Kinga Wisniewska Is Opening the Conversation Around Sexual Health in Poland
This year, Polish women made global headlines when they took to the streets to protest the way their government sought to further restrict access to abortion care.
But that’s not the only meaningful form of action coming out of the country, when it comes to young women wanting to secure better reproductive health care, information and outcomes for themselves and their peers. Just look at what 27-year-old Kinga Wisniewska, a youth advocate with the women’s rights organization Women Deliver and World Contraception Day ambassador, is doing. She utilized a $5,000 seed grant from Women Deliver and Bayer and digital media training as part of the World Contraception Day Ambassadors Project to create an online platform to allow Polish young people access to quality information about their reproductive and sexual health in a safe and informative space free of government or religious intervention.
Kinga spoke with Teen Vogue about her site, the political landscape in Poland today, and the relationship between reproductive health and action. Our conversation, below:
Teen Vogue: How would you describe what the sentiment is on the ground today in Poland with regard to women’s reproductive health and freedoms?
Kinga Wisniewska: I think that many women, and men, feel fed up with the situation surrounding sexual and reproductive health and rights in Poland. Just recently, the government tried to pass a bill that would criminalize abortion in all cases, with women punishable by up to five years in prison. Although, thanks to mass protests that took place in the biggest cities, the bill didn’t pass,
[but] our rights are still under threat.
With already one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, the changes proposed by the government would put thousands more women in [a] vulnerable position, and their futures and health at risk. Many young women, me included, feel that we do not have a voice and that older men take decisions for us. Recent protests showed us that we are strong and we can make noise — if we come together to defend our rights.
TV: Tell us more about the site you launched and the work you’re doing now.
KW: As [a] [World Contraception Day Ambassador](ZapytajMnie (translated: AskMe).), I was awarded a seed grant to launch my own project —
I believe that access to comprehensive sexuality education is a basic human right and key component of [a] gender-equal society. Unfortunately, growing up in Poland I saw (and experienced) that sexuality education for teens is virtually non-existent. The purpose of [the] ZapytajMnie project is to provide Polish teenagers with access to factual answers to questions regarding sexual health and rights. Creating an easily searchable database of Q&As will allow Polish teenagers to get educated on issues of contraception, family planning, sexually transmitted diseases and pleasure, without judgment or religious interpretation.
I hope that my project will help Polish society to see value in openness and will empower young people to know and demand their rights – also access to contraception and safe abortion.
TV: What do you believe are the biggest misperceptions about reproductive health, including abortion, in Poland?
KW: I find that one of the most important misperceptions when discussing reproductive rights in Poland is discussing SRHRs (sexual and reproductive health and rights) in terms of morality rather than health or human rights. Some are keen to use religious or moral arguments to deny us basic rights, and tend to forget about implications of unsafe abortions, teen pregnancy, sexual violence, or STDs.
The only moral issue that I want to discuss when talking about SRHRs is whether we want the lives of young men and women in Poland, and worldwide, to be happier and healthier. We need to move this conversation from judgment to understanding, even if ultimately our decisions will be different from those surrounding us. It’s all about choice.
I think that above all, Polish women want to decide for themselves. They want to be heard and they are fed up with decisions about their bodies or futures being made by those who never had to face similar problems or dilemmas. We might see our futures differently – some of us want to be mothers, have traditional families, and others don’t – but I am convinced that we can agree that such decisions cannot be made without our participation. That’s why so many joined the so-called “black protests” against the abortion ban – we want our voices to be heard.
TV: What do you think the future of organizing and action around reproductive health looks like?
KW: I believe that the future of reproductive health and rights in countries like Poland lays in education. We often complain that so little people are engaged in SRHRs activism — but how can we expect them to participate if they are not aware of their rights?
That’s why I wanted to create ZapytajMnie. I want to use it as a tool not only to educate the teens about their sexuality, but also to show that they have questions and these questions are important.
There is need for comprehensive sexuality education and I hope that my website will show the policymakers, and parents, that it is their duty to provide young people with judgment-free and medically accurate answers. To be empowered, the youth first must know.
TV: What would you advise to other young people who want to get involved in activist work?
KW: I would advise all other young people not to give up and look ahead. There are many amazing opportunities to network and get to know other activists. I am really grateful to Women Deliver for giving me the opportunity to meet and work with activists from all over the world through the Young Leaders program. Sometimes activism feels lonely, and getting to know such amazing young people fighting for the same issues gives strength. As we say in Polish, W kupie siła! Together we are stronger!
TV: What do you wish more people knew about the relationship between contraception and long-term health for women?
KW: [The] Women Deliver Young Leaders program provides young advocates with [the] platform and resources to strengthen their influence and participate in program and policy making around women’s rights and sexual and reproductive health and rights. I am really privileged to form part of the 2016 class of 200 young leaders. We come from very different corners of the world but we are all motivated by the same purpose: securing equal rights for girls, women, and young people all over the world.
When we discuss access to contraception, we often refer to it as “family planning.” But I like to see it as more than that. It’s really “future planning” or “life planning”; it has such an incredible impact on people’s lives that it really affects almost all of its aspects. That is why I see access to contraception as a basic human right and an important component of all policies aimed at improving lives of young people and women. We can link it to education, to youth unemployment, to gender equality, to health — access to contraception is truly a life changer and lifesaver.
TV: What would you tell people following the news in Poland about what lies ahead there — and what lessons can be learned from you and your peers there?
KW: What the political situation in Poland is showing the world, is that we should never take our rights for granted as they can always be taken away from us. We have to actively participate in the political lives of our countries and keep the politicians accountable. Poland was on a pretty good trajectory, in terms of human rights, up until just very recently. Of course I hope that those negative changes won’t go any further, but our current struggles show how easy it is to lose rights that generations before us fought for.
I hope that my World Contraception Day Ambassadors project will bring back the comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) to the table. I want to see young people involved in developing the CSE curriculum. In the end, it has to respond their needs, and who knows them better than the youth themselves?
Success would be to see that the youth in Poland feel free to discuss their sexual and reproductive health and rights and no longer have to turn to Internet forums to ask questions they have right to have the answers to. I know that if we trust the youth with judgment-free, medically accurate, and teenage-friendly information, they will feel empowered to take control of their lives, futures and reproductive rights in Poland.
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and space.
Photo: David Alexander, Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs, FP Voices