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16 April 2017

How Romania’s feminists are fighting back

Sian Norris meets the feminists taking to the streets.

By Sian Norris

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.

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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:

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“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.”