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Poland invites women on its way to Brussels

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A welcome, though unexpected consequence of the enlargement process: Warsaw by incorporating the acquis in the area of equal treatment of women and men raised awareness on the issue. But there’s still road ahead.

Great hopes and fears are still connected with the process of enlarging the European Union. There is a great number of possible consequences of accession in many areas. However, when it comes to gender equality, it has not received much attention throughout the whole process, both from policy makers and from the general public. This is very true in the accession countries to become EU Member States in May 2004. Therefore, this is also true in Poland.

Although the European Commission noticed that Poland had undertaken considerable efforts to align with the EC acquis with regard to gender equality standards, it also stated that these issues should continue to receive high priority. The Commission highligted the neccessity of establishing the institutional framework for implementing and enforcing the acquis in the area of equal treatment for women and men, as well as providing effective instruments to combat different forms of discrimination (1).

The amendments to the Labour Code clearly constitute good progress, defining more specifically the principle of equal treatment, and therefore harmonising the Polish legislation with the provisions set forth in the Directive 76/207/EEC on the implementation of the principle of equal treatment for men and women as regards access to employment, vocational training and promotion, and working conditions.

Pending bills, Positive changes

There was always lack of the political will to conduct a pro-equality policy in the integration of international standards in Poland. In 1997, for example, the national gender equality machinery was transformed into the Plenipotentiary of the Government for the Family and gender equality issues were not placed among the main competences of this office, perceiving women only in the context of the family.

In 1999, the Parliament rejected a first draft Act on Equal Status. Right now, the second, this time more comprehensive anti-discrimination bill is pending before Parliament. The bill provides for extensive uniform protection against discrimination on a large number of grounds, including gender, race/ethnicity, religion/belief, disability, age and sexual orientation. The bill transposes into domestic law European Union anti-discrimination Directives. The aim of this new law is to guarantee equal treatment, equal opportunities and effective protection against discrimination.

Undoubtedly, there have been some positive changes in the Polish legal framework and reality following the inclusion of gender equality standards. If it were not for the harmonisation process, the legal regulations existing in Poland would have remained the same, and the debate, even though it was not really seriously treated, would not have taken the place at all. The positive impact of the enlargement in Poland could be seen through adoption of new gender equality legislation, providing the institutional mechanisms for gender equality and changing the social perception of gender equality concept.

No particular institutions

As concerns the institutional framework for the protection of gender equality, a new body was established in Poland in November 2001. The Office of the Governmental Plenipotentiary on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men in Poland is an indirect result of the pressure of the EU negotiation process.

There are several institutions in Poland which deal with ensuring the equality and combating discrimination. The Government Plenipotentiary for Equal Status of Women and Men is one of them. The Parliamentary Group of Women also plays an important role on the political scene in Poland. The Polish legal system does not, unfortunately, establish any particular institutions to investigate the enforcement of gender equality in employment. Nevertheless, some controlling authorities of an administrative character with more general competencies may investigate the implementation of this principle. An example of such an authority is the National Labour Inspectorate, which controls and supervises the observance of the labour law in the workplaces. However, in case of violation of the principle of equal pay for equal work, the competent authorities of the National Labour Inspectorate are only entitled to address a motion to the manager of the workplace or to the entity superior to the workplace concerned.

Not a marginal phenomenon

There have been also significant changes in the social attitude towards discrimination based on sex and the principle of equal treatment of women and men.

The results of the public opinion survey (2) rather explicitly confirmed that discrimination in Poland is not a marginal phenomenon, rather the opposite – it is quite broadly recognized by the society. As to the issues the plenipotentiary should deal with, a definite majority of the respondents (both women and men) believe that actions should be taken to prevent domestic violence (84%) and to prevent sexual harassment at work (82%) and discrimination based on gender in the labour market – equalizing pay of women and men for the same work (85%) and equalizing the chances of both sexes for employment (80%).

What is also very significant, the idea of adopting a new law that would guarantee equal status of women and men is supported by 54% of respondents which see discrimination against women in Poland and only 16% of respondents who believe that women have the same chances and opportunities in life as men have.

Support to NGOs is very much needed

The enlargement process has provided some important policy instruments for increasing equality between women and men. However, it needs to be ensured that gender equality is established as a priority in the government’s activities.

A low level of awareness of rights related to equal opportunities and gender equality is evident both in the society in general and within the court system. Therefore, the most important is the introduction of special mechanisms to ensure that gender equality is not lost among broader non-discrimination considerations, such as the establishment and strengthening, through financial and personal resources, of special institutional mechanisms for gender equality. Additionally, increased support to women’s NGOs working to ensure the effective implementation of the acquis on gender equality is very much needed. There is a strong feeling among women activists that Poland’s accession to the EU, and in particular the harmonization of Polish law with the acquis communautaire in the field of equal opportunities for women and men, will contribute substantially to the elimination of many of the side effects of political and economic transformation.


(1) 2002 Regular Report on the Poland’s Progress Towards Accession.

(2) The survey “Actual problems and events” was conducted by CBOS from 1 to 4 February 2002 on the representative group of 954 of adult residents of Poland.