Violence against women In Poland – what tradition has to do with it?

Violence against women knows no nationality or race. At the end of November many countries joined a 16-day action to raise awareness of the harms caused by it. These issues where highlighted in Poland, too, where the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence has remained unratified due to the controversy that has surrounded it. But we must ask ourselves: ‘What is so controversial about protecting battered and raped women?’

Photo: CreativeCommons/Devon Buchanan

A 2014 research report by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights shows that 62 million women in the EU experience physical or sexual violence by the time they are 15 years old. In Poland alone 4.5 million women experience psychological violence by their current partners or husbands; and 2 million women experience physical or sexual violence, while only 28% of them report it to the police. 1 These numbers show that the violence against women is a real issue that needs to effectively be dealt with.

Poland signed the Council of Europe Convention on the 18th of December 2012, but since then has not ratified it. This, although the ruling party, the Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska PO), along with the two smaller left parties – the Democratic Left Alliance (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej SLD) and Your Movement (Twój Ruch TR) – could gain the majority within the Polish Parliament and easily vote for ratification.  Instead it has been the subject of heated debates.

From a feminist perspective, the Convention constitutes a highly progressive treaty. It sees violence in its social, cultural and economic contexts and recognizes that discrimination against women is the root of the violence: only true gender equality will lead to the elimination of domestic violence and violence against women. Therefore, feminist and women-focused NGOs in Poland and elsewhere support the ratification. Unfortunately, conservative Catholic milieus, as well as the political right are against it. They see the Convention as the manifestation of “gender ideology”, which they believe is destructive to the Polish traditional family, and hence the whole nation, and so far they have managed to successfully block the ratification. Parliament was supposed to vote after the last battle over the ratification on the 24th of September 2014, but did not due to the cultural war that is at play here.

Law and reality

The Convention – even unratified – has still managed to advance some amendments to criminal laws regarding rape in Poland. Since 1932, the nation has had very progressive rape laws because rape was broadly defined, regardless of the relationship and gender of the rapist and the victim. Therefore the law gave tools for the prosecution of those who committed marital or same-sex rapes or sexual crimes against sex workers, but the investigations and prosecutions of these crimes were not automatic – the rape victims were required to press charges. However according to a new law that passed in January 2014, rape is now prosecuted ex officio.

Furthermore, the procedure of victim interrogation has been changed, with the victim only being interrogated once, outside of the courtroom, without the perpetrator(s) being present. This change was very much needed: earlier victims were forced to meet perpetrators in the courtroom and testify (often more than once) in their presence, which was for many nearly as traumatic as the rape itself. For example, during my research on court practices, I came across a case in which the victim of gang rape received a financial penalty for not showing up in court. Because she did not want to meet the perpetrators, she missed several court meetings in 8-year-long trial.

If ratified, the Convention would give practical tools to fight violence against women. It will mean some obligation for the state – more active engagement of the state in women’s empowerment and the prevention of discrimination and violence against women through educational and awareness-raising programs. These would be addressed to boys and men, and professionals dealing with female victims of violence so that they are more sensitive to gender-related issues. The state would be also responsible for victim support services, such as safe accommodations and telephone helplines. What about these outcomes is so controversial?

The bad word “gender”

The Convention defines “violence against women and domestic violence” not only as physical, but also as psychological, economic and sexual abuses. The definition treats “spouses” and “partners” equally – it does not matter if one is married or not. Furthermore, in the convention that violence against women is understood as “gender-based” – and since many forces in Poland are almost allergic to the word “gender”, it was found particularly problematic.

All political forces represented in the Polish Parliament agree that violence against women and children should be fought against. However, in the opinion of conservative members of parliament, the Convention is not the way to go. The main controversy is related to the use of the term “gender”, which the Convention defines as ‘the socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men’. This subject has been a highly discussed topic in Polish media for more than a year.

Conservative politicians and intellectuals argue that feminism and the LGBT Movement use what is called “gender ideology” to destroy Polish traditions. 2 During the parliamentary debate on September 24th, right wing politicians argued that the Convention promotes Marxism, and that gender ideology is meant to destroy the family, which is the core of Polish national identity, and the social order in Poland. 3 They also see it as a tool to legalize same-sex marriages, because it uses the word “partner”: if Poland ratifies the Convention utilizing the current semantics, then “sexual minorities will demand to legalize [same-sex] civil partnership”. 4 Finally, because the term “gender” is frequently associated with those who are undergoing gender reassignment; and many see this as challenging gender roles to the easily changeable results of upbringing and socio-cultural factors.

Beata Kempa, the conservative MP who represents the small right wing party, United Poland (Solidarna Polska), argued that there was no such thing as gender equality. She also went further and quoted the Convention’s definition of gender asking, ‘Do you know what this means? If there is someone, who has an idea to be a girl, then he will be a girl from the morning to evening, and if in the evening, he wants to be a boy again, he can be a boy until the next morning’. 5 It seems like she misunderstood the definition, which only describes how socially constructed roles can oppress women, and has nothing to do with those undergoing gender reassignment (which by the way does not happen overnight, and makes those who undergo it vulnerable to various forms of violence, discrimination and trauma, and thus a poor subject of jokes). As the result of this debate, the vote over the Convention was suspended, and it is not known if or when there will be another one.

Good girls stay at home

A raped woman is not angry. She is ashamed. She wants to forget what happened and very often blames herself.  The last thing she wants is to sit in front of strangers or the police and talk about the horrifying experience and even worst, try to convince them she is telling the truth.

The research 6 on how victims are treated by institutions, which are supposed to help them (police, prosecutors, medical professionals, courts), shows that women are reluctant to report cases of violence against them. Expert literature on sexual violence is full of stereotypes against women, with victims being presented as provocative and reckless; and my own research on expert approaches to sexual violence shows that rape is still treated in a very stereotypical way. For instance, police officers or lawyers often do not recognize date rape, as if sex was the logical continuation of having a drink or dinner together. Furthermore, the Polish medical system is not ready to examine the victim of rape – procedures on how to treat victims either do not exist or are not implemented. Often women have to wait for hours after a rape without the possibility of a shower, because doctors on hospital night shifts are typically overwhelmed. Special forensic examination centers do exist in Poland. Unfortunately, they are usually open between 8am and 4pm.

What is also disturbing is that politicians as well as ordinary Poles still stereotypically place the responsibility for rape on women. 7 For instance, recently the conservative journalist Rafał Ziemkiewicz commented on Twitter about the story of a monk from Krakow who was expelled from his order because he sexually molested a teenager. Ziemkiewicz said, ‘Let the one who never took advantage of the drunk woman throw the first stone’. 8 Last year, Piotr Guział, a local politician in Warsaw also tweeted about the rape of a female jogger, suggesting that the woman should not have been running after dark. 9 These statements reproduce a cultural stereotype according to which women’s reckless behaviors, such as drinking alcohol, spending the evening outside her home or running after dark are to blame.  Interestingly official statistics and social research shows that 80% of rapes actually happen at home, and more than 60% of rapists (not the victims) are under influence. 10 In the majority of cases the attacker is not a stranger hiding in the park at night, but is a person that a victim already knows – a husband, partner or relative.

This victim blaming – the perception of rape as provoked by women must be changed, and therefore the educational activities stressed in the Convention are really needed.

Loneliness of a victim

Clearly, the objections against the Convention are part of the anti-gender campaign, I described in my previous article. 11 They show the centrality of gender issues within the Polish public’s debate: the debate over violence, a very salient social problem, is being transformed into a debate about gender ideology. However for many women the Convention’s suspension translates to a matter of life or death: how many women will be killed by their husbands or partners before conservative politicians see that gender is not a dangerous ideology? It just allows us to see the broad context of discrimination and violence against women. We hear assurances on the part of the ruling party that the Convention will be ratified soon, however this has not been the case. It is a pity that battered women remain the victims in this political struggle. For them each and every day without the ratification and implementation of these safeguards is another day that they are left alone with their struggle for dignity and freedom from abuse.


  1.  European Union Agency For Fundamental Rights, Violence against women: an EU-wide survey, 2014, see also Katarzyna Wolska-Wrona, Europejskie badania na temat przemocy wobec kobiet, Niebieska Linia, 2014/2. 
  2. Agnieszka Koscinaska: Who can be a true Pole? On gender panic, published at V4Revue
  3.  The statement of Małgorzata Sadurska on behalf of the Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość PiS), the main opposition party in the Polish parliament, Sprawozdanie Stenograficzne z 75. posiedzenia Sejmu Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej w dniu 24 września 2014 r. (The stenographic report of 75th parliamentary session, Sept. 24, 2014) , p. 105. See also the statement on Krystyna Pawłowicz, Law and Justice, Sprawozdanie… p. 113.
  4.  Sadurska, Sprawozdanie… p. 105)
  5. Kempa, Sprawozdanie…  p. 110, see also Marzena Wróbel, Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość PiS), Sprawozdanie…  p. 111)
  6. Feminoteka: Dość milczenia, 2011.
  7.  Agnieszka Kościańska, ‘„The ordinary recklessness of girls…”: Expert witnesses and the problem of rape in Poland’, Zeszyty Etologii Wrocławskiej, 2014. See also Agnieszka Kościańska, Płeć, przyjemność i przemoc [Gender, pleasure and violence], Warsaw, 2014; Dość milczenia. Przemoc seksualna wobec kobiet i problem gwałtu w Polsce [No more silence. Sexual violence against women and the problem of rape in Poland], Joanna Piotrowska, Alina Synakiewicz eds. Warsaw
  8. Wiadomosci: Szokujace slowa Rafala Ziemkiewicza Usprawiedliwia gwalt? 23 September 2014
  9. Wiadomosci: Burza po słowach Guziała nt. gwałtu w Lesie Kabackim. “To bezczelność”, 2013
  10. Dość milczenia.… p. 17
  11. Agnieszka Koscinaska: Who can be a true Pole? On gender panic, published at V4Revue see also: Elżbieta Korolczuk, „The War on Gender” from a Transnational Perspective – Lessons for Feminist Strategising, Magdalena Grabowska, Cultural war or “business as usual”? Recent instances, and the historical origins, of a “backlash” against women’s and sexual rights in Poland.
Agnieszka Kościańska

Agnieszka Kościańska

is a cultural anthropologist and Vice Director of the Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology, University of Warsaw. Recently she published Płeć, przyjemność i przemoc. Kształtowanie wiedzy eksperckiej o seksualności w Polsce [Gender, Pleasure and Violence. The Construction of Expert Knowledge of Sexuality in Poland].