From abortion activist to climate campaigner: Meet the women leading the way in Europe

Gender equality is still “300 years away:” the stark warning from the United Nations, as International Women’s Day comes around once more. 

This material is taken from the information portal EuroNews.

On Monday, during the opening session of the Commission on the Status of Women, UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, also said that women’s rights are also being «abused, threatened, and violated around the world.»

“Women and girls have been erased from public life.» 

But, despite what the odds suggest, there are still many women who are leading the fight for what they believe in and hoping for a better world. 

The fight for abortion rights in Poland

One of «the most dangerous places for a pregnant woman in Poland is the hospital.» That’s according to Marta Lempart, an activist who founded the All-Poland Women’s Strike.

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She is just one of the thousands of activists in Poland trying to make reproductive healthcare more accessible. The country is often ranked among the hardest places to get a legal abortion in the European Union.

And why does she consider hospitals so dangerous? “The doctors will put [the mother’s] life and her rights below the rights of the foetus,” Lempart said. 

“They won’t even provide her with a legal abortion.”

In the eastern European country, the procedure has been almost completely outlawed. And some pregnant women in extreme situations have been denied effective treatment, in order to protect the foetus.

But, Lempart argued that because of the work done by her other activists, there is still hope in Poland.

When she started her work in 2016, support for legalising abortions stood at around 37%. But that figure has since grown to 70%, polls suggest.

And she added that there are “now two worlds” for people who want to access abortions in the country.

“We have this [underground] system, a system that has always been there,” she said.

“But it’s not even underground anymore. It is a fully working system that provides women with reproductive care […] After the protests in 2020, everybody knows the number for Abortions Without Borders.

“It became like a national sport to put its number everywhere.”

Supporting Ukraine’s trans community

When the war in Ukraine started, Anastasiia Yeva Domani’s apartment became a humanitarian hub for the country’s trans community.

“Our goal was not to mobilise the community, not to advocate or change legislation, but to help people first, with food, money, hormones and medications,” Domani, the co-founder of Cohort, told Euronews.

For some trans women living in Ukraine, help can also mean legal support. That is because many members of the trans community have gender markers on their documentation that do not match their actual genders — such as trans women who have male gender markers on their papers. 

This can cause problems for trans women trying to flee Ukraine because of a ban on military-aged men leaving the country. And it can also create challenges when it comes to mobilisation orders to join the army.

“There are cities where a lot of mobilisation orders were handed out. And so people are afraid to even go out onto the street or in any public place,” she said.

Because of this, her organisation is helping these women get legal support to remove their names from Ukraine’s military registration or to obtain the right documents to move abroad.

Domani is also helping to train the next generation of trans activists in public speaking, advocacy fundamentals and legal support. 

At the start Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, between 1,000 and 2,000 members of Ukraine’s trans community were able to leave the country. But, many of them were human rights activists themselves, leaving a hole that needed to be filled.

To do this, Domani is helping organise two conferences in Kyiv and Lviv later in March. “Under blackouts from rocket attacks, we are trying to invest in children and train not only the trans community but also our allies,» she said. 

‘Standing up’ for the climate

Like many people of her generation, Zanna Vanrenterghem first became interested in climate activism when she watched An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary spearheaded by former US vice president Al Gore.

She then joined a climate activist group in Belgium called Climate Express before becoming a project leader at Greenpeace Belgium – a group that is trying to move the country away from fossil fuels.

The effects of climate change have increasingly become more obvious in Europe, sparking more and more people to get involved in activism. “I have never seen so many people stand up for the climate,” she told Euronews.

“I’ve never seen so many grandparents and young people and teens actively trying to change something.”

Over the past 40 years, climate-related events have caused more than €487 billion in losses in the bloc, according to the European Union. And in the past 40 years, more than 138,000 people are thought to have died because of climate-related extreme natural events in Europe. 

“There are very few people that are now alive in Europe and that haven’t experienced a massive amount of heatwaves, forest fires or drought,” she added. “You just have to [loosen] the noose and see that climate change is happening, and this is affecting the livelihoods of every European to some degree.” 

But, she stressed, it is also important to have an intersectional approach to climate activism. 

«Our economic system is built on structural inequality, inequality between men and women, inequality between richer classes and poorer classes.

«And that structural inequality is something that we need to dismantle because as long as that is part of the system, there’s no way that we can get everyone aligned to tackle [climate change]. 

Changing attitudes in Ukraine

For many activists in Ukraine, such as Taya Gerasimova, the war caused a drastic transformation in both the way they work and in public attitudes towards women. 

Gerasimova is one of the members of Women’s March Ukraine, a group that regularly organised women’s rights marches before the full-scale invasion. Their main goal at the time: getting Kyiv to ratify the Istanbul Convention, an international treaty requiring nations to actively combat domestic abuse

Once the war started, it quickly transformed into a humanitarian hub, responding to over 35,000 requests for aid, creating three new shelters and helping some 7,000 people find housing abroad.

But while Gerasimova described women as “the most vulnerable group in Ukraine” – especially if they are taking care of a lot of children, the elderly or people with disabilities – she added that she has also witnessed a shift in sexist attitudes over the past year. 

In 2018, 29% of people responding to a survey by the Ukrainian NGO Insight agreed with the statement: “Women should always obey their husbands.”

In 2022, that number dropped to 8%. A similar thing happened when it came to other questions, such as «A woman should perform all domestic work and be a good housewife in any case» – with 43% of respondents agreeing to the statement in 2018 and just 2% doing the same in 2022.

That change, according to Gerasimova, is in part because “women became a little bit more visible in social life [during the war]. There are a lot of women volunteers now, women joining the army and volunteering for humanitarian aid,” she said.

Another reason, she argued, is that organisers started to say, “if we oppose Russia, we have to also oppose these old traditional values.”

And she added that instead of moving towards “Russian values,” the public should move in the opposite direction towards “gender equality and European values.”