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Why the war on “gender ideology” matters – and not just to feminists

Anti-genderism and the crisis of neoliberal democracy.

Weronika Grzebalska

According to EIGE’s Gender Equality Index report, women in Europe are currently only halfway towards to the goal of reaching equality with men, and their overall situation has not improved during the last decade. The picture is even grimmer in Visegrad countries which are lagging significantly behind older member states in terms of women’s position, ranking around 10% below the EU average of 52.9%. But as recent conservative mobilisations across Europe alarm us, the progress that has been made in the field of gender equality has not only been rather stagnant and uneven, but also much shakier and easier to reverse than we had imagined.

In countries such as Croatia, Germany, Italy, France, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Slovakia and Slovenia, the post-war consensus on human rights is currently being threatened as issues such as gender mainstreaming, sexual education, LGBTQ+ rights and reproductive rights have come under coordinated attacks carried out by the Church, religious and lay conservative NGOs, right wing politicians, and even grassroots mobilisations.

Since the transnational anti-gender campaign began unfolding around  2012, the aforementioned actors have already achieved a great deal: they managed to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people for demonstrations and civil initiatives across Europe, to hinder the passing of progressive laws or the ratification of international treaties advancing human rights, cut state funds for gender quality, and in some countries – even change the constitution.

In France, the La Manif pour tous movement took off in 2012 as a campaign against same-sex marriage (with 150 thousand people marching in Paris alone in May 2013), but it soon turned into a protest against the more general threat of “gender theory” being taught in schools.

Likewise, in Italy and Germany, demonstrations against school curricula were carried out under the aegis of “protecting the children” from a depravation allegedly imposed on them by “gender ideology”.

In Croatia and Slovakia, the pressure from conservative civil movements resulted in the introduction of constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage.

Meanwhile in Russia, a bill aiming to protect minors from “homosexual propaganda” was signed into law in 2013, and was soon followed by similar attempts in other post-Soviet countries such as Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine.

In Poland, the campaign initially focused on opposing the Istanbul Convention as a carrier of “gender ideology”, delaying its ratification by three years. However, it soon spread to other issues, and gained significant momentum after the populist right wing Prawo i Sprawiedliwość came to power. During just the last few months, the newly elected Polish president vetoed a major transgender rights bill, a coalition of pro-life organizations submitted a petition calling for Parliament to withdraw the morning after pill from pharmacies and hospitals, the government cancelled the publicly funded IVF scheme and cut the funds from the Ombudsman due to accusations that the office promotes “gender ideology”, as well as announcing plans to eradicate any elements of sex and equality education from schools.

The aforementioned national campaigns have a lot in common. They share a common enemy figure – “gender ideology” or “gender theory”, draw from the same philosophical foundations – the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, invoke identical, hyperbolic and fear-arousing discursive figures and operate through similar means of action (i.e., civil initiatives and grassroots organizing). But while the concept of “gender” is present in all these campaigns, we would be very wrong to assume they are simply about opposing gender equality and minority rights.

Anti-genderism – as we argued in our book – is rather a “symbolic glue” which connects various progressive issues under one umbrella term, and unites different conservative actors in a much bigger quest to change the values underlying the European liberal democracy. As such, anti-genderism is not “just” a feminist issue, but rather one threatening liberal democracy – a Trojan horse for making much broader and deeper changes to our political system.

At the same time, both progressive European political leaders and Members of the European Parliament have been rather hesitant to react to these mobilizations, and when they did, they often found it sufficient to simply target these conservative campaigns as a problem in and of itself. And so they came up with ways to expose their financial and ideological connections with the Catholic Church, discredit their leaders by ridicule or defamation, educate their supporters in gender studies, or simply defend certain policies from conservative attacks.

And while some of these tactics might have been effective in the short term, I am growing more and more convinced that they will ultimately prove insufficient. It is because waging a war against the rise of political extremism and religious fundamentalism can only bring us so far as mitigating the symptoms of a disease instead of curing its root causes.

So what are these root causes and why do masses of people become radicalized against liberal democracy in its current form? It is of course a complex, multi-dimensional issue. But thanks to a growing literature dealing with the social consequences of the current economic system we know for sure that a large part of the answer to this question is that the neoliberal, market-driven democracy that we currently see in Europe, structurally excludes a huge number of people from social participation, pushing them into insecurity if not outright poverty.

It is in this context that conservative protest movements create a space for these people to vent their fears and insecurities, voice their anger and dissatisfaction with politics and claim a sense of agency and empowerment that European liberals and social democrats once promised – but failed to deliver.

Interestingly enough, the city where European policies are made and where I have originally given this statement, can serve as a mini-laboratory for the examination of these issues. Brussels has been one of the main migrant destinations for Polish unskilled workers from rural areas.

In eastern parts of the country, there are towns that now count 25% of their total population as citizens who have emigrated from other areas of Europe, and most of those were women who have been especially vulnerable to the rolling back of the state, the privatization of health care and the growing precarity of work in general. And while these brave women made the hard decision to leave their children in order to be able to provide for them, back at home their departure resulted in a massive moral panic aroused around the emotive figure of a “Euro-orphan”, as Polish sociologist Sylwia Urbańska observed. In the media, female migrants were accused of being deviant and egoistic, and their families were ostracized as broken and pathological. It was not long until right wing politicians started calling for the return of the nuclear family and traditional family values as a solution to these emergent problems of transnational families.

The case of the patriarchal moral panic around migrant women is just one of the many examples of the link between current right-wing, anti-gender mobilisations and the challenges created by the globalised, neoliberal economy. Another one is the recent social campaign “Don’t Put Off Motherhood Until It’s Too Late”, carried out by the conservative Mom and Dad Foundation (Fundacja Mamy i Taty), one of the key civil society actors of the war against “gender ideology” in Poland. The video shows a wealthy, middle-aged woman expressing regret over not having children. “I managed to have a specialisation and a career; I managed to see Tokyo and Paris; I managed to buy a flat and renovate a house. But I didn’t become a mum. I regret this” – she concludes, as a tear rolls down her face.

While the demographic crisis is undoubtedly unfolding not just in Poland, but around the continent, what raises eyebrows is the Foundation’s decision to blame it solely on women’s alleged egoism, and the subsequent efforts to discuss the issue in an anti-choice and anti-gender framework. In fact, most Polish women would probably not recognize their own motivations to postpone parenthood in this portrayal, as the former have more to do with financial instability, insufficient provision of state-funded childcare and a lack of gender-equal parental leave policies than with individual love of comfort and consumptionism. But just like in the case of the moral panic around “Euro-orphans”, here the right has also managed to aptly identify very genuine social challenges and insecurities, and then provided deeply harmful solutions to them.

By all means, members of the European feminist and LGBT+ movements as well as progressive politicians have been right in opposing anti-gender mobilizations, and criticizing the solutions offered by them as threatening human rights and destructive to democratic society. But as they were calling for the need to protect women’s and minority rights and other liberal values from right-wing attacks, what they so often ignored is the fact that the liberal democratic system in its current form has become an empty slogan to the vast masses of people to whom it has very little to offer, among them rural mothers forced to migrate to support their families or middle class women struggling to afford a child.

While this does not mean that these people will automatically become radicalised, what is certain is that those who have been failed by the liberal democratic system will not readily join the struggle to oppose right-wing mobilisations, not recognizing the European democratic values as something worth fighting for. The evidence is already there – while the demonstrations against “gender theory” or sexual education have taken hundreds of thousands of Europeans to the streets, counter-reactions have been considerably smaller in numbers and mostly restricted to the academic and NGO level.

Therefore, the task that stands before European political leaders and decision makers is to acknowledge the connection between anti-genderism and other forms of right-wing radicalisation on the one hand, and the broader crisis of democracy stemming from the failure of the current globalised, capitalist order on the other.

This does not mean that the fight for gender equality should be abandoned as a legitimate social goal or substituted with a plan that focuses on redistribution instead. Rather, the challenge is to reconnect these two dimensions of social justice in new ways.

One way to do so is to start our politics with the very material experiences of ordinary people’s lives, identify the challenges faced by them, and articulate them in progressive terms. It is precisely here that young grassroots feminist and socialist movements offer a unique perspective which could help progressive political parties break out of the current deadlock.

Working grassroots with women who have been disproportionately affected by the rolling back of the state, severe austerity measures, growing precarity of employment and privatization of care work, feminist activists across the globe remind us that women experience intersecting oppressions and that the promise of gender equality cannot be fulfilled without reforming the current socioeconomic system, and that only by solving the latter can we renew people’s faith in the democratic project.

The author is a sociologist and a feminist currently pursuing a PhD at the Graduate School for Social Research, Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw. Her research focuses on Polish nationalism, militarism and the far-right seen from a gender perspective. She is the author of “Płeć powstania warszawskiego” [Gender of the Warsaw Uprising, IBL PAN 2013] and contributor to “Gender as symbolic glue. The position and role of conservative and far right parties in the anti-gender mobilisations in Europe” (FEPS and FES 2015). She is also a member of FEPS Young Academics Network and a Gender Research Team affiliated with the Polish Academy of Sciences. 

This article is an extended version of the author’s statement delivered at the event Passing on the Torch. The legacy of the Beijing Platform for Action and new, grassroots feminist movements organized by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies in the European Parliament in Brussels on20 October 2015.

Source: Visegrad Insight

Youth for Gender Equality Forum

Youth for Gender Equality Forum 2016
was held on 2th-4th of March in European Parliament, in Brussels, organised by the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament. Only 20 young people from Europe and 5 beyond Europe were invited to participate in this event, but lots of messages had been and will be shared with those, who couldn‘t attend. It wasan interactive and inspiring initiative to promote dialogue, exchange, learning and networking for people engaged in promoting gender equality in their daily lives.

The main topics that were discussed during the Forum were refugee crisis, economic independence, SRHR, comprehensive sexuality education, abortion legislation and stigma, gender-based violence, LGBTI rights, the raise of anti-gender and anti-feminist movement.

Despite the fact that the EU has adopted numerous texts to ensure equal opportunities and treatment for men and women and to combat all forms of discrimination based on sex, insufficient progress has been made and many inequalities still persist.

ASTRA Youth member from Lithuania, Family Planning and Sexual Health Association representative Julita Valancauskyte attended the Forum and was actively involved in all discussions together with young people and MEPs. She has joined creation of the strategy for equal Europe and participated in the workshop The raise of anti-gender and anti-feminist movements are our fight!’Lots of inspiration and motivation spread through participants, still there’s lots of work to do to make EU equal.


Sexuality education in Moldova

Sexuality education in Moldova remains a challenging issue, as being provided either within Civic Education or Biology lessons as optional aspect of the curriculum. Several years ago, the curriculum included a separate ‘Life Skills’ subject but it was suspended due to insistence from religious organizations.

The Ministry of Education has published two editions of Civic Education textbooks for 9th and 10th graders, which explicitly promote abstinence-only approach. Pupils in the 9th grade discuss sexual relationships under the theme ‘Passions and emotions. Abstinence and its importance to healthy and safe lifestyle’. Due to textbooks, when sex is practiced improperly it can lead to STIs, unwanted pregnancies, emotional and even physical problems resulting from HIV infection. Therefore, authors of textbooks recommend sexual activity starting after marriage as the best solution to family harmony and happy relationships. According to Natalia Cojuhari, assistant representative of United Nations Population Fund in Moldova, although the law on reproductive health (adopted in 2012) stipulates that sex education be made compulsory in schools and in other institutions where there are young people, this is not fully implemented and remains an optional subject as in Romania, Cyprus, Lithuania and Poland.

The statistics regarding sexual and reproductive health in Moldova are alarming – annually, about 70 children are born by girls under 15 years of age. On the other hand, rates of abortions remain high, as between 2010 and 2013, there were 60 thousand registered abortions and out of them, 10,6% were among adolescents aged 15-19. Unofficially, the doctors argue that numbers may be higher as not all abortions are registered and those done in private clinics are not recorded in official statistics.

Source: Timpul


Moral education guidelines in Latvia

The National Curriculum Development Centre (SECC) is developing moral education guidelines, including the virtues to be taught to children at Latvian schools. The list of virtues includes solidarity, dignity, justice, honesty among others; moderation and courage have been added recently. Guidance developers hope that the document will help teachers to bring up children, but teachers remain skeptical.

The initiative of ‘moral education’ has begun with the booklet developed by Papardes zieds, which mentioned homosexual relationships. Part of Latvian MPs regarded this as an attack on morality and marriage. Last year, the Saeima supported the moral education amendment, which obliges schools to provide moral education that meets the values protected by the Constitution, especially marriage and family. Although guidelines are not supposed to define marriage or discuss sexuality, the virtues mentioned in the guidelines such as temperance, apply to sexuality as well.

The Latvian Association of Schoolmasters vice president, Aija Melle, claims that these guidelines pose a threat of censorship. The current version of the guidelines will be shared for review and it is planned that the government will approve them by 1st July.

Source: LSM.LV

Rising rates of teen births in Latvia

The rising rates of teen births have been observed in Latvia. Due to hospital data, Riga Maternity Hospital registered that 300 school-aged girls gave birth over the past five years and almost 50 only last year. Many of minor mothers have not completed primary school yet.

The main reason for school-aged girls becoming mothers is lack of quality information on sexuality and various stakeholders such as politicians, parents, physicians and social services should be involved to find a solution. Riga Social Service claims that to reduce the number of teen births, health education should be introduced as a separate subject. However, according to the Ministry of Education and Science, students are already overloaded and health education is integrated within other subjects.

Source: Skaties

Valentine's Day Street Event in Poland

On 14th February 2016, Ponton Group of Sex Educators organized their Valentine’s Day street event for the tenth time. This year’s theme was ‘Infect with Love, Not HIV’. Ponton volunteers distributed leaflets and brochures on prevention of HIV/AIDS along with condoms and balloons.

Young people and adults participating in the event were encouraged to take part in the quiz and check their knowledge of sexuality, including physiology, pregnancy, modern contraception, HIV/AIDS prevention and transmission, sexual violence, sexting. There was also a possibility to take a photo with a special speech bubble, including participant’s recommendation on sexuality education. The recommendations included calling for education on sexual violence, STIs, contraception, conscious consent and satisfying relationships.

Photos from the event are accessible here.

Source:Ponton Group of Sex Educators

Georgian NGOs advocate on reproductive rights to the government

Georgian Coalition for “Reproductive Health and Rights” advocating on SRHR issues in Georgia has developed a video, in which NGOs’ representatives send messages on reproductive rights to the government. The main message of the video is: ‘Be aware of reproductive rights as human rights and create your healthy futures’. It aims to provide information to Georgian society on reproductive rights and remind decisionmakers of their obligation to ensure protection of sexual and reproductive rights. In the video, active members of the coalition stand in front of different ministries and hold messages calling the government to ensure realization of reproductive rights as basic human rights.

The coalition was set up in 2014 at the initiative of Association HERA-XXI. Currently, it’s made up of 16 members, including local and regional NGOs working on reproductive health and rights, women’s rights, gender issues and professional organizations, decisionmakers and doctors. Its main goal is to advocate on SRHR issues and act for changes in this field. The coalition is recognizable in the field of SRHR and succeeded in obtaining financial support to carry out projects.

See the video here.

Factsheet on access to modern contraceptives in Eastern Europe and Central Asia

IPPF has released the factsheet ‘Access to modern contraceptive choice in Eastern Europe and Central Asia’, which presents data and trends in the contraceptives’ usage in the region.

The factsheet highlights major factors which influence contraceptive behaviours, demand and access such as lack of commitment by policymakers, widespread misinformation on modern contraception, barriers limiting access to family planning and limited range of modern methods. It also explains the role of donors to enable women in the region to access modern contraceptives.

Source: IPPF

Society Without Violence cooperation on enabling SRHR counselling for girls and young women in Armenia

In order to respond to poor awareness of girls and young women on SRHR issues in Armenia and sexual and reproductive health challenges faced by them, Society Without Violence has started cooperation with an Armenian-Canadian medical clinic ‘Maple Leaves’.

According to initial arrangements, the scope of cooperation includes awareness-raising sessions, medical consultations with gynecologists for project beneficiaries with a discount and provision of statistics and information on main sexual and reproductive health issues faced by young women. At the end of January the first event was arranged to be held in February within the V-Day movement. The event will be a seminar for young women facilitated by a gynecologist expert of Maple Leaves. The main topics of the seminar will cover issues related to women’s sexual and reproductive health. Participants of the seminar will have an opportunity to openly or privately consult the doctor and will be granted an opportunity to use the consultation services at Maple Leaves with a 20-30% discount.

Source: SWV

Law on conscientious objection in Croatia

Croatia: Doctors that refuse to do abortions should look for a job in church-funded hospitals

Three respected physicians, MD Dubravko Lepusic, MD Jasenka Grujic-Koracin and MD Gorjana Gjuric, whose Initiative for regulation of conscientious objection raised a public debate, explained their position on demanding that government-funded hospitals shouldn't employ doctors who refuse do to various medical procedures on the grounds of religious beliefs. 

Hospital, as a public institution that is funded by public money, has to secure the right of a woman to have an abortion. That is, and there should be no compromise on that certain issue. There are legal frames that guarantee that right. There are articles, in particular laws that also guarantee a right for a physician to practice conscientious objection, but that does not mean they are allowed not to put patients' needs first.

"It doesn't function in Croatia. Every doctor with conscientious objection, like those who work in the "Holy Spirit" hospital, which are massively refusing to do abortions, should work in a confessional hospital that should be funded by the Church. That's why we are demanding that confessional hospitals get established and that the institutional right for conscientious objection in public hospitals gets shut down, including pharmacy and transfusion medicine. It's a physician's obligation to provide services based on science, and not the religious dogma." - That's how the MD Jasenka Grujic-Koracin announces the initiative for the establishment of confessional hospitals, as just one of the series of projects the "Initiative of doctors for the regulation of conscientious objection in medicine" will pull off. The Initiative was presented to the public during the roundtable they've organized together with Center for education, counseling and research from Zagreb. 

Violations of the rights of the patients 

"If the conscientious objection would be applied consistently, the system would get broken, in every segment of human rights, not just the right to terminate a pregnancy. How far is it allowed to practice the conscientious objection? If we bring it to the level of absurd,  it would allow for the Jehovah's Witnesses to demand the abolishment of the Institute for Transfusion, the lawyers could demand to be exempt from defending the criminals they don't like, and the employees of the hospitals could just boycott everything that has any relation with a woman who had an abortion - the cleaning staff shouldn't wash the sheets that woman used, and the administrative clerks should deny writing her discharge letter." - that's how MD Jasenka Grujic-Koracin explains the motives that are behind the need for the doctors to merge into the Initiative. 

MD Lepusic told a story from his practice: because her doctor of the primary health care refused to prescribe her contraception, a seventeen-year-old girl came to have abortion two times, in a timespan of a couple of months. She had to go to the hospitals with ther parents.  Except from extreme dark examples, it's important to highlight a dark secret on missusement of the conscientious objection,  that gets mentioned a lot on gatherings of doctors and in the culoars - that there are doctors that practice their right not the perform an abortion during the working hours, but still perform terminations of pregnancies in private clinics. 

The doctors that are gathered in the Initiative demand from the Government and from the Ministry of Health that the conscientious objection regulates more precisely. From defining what are the cases of negative, as well as a positive conscientious objection, to determine a more clear procedure, to regulate the accreditation of institution that has a greater number of people who practice their CO right and thus don't do all of the tasks that are listed under their affair. They wish to have a very clear and written procedure of recognition of the individual right to practice CO, similar as it exists in the military service. Furthermore, they wish to abolish the right some people and to pray in front of the hospitals any by that interfere with regular work of the hospitals, and to form some "buffer" zones which wouldn't allow those people to come near the hospitals. 

The Conscientious Objection Registry 

The doctors from the Initiative demand the forming of a registry for the institutions and the Ministry of health, as well as trough the different professions, and to deter the measures that would compensate the loss made because of the conscientious objection. That would mean that, per instance, if a person refuses to do something because of his/hers CO, that would be deducted from that person's paycheck, which would lower unnecessary cost and leave more money for the "fund" that would be used to pay external associates, as MD Lepusic explains. 

The right to practice a conscientious objection was brought to Croatian law in 2003. The drama surrounding the abortion rights has just brought them to the light, but it's not related exclusively to abortion, but to the whole reproductive and palliative medicine, as well as transfusiology and prevention. The last one is related to the HPV vaccine; Lepusic says: "While we're holding discussions on vaccines and are not one of the 58 countries in the world that have it in their national program, in Croatia around hundred women per year die from cervical cancer. The world moves forward - there has been registered another nine-valent vaccine in America. It covers nine types of viruses." 

Source: JutarnjiLIST

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