” she says. “I asked them why and they told me it was because they had thought their children, who were in their mid 20s, would never fall in love or have girlfriends. It touched them very much and surprised them that somebody had thought about their children receiving this education and maybe having a relationship.” The programme has already been useful in changing behaviour in the centre. “In the spring and summer, when we're outside in the garden a lot, the girls will go crazy when some guy walks past, because they like boys,” Zaklina explains. “They will shout and talk to them even though they don't know them. So we make them understand that they can say 'hi' to people they already know, but not strangers, unless we allow them to. “We also had a big problem with boys masturbating. Since the sessions on public and private space we don't have this problem any more. When a staff member sees that someone is going to start doing it, they ask them to go to the toilet, or they take them to a private space. They don't say 'stop', because if they're stopped they can become aggressive. Back then they didn't know how to deal with this. Now they tell them it's not suitable to do in public. And the boys hardly ever try to do it any more. “We had a problem, too, with girls not knowing how to put sanitary towels in. Their parents would put a towel in at home and the girl would forget about it. Now they bring towels themselves and they know how to change them. “The young people are very interested in the programme. It's something new. They're very interested in the fact that can become independent outside the centre, that they can go out alone, that they can be with someone, with a boyfriend or girlfriend, and that they are allowed to do that. Because their parents usually scorn them when they started talking about these things. “There are changes in the way they behave. They don't talk to strangers any more. They know the appropriate words for parts of the body, and they're not embarrassed to say them out loud any more. In the beginning when we had individual sessions the girls would start crying and saying 'this is shameful'. They would not even utter the words. Now they're free to talk about it. They have become closer to us. They would come to us and say if they have a crush on somebody. They laugh about it, they tease each other. They're much more relaxed than they used to be. “There are two users here who act as boyfriend and girlfriend in the centre. They live far apart but here they watch films together, they dance, they kiss. They can't be separated! It's a positive thing; they are happier.”

patrick-tomasso-Oaqk7qqNh_c-unsplash.jpg
story

| 07 December 2016

Responsibility for sexual health brings happiness in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Borislav is a 22-year-old gay man living in Sarajevo. Bosnia and Herzegovina is a country with deep-rooted patriarchal values in many segments of society, very resistant to change, especially when it comes to sexual orientation. Negative attitudes and harassment towards the LGBTI community remains an issue. Association XY provides services to marginalized populations, including LGBTI individuals. “Noticing how people spoke about homosexuals, I came to the conclusion that being gay was bad. I decided to shut it out, forget about it. What else could I do? I couldn't change and was terrified of revealing my secret. I became introverted and kept a low profile, so as not to draw attention to myself. My main anxiety was the prospect of telling my parents that I was gay. Recently, I came out to my family. Since then my life has turned upside down. My parents didn’t deal with it very well, and they think it’s an illness. They have been controlling almost every move I make since then and they even had taken me to the psychologist. Apparently, no one noticed my depression, no one noticed my sadness. I felt alone. I started to feel depressed and I desperately needed someone to talk with. And one day on social network for gay people, I saw a profile for Association XY.  After some time, I decided to go to the drop-in-centre in Sarajevo. Their welcome was very warm, friendly; they offered me coffee and some refreshment. Then I had strictly confidential talk with coordinator of the drop-in-centre. I talked to this guy and he helped me realize a few very important things. He helped me to bring out happiness in me that I thought I lost. I know I have a long way ahead of me but this guy helped me to find a right way to go. Further, I’ve found myself ready to test myself on HIV and, thanks to Association XY, I feel like a more responsible and aware person when it comes to my health. In some way, they helped me to help myself and I am thankful for that.” Association XY is a non-governmental, non-political, non-profitable organization which works to improve sexual and reproductive health for all in Bosnia and Herzegovina, including the LGBTI community. It runs one main clinic which promotes equal access to SRH information, education and services, and it advocates at government level for the adoption of improved SRH policies.

patrick-tomasso-Oaqk7qqNh_c-unsplash.jpg
story

| 26 May 2022

Responsibility for sexual health brings happiness in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Borislav is a 22-year-old gay man living in Sarajevo. Bosnia and Herzegovina is a country with deep-rooted patriarchal values in many segments of society, very resistant to change, especially when it comes to sexual orientation. Negative attitudes and harassment towards the LGBTI community remains an issue. Association XY provides services to marginalized populations, including LGBTI individuals. “Noticing how people spoke about homosexuals, I came to the conclusion that being gay was bad. I decided to shut it out, forget about it. What else could I do? I couldn't change and was terrified of revealing my secret. I became introverted and kept a low profile, so as not to draw attention to myself. My main anxiety was the prospect of telling my parents that I was gay. Recently, I came out to my family. Since then my life has turned upside down. My parents didn’t deal with it very well, and they think it’s an illness. They have been controlling almost every move I make since then and they even had taken me to the psychologist. Apparently, no one noticed my depression, no one noticed my sadness. I felt alone. I started to feel depressed and I desperately needed someone to talk with. And one day on social network for gay people, I saw a profile for Association XY.  After some time, I decided to go to the drop-in-centre in Sarajevo. Their welcome was very warm, friendly; they offered me coffee and some refreshment. Then I had strictly confidential talk with coordinator of the drop-in-centre. I talked to this guy and he helped me realize a few very important things. He helped me to bring out happiness in me that I thought I lost. I know I have a long way ahead of me but this guy helped me to find a right way to go. Further, I’ve found myself ready to test myself on HIV and, thanks to Association XY, I feel like a more responsible and aware person when it comes to my health. In some way, they helped me to help myself and I am thankful for that.” Association XY is a non-governmental, non-political, non-profitable organization which works to improve sexual and reproductive health for all in Bosnia and Herzegovina, including the LGBTI community. It runs one main clinic which promotes equal access to SRH information, education and services, and it advocates at government level for the adoption of improved SRH policies.