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How Romania's feminists are fighting back

Sian Norris meets the feminists taking to the streets.

You may have read about the anti-corruption protests that happened in Romania this February. But one month later, another march strode through Bucharest. This time it was members of the Church and the Coalition for Family taking to the streets. Their demands? Tighter restrictions on women”s right to abortion.

“It was quite scary,” activist Irina Ilisei explained to me when we spoke earlier this month. Co-founder of the Feminism Romania website and the activist group FRONT, Ilisei is a vocal supporter of women”s reproductive rights. “There have been pro-life protests before,”  she continued. “They attracted a couple of hundred people. But this time there were a few thousand, and not just in Bucharest, but all over the country.”

Not everything on the anti-abortion protest was how it first seemed. Orthodox and Neo-Protestant church leaders and the Coalition for Family chanted “life” while marching past pro-choice graffiti emblazoned across the city”s walls. At the heart of the march, feminist activists held up placards proclaiming “this is how you stamp on women”s rights”. Romania”s feminists were not going to take this assault on their human rights lying down.

“When the protests were smaller, we tended to leave them alone,” Ilisei explained. “We didn’t want to risk making their demands more visible. But this time, a group of feminists in Bucharest took subversive steps to challenge the anti-abortion movement. It was funny and clever to see pro choice and pro LGBT messages on the walls and on the streets where the march took place.”

Abortion has been legal in Romania since the fall of Ceausescu. Under his rule, it’s estimated 10,000 women died as a result of so-called illegal abortions. For post-communist Romania, legalising abortion was seen as a way to move forward from the horrors of the dictatorship.

Although abortion is now legal and free, the reality of accessing the procedure is much more complex. Terminations are only available in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy, and some private clinics only offer it up to ten weeks. Meanwhile, doctors can refuse to carry out an abortion. The result is that many women with an unwanted pregnancy are unable to access their legal right to a free termination. It’s a situation Ilisei has seen again and again:

“It can be very difficult for women to find a place where they can have an abortion, and in rural areas it”s even harder. We have had women calling us from different regions of the country, even in big cities, telling us they can”t find a hospital that offers the procedure. So on the one hand we have freedom of abortion, but then you go to the hospital and you are denied one. The doctors say it”s their choice to refuse. That”s not good enough. The hospitals need to make sure they have someone who can provide these services.”

It’s these existing difficulties which make the recent attacks and protests all the more worrying. If those demanding increased restrictions on women”s reproductive rights make political gains, then women will struggle even more to access the medical care and support they need to end an unwanted pregnancy.

But how credible are the threats to abortion rights in Romania? To measure that, you need to understand the power of the Orthodox Church and the Coalition for Family. Last year, the latter managed to secure a 3 million strong petition to permanently ban same-sex marriage via the constitution. As a result of the petition, all major political parties agreed to consider the change. This is not a fringe group.

At the same time, the Orthodox Church has declared war on sex education - something which is key to women”s reproductive health, equality, and in reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies. The church”s influence has made it very difficult to teach women and men about their options when it comes to sexual health and reproductive rights. And while comprehensive sex education is therefore rare, church-backed organisations like Pro Vita are going into schools to teach an anti-abortion message.

“Religion is very embedded in Romanian society” Ilisei explained to me. “Nearly 90 per cent of Romanians declare themselves Christian Orthodox and the Church is very powerful. If they tell their congregation that sex education will corrupt their children, then parents aren”t going to give permission for it to be taught. But we all know education and access to contraception is vital to improving women”s rights. I agree we need to minimise the number of terminations. But we can’t do that unless we have sex education.”

For Ilisei, the threat to women”s bodily autonomy exists in an international context where abortion is increasingly under attack. She cites as examples the attempted ban in neighbouring Poland, Trump’s hardline attitude to women”s rights in the USA, and the nationalistic “family values” rhetoric of Putin’s Russia:

“After 1989, one of the arguments for defending women”s rights in general was that it was the progressive position of western democracies. Now the argument goes “we can restrict abortions because developed countries like the US are doing so too”. We”ve seen a swing back to nationalism and traditionalism in Romania - a type of ‘let”s make Romania great again’ - in the same way populist politics have taken hold elsewhere in the west.”

The feminist movement in Romania is small. But it’s vocal. Take the campaign launched by FRONT this International Women”s Day. Across social media, they posted “thanks for the flowers but…” completing the message with feminist demands such as “we want reproductive rights” or “we want you to use a condom”. The campaign went viral, and was accompanied with a performance outside Bucharest”s Ministry of Justice.

Coupled with the subversive infiltration of the anti-abortion march, it’s clear that Romania”s feminists are not going to stand by quietly and watch as their reproductive rights are attacked.

“For a long period of time we thought that abortion was such a basic right, that this battle was won,” said Ilisei. “We now realise that the fight for women”s reproductive rights isn”t over yet.”

Sian Norris is a writer. She blogs at sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com and is the Founder & Director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival. She is currently writer-in-residence at Spike Island.

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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