by DIANA YOUNG (CLARA collective, Prague)
Every year it comes around with the regularity of Christmas or Easter the Pochod Pro Život (March for Life). The Czech Republic is not known for its religious observance and in some sources it is described as an atheist country and so it cannot claim to be protecting Catholic traditions. However the March for Life is an annual event. Its aim is to promote the pro-life, anti-abortion agenda and yet the Czech Republic has had free access to abortion since 1957 and indeed is a safe haven for those seeking abortion from neighbouring countries such as Poland. The march positions itself as a guardian of the family and so aside from their anti-abortion stance they are opposed to a number of LGBTQI+ positions such as equal marriage, adoption and anything to do with trans people. It is clear that while there may be limited support in the Czech Republic for changing the abortion laws, the March for Life are pushing a conservative family agenda which is familiar to observers in the US and many European countries. This shaping of the family has a tremendous impact on women’s reproductive rights as well as expectations in social reproduction.
In previous years the representatives of this March for Life have been greeted by the right populist Miloš Zeman but the current president, former NATO luminary Petr Pavel did not endorse the march. A counter-demonstration was organised by the CLARA Collective and half a dozen other feminist collectives and left organisations. Our aim was to have speeches and musical performances which would project a peaceful and informative visions of reproductive rights, healthcare and the family of the 21st century.
The aim of the counter demonstration – My Body, My Choice – was to create a peaceful space in which we can speak of our rights and listen to artists promoting these ideas in music and song. This was started last year and, while one hopes this doesn’t become an annual event. The police attachment to the counter-demonstration was about six.
The march and our counter-demonstration take place at a time of great strain on the public resources in the Czech Republic. There are just short of half a million Ukrainian refugees in the Czech Republic, a country with a population of just over 10 million. As in other countries the bulk of the refugees are women and children and while there is a year limit on refugees staying in the country the numbers have put a strain on public services such as housing, health and education. On the same day as the March for Life there was a demonstration of around 200 protesters on the issue of energy poverty and affordable housing. They demanded rent caps as well as energy tariffs for vulnerable groups in society. It is in this sort of context where a group such as March for Life chose to process through the city centre.
As you can see from the photographs the March for Life were protected by a vast number of police, many of whom were heavily armed and helmeted. The March was pursued by perhaps hundreds of angry citizens who tried to block their passage through one of the busiest spots in the city which was thronged with tourists. Perhaps the City Council might rethink their policy to this march because one wonders at the impression it gives of the anti-abortion rally forcing their way through the city centre with their armed guard. No other march or demonstration has such a police presence.
The March for Life forced their way through the city centre to gather at the statue to King Wenceslas which is the traditional spot for popular rallies. They were met by demonstrators who raised a banner for women’s rights and human rights which was forcibly removed by the police. There were a fair number of small children on the March for Life and this is no surprise given their desire to promote family values. However, one does wonder whether the aim of the organisers is to provoke confrontation and the children are simply window dressing for their rather nasty political agenda.