Full Speed ahead, in reverse gear

Kobiety w polityce


Full Speed ahead, in reverse gear
10 Years of Polish female MEPs in the European Parliament (2004-2014) in the context of women’s and LGBTQ rights


Anna Dryjańska


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In 2004 Poland’s first European Parliament elections took place. Polish accession to the European Union, the election of female representatives, and existing European legislation raised high hopes for the possibility of legislative improvements for women and LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) people. How, then, did the first decade of Polish female representatives in the European Parliament look? Has the presence of Polish women influenced the agenda of the institution? Have there been any issues with legislation concerning equal rights, equal opportunities, and anti-discrimination? Before we answer these questions, let’s take a look at the bare facts. 

Between 2004 and 2014 (during the 6th and 7th terms of office of the European Parliament) twenty female Polish representatives sat in the parliament. During this time, the female share in the Polish delegation rose from 12.9% (in 2004), through 22% (in 2009) to 23.5% (in 2014). 

Activity of Polish female MEPs during the 6th term of office of the European Parliament (2004-2009) in regards to women’s rights and LGBT rights

 As expected, the activity of Polish female representatives in regard to women’s and LGBT rights was heavily determined by their party of origin. The representative of the League of Polish Families [Liga Polskich Rodzin (LPR)] unsuccessfully sought to completely ban abortion in Europe and even world-wide). The representatives of Civic Platform (PO) remained fairly reserved, avoiding motioning for any resolutions concerning the aforementioned issues. Barbara Kudrycka was an exception though – in 2006,  on her initiative, the European Parliament adopted a recommendation for the Council of Europe on combating human trafficking. Interestingly, the two female representatives of Law and Justice [Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS)] were more active than those from Civic Platform - they demanded the upholding of women’s rights in Afghanistan, Japan, Liberia and Haiti. However, they, voted against a report on equality, arguing, that the document included “crypto-abortionist” entries, was propitious for paedophiles and discriminatory against the Church and its longstanding traditions. Genowefa Grabowska, the representative of Polish Social Democracy [Socjaldemokracja Polska (SDPL)], supported gender equality both in plenary debates and by voting (though she did not motion for any resolutions on the subject). Grażyna Staniszewska, the representative of Freedom Union [Unia Wolności (UW)], never addressed these issues, however she did emphasise the rights of people with disabilities.       

Activity of Polish female MEPs during the 7th term of office of the European Parliament (2009-2014) in regards to women’s and LGBT rights

The European elections in 2009 brought Polish female representation consisting only of representatives of Civic Platform (PO) and the Democratic Left Alliance - Labour Union (SLD-UP). The larger group, from Civic Platform, was much more ideologically varied than in the previous term, and there were notable differences between MEPs, when it came to support of women’s and LGBT rights. Female representatives of the Democratic Left Alliance - Labour Union consistently supported gender and sexual orientation equality. Lidia Geringer de Oedenberg was an unquestionable leader in this regard - in terms of the number of motions for resolutions on these issues, she authored (or co-authored) five documents concerning women’s rights and - notably – LGBT rights.  

Summary / Full speed ahead, in reverse gear

In 2004, when women obtained 12.9% of the Polish mandate to the European Parliament, this number was smaller than the average for the European Union 25 years previously (in 1979 it was 16%). The next elections raised female participation to 22%, and the 2014 elections raised it to 23.5%. However, this still puts Poland behind the 1994 average for the Union. This backwardness relates not only to the quota of women, but also to the quality of equality policies.

The activities of female Polish MEPs are a peculiar mix of a human rights narrative, postulates of the first wave of feminism, and moral conservatism - or even traditionalism. This results in motions, or support, for resolutions concerning the brutal discrimination of women in remote parts of the world, while at the same time opposition to projects granting women in the EU access to sexual education, contraception and abortion. Dozens of speeches can be heard on how human rights activists are persecuted in Russia and other post-Soviet states, while simultaneously any family ties between non-heterosexuals are denied. Ultimately, a human rights narrative can be used in order to defend discrimination that is sanctified by tradition.

 Another element of such an interpretation of equality policies is a quite literal escape from “inconvenient” issues. A good example of this was provided in early 2014 when most MEPs from Civic Platform (PO) abandoned the plenary session during a vote on a resolution on the protection against homophobia and discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.

The division of the “convenient” and “inconvenient” in equality policies refers both to issues and their solutions. It is convenient to talk about equal opportunities for men and women on the labour market, but inconvenient to support quotas and parities. Care for women’s health is convenient – as long as one does not approach the issues of reproductive health and related rights. It is convenient to talk about the rights of women bound by motherhood – as long as we only talk about heterosexual, married women.    

Those few MEPs who actually vote progressively – mostly from the Democratic Left Alliance - Labour Union (SLD-UP), and a few from Civic Platform (PO)-  are exceptions to the rule. The former work actively against discrimination on the grounds of gender or sexual orientation by submitting motions for resolutions and speaking in the plenary debates; the latter lean more towards more passive support of progressive initiatives.

This understanding of equality policy for Polish female MEPs in the European Parliament is the result of local determinants and home-party lines. MEPs from different parties work together only on symbolic matters (like the motion for the resolution concerning the centenary of the Nobel Prize for Marie Skłodowska-Curie) or matters concerning more realities remote (for Poland, and Europe in general), like the situation of women in Afghanistan, India, Pakistan etc. A seat on the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality is often used not for the advancement of those rights, but for preventing this advancement, or even for reversing it. The most recent example here is the fact that in 2014 two MEPs joined the committee:  the relatively progressive Agnieszka Kozłowska-Rajewicz (former government plenipotentiary for equal treatment) and Jadwiga Wiśniewska, known for her extreme traditionalism based on the catechism of the Catholic Church.

In summary, it is hard to resist the obvious conclusion that, in order to shape equality policy in the European Parliament, we need to start by clearly defining the criteria we use for the very act of voting. Otherwise, Poland will continue to present itself as a state where the catechism of the Catholic Church is more important than the state’s constitution, where cunctation is more pressing than human rights, and where female and male MEPs differ only in the cut of their suits. This has become even more important now, with the growing popularity of far-right movements who want to turn back time and push women into the kitchen. So, can we bring more equality and diversity into the Polish delegation of MEPs and their activities? Of course. And, as a matter of fact, this process has already started. What’s more - we have to, there is no other way.

Image removed.                                                                                                                                                                                                This project has been funded with support from the European Commission.

This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.