Domestic violence: political problems and common sense

Poland is just one step away from joining the countries that ratified the convention on preventing violence against women – the president’s signature is all that is needed. It prompted heated debates in parliament because many politicians, especially conservative, fiercely oppose it. Yet it turns out that most Poles, regardless of political sympathies, want the document to be signed. Has the Polish political elite lost touch with voters?

Photo: CreativeCommons/ Megara Tegal


Poland signed the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence in December 2012, but the ratification process was a wild ride;  this, despite the fact that the ruling Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska PO), together with two smaller leftist parties, the Democratic Left Alliance (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej SLD) and Your Movement (Twój Ruch TR), could have easily pushed the legislation through. It became apparent that this document, created to root out violence, was a highly controversial one.

The document’s opponents, the Catholic Church and right wing politcians, argued that the convention would undermine the Polish tradition, destroy the family and even promote Marxism. The two main points of contention were the convention’s use of the term “gender”, or “the socially constructed roles . . . that a given society considers appropriate for women and men,” and its use of the term “partner”. 1The critics fear that this terminology will pave the way to the possibility of same-sex marriages and the destruction of the traditionally understood family. During the discussions the legislation’s purpose – helping the victims of violence and abuse – was lost beneath this wider conflict about “gender ideiology”. 2

While the debate raged on, women’s organizations and other supporters of the treaty almost lost hope that they would see the convention ratified, but in February the Sejm, the lower chamber of the Polish parliament, finally voted on it. Then a Senate vote took place at the beginning of March – but the result was, by no means, certain.

There were even doubts that the Senate would vote at all, because this would force the president to take a stand on the treaty before May’s elections, possibly costing him votes. 3 The ruling Civic Platform’s Jan Rulewski even requested to introduce a last minute amendment that would invalidate the convention until January 2016. He claimed that it would allow time for a wider social consensus to be reached, but some saw it as a tactic to stall the  vote, buying president Bronisław Komorowski more time. The vote, however, took place as planned and most senators supported the document.

Then surprisingly, just a week later the president signed the act and made the ratification possible, saying that the convention should not be a hostage of the election campaign. 4 The president still needs to sign the final legislation but this will more than likely be a formality, and then Champagne cork can be off.

The long road to the convention’s ratification highlighted the questionable state of Polish society. The heated debates about the convention in parliament and in television studios are just part of another battle in a larger culture war being waged by conservative politicans and the Catholic Church. They debate about the particular wording and  the big ideas, like “identity” and “tradition”, but neglect to dicuss the practical aspects of providing women with help,  which is very much needed. The statistics are bleak – every year 800,000 Polish women suffer from domestic violence, and 150 of them do not survive. 5

Some politicians stage these dramas out of conviction and others for the sake of their conservative constituents, but how does this benefit them? According to a February poll published by the daily Rzeczpospolita, 89% of Poles actually supported the convention and expected it to be ratified. 6 Even more surprsingly, 78% the conservative Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość PiS) party’s supporters wanted the treaty ratified in this parliamentary turn.

These numbers make it clear that the convention is accepted by Poles, regardless of their political views or party affiliation. Discussing society’s problematic issues, like the practical ways to help victims of violence or how to facilitate proper police procedures, is good thing, but partaking in futile ideological rants, like the one in this particular case is pointless.  It may be interesting for the politicians themselves or the journalists who report on it, but rather disappointing for voters. It seems that the gap between the electorate and their political representatives could not be wider.

What needs to be determined now is if this was an isolated case where Polish representatives mistook the social mood on a specific issue, or the indication of a deeper trend that society is becoming more open, tolerant and sensitive than the politicians presume?  A similar instance of politicians’ failure to estimate the views of their citizens occurred with Slovakia’s February referendum on the family. Almost 80% of Slovaks refused to take part in it, signaling that issues like same-sex marriage and adoption are no longer deemed “unacceptable”. The politicians may have to draw conclusions from these lessons for the future and actually make an effort to learn what potential voters think, rather than presume that they already know.

Notes:

  1. Agnieszka Kościańska, “Violence Against Women in Poland – what tradition has to do with it?,” V4 Revue, 5 December 2014.
  2.   Agnieszka Kościańska, “Who can be a true Pole? On gender panic,” V4Revue, 13 August 2014.
  3.   Portal opinii TOK FM, “Senacka komisja nie popiera konwencji antyprzemocowej. “Zmusi do uznania kapłaństwa kobiet”“, 25 February 2015.
  4.  Krzysztof Lepczyński, “Prezydent Bronisław Komorowski podpisał ustawę zezwalającą na ratyfikację konwencji antyprzemocowej,” Gazeta.pl, 14 March 2015.
  5.  Paulina Gómicka, “Przerażające dane: co roku ginie w Polsce 150 kobiet,” Wiadomości Wirtualnej Polski, 4 April 2012.
  6.  Agnieszka Kozlowska-Rajewicz, „89 proc. Polaków za Konwencja.”
Patrycja Bukalska

Patrycja Bukalska

is editor of the V4Revue and editor of Polish weekly Tygodnik Powszechny; writes for „Green Town” („Zielone Miasto”) magazine.