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A question of choice

columns Updated: Oct 16, 2010 23:03 IST
Tithiya Sharma

Around the world in 54 weeks
Destination 17: Poland

As I arrive in Poland, the temperature is one degree and dropping. I feel I'm turning blue and I could swear my backpack was several kilos lighter in the morning. The thirty-minute walk to my hostel feels never ending.

I trek up the winding staircase and I'm greeted by three beautiful smiling faces at the reception — one grabs my backpack, another girl takes my coat and the third offers to bring me a cup of tea.

They fuss over me and show me around the hostel and I already know — I'm going to like it here. Later in the evening, as one of the girls is wrapping up her shift, she asks me if I'd like to join her and her friends. I assumed we're heading to a coffee shop or to a pub for a pint, but Natalia took me to a park instead.

We were the last to join a large group of young girls with prams and little kids running around. We were on a play date! Natalia is a single mom to a 4 year old.

I notice how young all her friends are. Some of them don't look old enough to drive or order a drink in a bar! Natalia is barely twenty one and told me her child's father was her high school sweetheart — he's finishing university, while she never got to go, even though he cheated off her notes in high school!

Ironically, Polish women lost their right to decide if or not they wanted to bear a child just after Polish society won back its independence in 1989.

Barely 150 legal abortions were reported in Poland last year, but more than a hundred and fifty thousand were performed in illegal clinics or in other unsafe conditions for women.

"The current law violates the autonomy of Polish women. Each year thousands have to leave the country to access proper healthcare because their own country denies it to them" shares Wanda Nowicka, a passionate feminist activist in Warsaw.

Wanda co-founded ASTRA, a regional network of NGOs and individuals advocating sexual and reproductive health and rights in Central and Eastern Europe, in a unified voice. She is also the president of Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning.

Wanda explains that while things are improving, there is an urgent need for civil society to get better organised.

"I feel sad to see young people inherit a sense of defeat and helplessness. It's important to question and correct the laws that we are governed by. Currently in Polish politics the opposition are weak and unmotivated, that means we as citizens need to be more proactive."

Wanda multitasks a dozen things while she spends the morning with me. She explains that beyond the moral debate and political and religious opinions, the real issue here is every woman's right to make an informed choice on and have access to abortion, modern contraceptives, information, education and services on sexual and reproductive health.

I kept noticing the alarming number of young girls with babies in their arms. I'm sure they're efficient and doting mothers but that's not all they should be at their age.

The course of their lives was permanently changed before they were mature enough to know what their options were.

I spent another evening with Natalia and her girlfriends. I was the oldest person in the group and the only one without a baby.

I'm sure motherhood will beckon someday, but right now I'm happy living out of my backpack and grateful for all the choices and possibilities that lie ahead of me.

To follow Tithiya's journey, log on to www.hindustantimes.com/100heroesproject