Poland’s Abortion Ban Protests, Interview with Zula Rabikowska

By Laura James

On 22 October 2020, the Constitutional Tribunal in Poland ruled that abortion on the grounds of fetal abnormality was unconstitutional, further restricting Poland’s already stringent abortion laws (Thebmjopinion). This abortion ban caused outrage among Polish people and resulted in mass protests in the streets. Zula Rabikowska, a Polish-British documentary photographer and videographer, currently based in Karków, attended these protests as they unfolded in order to document the events but also to stand in solidarity with Polish women and help secure the basic human right of safe abortion healthcare. 

In what follows, Zula talks about the current situation regarding the abortion ban, shares her lived experiences of the protests and explains how the Polish people are fighting for their human rights, freedom of speech and going against the tyrannical government currently in power.

What was your motivation for documenting the protests? 

That’s an interesting question. I think it was multi-layered to be honest. I felt a sense of responsibility on a personal level as a female identifying individual who is Polish. Having recently moved back to Poland after living in the UK for 20 years I almost felt like this is something I have to do to show solidarity with other women in Poland, but also for myself and for my own rights to abortion health care. I believe it is a fundamental human right that unfortunately the Polish government does not share. 

So, that was the first layer of my motivation. The second element was that I wanted to be there as a documentary photographer and I was really frustrated to see just how many male photographers were present but there was only 1 or 2 women (In Kraków). From my general understanding, and from having had conversations with other photographers who have covered other areas in Poland, there was a general consensus that this is something that is being covered by male photojournalists. I felt a double sense of frustration as a participant and also as a photographer as I felt like female photographers should have been given more of a voice in this and get their perspectives heard and seen.

What was the atmosphere like at the protests? 

In the winter months it was relentless, it was all the time. It wasn’t just protests which were happening, there were pickets, road closures, transport strikes. The tension in the atmosphere was really tangible, you could see in the streets and you could feel it just walking around. The protests have a symbol of the red thunderbolt and you would see this in bakeries for example, people would have the red thunderbolt in their car windows, on their jackets, on their phones, on their faces, on their masks. It was very much a movement that to this day is still going on. The other day, I was checking out a local a tattoo parlour and there are artists who specialise in the thunderbolt, due to a demand for people to have this tattooed on the body. 

This is something that has really affected the Polish society and it quickly became not just about abortion, it became about the oppression from the very right-wing government here. Some of the protests I was going along to were about pedophilia in the Catholic Church. People just took to the streets to show how fed up they were with the current tyrannical government.  

What was the main message the protesters wanted to convey? 

I think the main message was to show the government, and internationally, that people disagree with this ban. Poland isn’t this homophobic, homogenous, Catholic, conservative country that the government would like everyone to believe. This is the message that appears in the state-owned media in Poland, it is pure propaganda and it’s quite frightening how the message is portrayed. Alongside this, the way they portrayed the protests and protesters in the state news was horrific. It didn’t really show this message of abortion health care and the need for women and for people to have a say about their rights. 

The baseline message was that people wanted to express their discontent for this ban and their need to have safe access to abortion. The second message would be this wave of being fed up and ready for a change of government.

You said that the protests are still happening today, is it in such a large capacity as back in winter? 

Yes and no. Before in Kraków, every other evening there would be thousands of protesters taking to the streets, and I haven’t seen it happening as much right now. But that is not to say that protests on a smaller scale aren’t happening. 

This weekend it was actually 11 years ago that a plane crashed in Poland and 93 right wing politicians died. So, the current president that we have now, his twin brother and mother died in that plane crash. As a result people took to the streets and to the main market square in Kraków to protest against the government, so this kind of discontent is very much present. In addition, on 1st May Poland observed International Labour Day, which is traditionally a day to celebrate labourers and the working classes, and lots of people demonstrated with the thunderbolt symbol on this day. I went along on 18th April to Wawel Castle in Kraków as Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of the Law and Justice party, came to the city. On this day the politicians were greeted by a small crowd of protesters holding up banners and with their faces in red thunderbolts. The way the large-scale protests were happening in January, October and November and even in December have changed, but it doesn’t mean that people aren’t still striking.

Did you feel safe documenting the demonstrations? 

Once again, I was in Kraków, yet in Warsaw a lot of arrests of photojournalists were being made and this completely infringed freedom of speech in my opinion. This did happen in Kraków to an extent but obviously the protests weren’t as big as in Warsaw. Yet, there were a few occasions when I thought to myself should I be here? And that wasn’t because of the protesters, but the main threat came from the police who were kitted out with tear gas and shields, and really looked in full combat mode. When you are surrounded by 50 or 60 police it is really intimidating. But intimidation was definitely one of the tactics that they were going for with that presence. The other threat was that the police used the pandemic and used megaphones with the slogan ‘you shouldn’t be meeting in groups of more than 5 people’. They used this as an excuse to arrest people or fine them.

Within the community do you feel there is a sense of polarisation between supporters of the abortion ban and those who are protesting against it? 

I guess that is happening all around us these days. I could compare it to Brexit in the UK and we are seeing it right now with people being pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine. But I suppose within the liberal bubble that I live in in Kraków, I personally didn’t encounter anyone directly who was anti-abortion. But I have seen the countermovement of the right wing people come out to confront the protesters. I remember there was a group of nuns and priests who came out to the protests with huge speakers to drown out the protesters with religious songs and the police didn’t stop them. This is one of many examples of such actions.

As a Polish woman do you feel your human rights are being violated by this ban? 

Yes definitely 100%. It is a huge violation and is very upsetting that the government and parts of the society do not see it that way. 

Do you think the protests will continue until the ban is lifted? 

I think it is difficult to say to be honest. But this time people have explicitly been taking to the streets. People have been fired by their employers for protesting, so people have been losing their jobs because of this. Nevertheless, people are still willing to protest and to let the government and society know that this is not ok. 

At the same time, I think things will only change when we elect another government as the situation right now is really tyrannical, not just in terms of the abortion ban, but with the lack of freedom of speech, democracy and even the way the state news reports on what is factual and not factual is frightening. 

Will you continue to document the protests via photography? 

Yes definitely. But photography is only one of the tools I use, I also use multimedia and video to make sense of the world around me and if other people are finding it useful to help make sense of the world then great. So I have no intention of stopping at least for the near future. 

Zula Rabikowska

Laura James

All photographs ©Zula Rabikowska

The Damaging Impact of Locust Plagues on Pastoralist Communities in Kenya.

By Laura James

Key Facts on the 2020 Locust Plagues:

  • The Desert Locust is considered the most destructive migratory pest in the world and a single swarm covering one square kilometre can contain up to 80 million locusts. (FAO)
  • One mega-swarm of locusts detected in 2020 in Kenya covered 240,000 hectares of land, an area the size of Luxembourg. (FAO)
  • At their peak earlier in early 2020, swarms were eating 1.8m tonnes of vegetation a day across 350 sq km the FAO says. (BBC)
  • It was predicted more than 25 million people in east Africa would experience food insecurity in 2020 with the locust infestations compounding the situation. (International Observatory Human Rights)

Georgina Smith is a photojournalist based in Nairobi, Kenya and recently appeared as a guest speaker at one of the Photojournalism Nights online events. At the event she spoke of the impact climate change induced locust plagues are having on pastoralist communities in the County of Isiolo, Kenya. Having grown up in a rural area of Zambia, Georgina has lived in close proximity to the natural environment herself, which is one of the reasons for her investigating this story. Below Georgina answers my questions regarding the locust plagues and highlights how the local pastoralist communities living on the ‘front lines’ of climate change are suffering human rights abuses.

Moses Lomooria, 34, cattle herder, a father of 6. He is also a peace ambassador in his community. He holds dead locusts found near his animals. ©Georgina Smith.

How is climate change linked to the locust plagues in Kenya?

‘With the story that I was working on for the locust invasion most people are saying there was a climate (change) link. This is because the increased heavy rainfall meant that there was more breading going on in the locus populations, so that combined with some other things meant that there was this huge influx of locusts coming into Kenya from other parts of Africa such as Yemen and Somalia. When they arrived in Kenya last year (2019) it was the worst outbreak for 70 years. Most people had never seen them in that many numbers before, so it was quite a shock for people.’ 

What was your motivation for investigating this story?

‘I think it was the fact that at the beginning of 2020 and the end of 2019 there were all these news reports coming in about this invasion and that it was the worst one in 70 years. So that was the broad news story, but I really wanted to dig into it and find out who specifically was being affected as I knew in those areas there are pastoralist communities and they are very vulnerable communities anyways. They really are hit by so many different things; the impact of climate change in a normal year, by so many other elements and the weather. They are very close to the environment and so anything that happens they feel the impacts first.

The plagues also have impacts with regards to security and conflict, because once the food runs out for the animals, those herders have to take their animals to different pastures and perhaps trespass on other lands. So I was interested to show how these communities are struggling with those multiple impacts, and this was the time Covid had just hit so that was another thing. There was all these layers of challenges that they were facing.’

Samburu herders bring home their herds in the evening, in Samburu East sub-county, Samburu county. ©Georgina Smith.

Is the locust plague causing food insecurity there?

‘Yes, so the issue was that the locusts were eating the food for the animals and in this area the community is very dependent on the animals. So if the animals die, which they did, they don’t have meat, milk and they don’t have income as they often rely on the animals for income as well. This created a triple effect in the sense that they basically lost everything. Also, some of the people we spoke to said some of the pesticides that were being sprayed (to kill the locusts) also killed some of the animals, but that hasn’t been verified. In any case the animals were being wiped out so the communities were being put in a very difficult situation.’

Leshidungule, a 30-year old Samburu pastoralist, who narrated how the locusts wiped out animal pasture. ©Georgina Smith.
Young members of 40-year-old Turkana herder Erupe Lobun’s family keep back baby goats in an acacia-thorn cattle pen, so they do not suckle too much. Lack of pasture means their mothers do not have enough milk. ©Georgina Smith.

What type of practices were they putting in place to try and resolve the issue? 

‘So they (the communities) were working with FAO the government to try and spray the locust swarms to stop them from spreading. That was the main effort that was happening. Yet, at the beginning of the pandemic there were some issues around the logistics of getting all of the equipment in place. But then as the pandemic went on that was less of an issue. So that was basically how they were trying to control it, and this was in July 2020. So that was the situation at that time.’

FAO control operations for the vast areas of Samburu, Isiolo, Laikipia and Meru, sprayers are alerted to tackle the desert locusts. ©Georgina Smith.

You mentioned earlier that the communities were having to trespass on land, did this cause conflict?

‘Well we didn’t see anything, but one of the people we spoke with who was a peace-broker as it were, said that she had worked with the communities to try and resolve conflict so it was definitely tense. But I haven’t seen anything as a result of that yet, but I could be wrong as I wasn’t there to see it.’

Josephine Ekiru, peace-building coordinator, Northern Rangelands Trust. She warns of conflict among pastoralist groups due to lack of pasture. ©Georgina Smith.

 Will you be following up with the communities in the future?

‘Yes I think so, I haven’t done anything yet but I hope that it is something I can go back to and revisit as the locust plague is still a big problem at the moment and they didn’t manage to get rid of all of them. They come back once the seasons change so it is this constant cycle. Right now other people are following up with it.’

Is there anything you’d like to add about the communities and the impact this is having on their human rights?

‘I think something to add is that in general the poorest communities are the ones who are dependent on the land and are the ones who face the biggest impacts with regards to climate change. We all see the impact of climate change around the world but it’s the people who are living with the environment, on the front lines, who see these first. I’m sure there are things we can learn from these communities about how we can manage our natural resources and land better so that we don’t make these challenges worse.’

From left, two Samburu warriors talk to thirty two year old Tiampati Leletit. who lost 80 of his goats when the locusts arrived. Now he has an empty pen, since he gave his four remaining goats to a neighbor to look after. ©Georgina Smith.
Locusts. ©Georgina Smith.

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Georgina Smith

IG: georgina_smith_photo

Laura James