By Agnieszka Wądołowska

The combination of economic and social stress brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, as well as restrictions on movement, have triggered a surge of domestic violence in almost all countries around the world. Poland is no exception to this shameful rule.

“In March, the number of phone calls on our helpline for victims of domestic violence went up by 50%,” says a coordinator at the Women’s Rights Centre (CPK), an NGO that supports victims.

Amidst these challenging circumstances, when people are urged to work from their homes where possible, NGOs and local support groups in Poland are doing the best to provide the victims with psychological and legal advice. With no official action to mitigate the surge, Poland’s commissioner for human rights appealed to the government for an urgent and comprehensive response plan.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the CPK have had to restrict their activities to two helplines – one an emergency hotline, and the other one offering psychological and legal support (the numbers for which are available at the bottom of this article).

Their specialists are also answering emails and are currently creating a chat service. This will provide a safe – and most importantly quiet – way for women to reach out for help.

Subjected to constant surveillance

“The first alarm bells came in the middle of March when women experiencing violence started cancelling the individual meetings that we offer at our premises,” explains Joanna Gzyra-Iskandar, a coordinator at the CPK. Even at this early stage, the women that rely on their help were saying that they dreaded the time of social distancing and isolation, which for them meant a lockdown with their tormentor.

To make things worse, with the restrictions currently in place to prevent the spread of coronavirus, the women are also deprived of their usual ways of slipping out of the house to attend counselling – for example under the pretext of going shopping, to the hairdresser or to meet friends.

“In March the number of phone calls to the helpline went up by 50%. We’re observing both escalation of the violence that existed before the outbreak of the pandemic as well as cases of relationships where the violence started only after the lockdown,” says Gzyra-Iskandar.

At present, violent partners are able to control their victims to a much greater extent. “Some women say they are subjected to constant surveillance. Their husbands and partners, who now spend much more time at home, have started to regularly check their phones, computers, and email, leaving the women no ways to contact the police or helpline,” he explains.

Many of the women reaching out to the Women’s Rights Centre speak about psychological violence and harassment. “Now when a violent partner is threatening to kick a women out of their apartment, on top of that comes the fear of infection from the virus.”

“A women who called us said that her partner had been repeatedly shouting and swearing at her so loudly that the neighbours reported a disturbance and the landlord terminated her contract, which means she will land in the street in the midst of a pandemic,” recalls Gzyra-Iskandar.

Alarmingly, there have also been reports from women who have called the police, only to be told that the authorities refused to intervene. “We need to understand that the services are overburdened with new duties, understaffed and lacking preventive measures like masks and gloves. However, it leaves the women in a very difficult situation,” says Gzyra-Iskandar.

“You have every right to report your case”

Just as in many other spheres of life during the pandemic, where governmental resources are scarce, it is up to NGOs and grassroots initiatives to fill the vacuum. The Feminoteka Foundation, another women’s rights organisation, has begun creating an interactive map of institutions helping victims of violence around Poland.

“We have received calls from women describing cases of the police discouraging victims from reporting a violent incident, claiming that they are not currently dealing with such cases as the quarantine and epidemic have priority. But don’t believe them. You have every right to report your incident and it is their duty to record it”, Feminoteka wrote on their Facebook profile, providing extensive further practical advice for anyone experiencing violence.

The Polish government is yet to take a stand on the surge in domestic violence reported by women’s rights organisations or to undertake any specific actions. Significantly, the official statistics do not reflect the change. “I haven’t noticed a substantial increase in the numbers of police interventions related to domestic violence,” claimed Mariusz Ciarka, the spokesman for the Polish General Police Headquarters, talking to Radio TOK FM.

Yet Adam Bodnar, Poland’s human rights commissioner, recognises the severity of the situation, and officially appealed to the family, labour and social policy minister, Marlena Maląg. “I am calling for consideration of the impact of preventive measure currently applied on the condition of domestic violence victims,” wrote Bodnar.

“Most alarming are the reports on domestic violence from the countries which – like Poland – imposed restrictions on movement, social distancing and online learning. The experience of Chinese women’s rights organisations shows that during the lockdown the number of reported cases of domestic violence tripled.”

Bodnar recommended measures to create a comprehensive list of institutions and organisations granting help to the victims, administering sufficient monitoring of families which have already experienced domestic violence, conducting a thorough analysis of the whole system of domestic violence prevention during the pandemic in Poland, as well as providing organisations active in this field with adequate support. His appeal, issued on 30 March, remains unanswered.

“The most painful thing is that our government is doing nothing to improve the situation. No actions are being taken. As if victims of domestic violence were no more than a difficult topic that’s easiest swept under the carpet. There is not even a comprehensive, government-issued list of institutions providing help and support”, comments Gzyra-Iskandar from the Women’s Rights Centre.

Code word “mask-19”

The governments of other European countries seem to be reacting more swiftly. France and Spain have already introduced a number of preventive measures. In both countries, a person experiencing domestic violence does not even have to call the police, as this may be impossible when the perpetrator is in the same house. Instead, they should go to a pharmacy and use the code word “mask-19”, which for the pharmacist is a clear signal to call the police.

Reports have already shown that this simple measure is very effective and leads to actual arrests. The French government has also announced that it is planning to create pop-up counselling points at supermarkets. They will also provide victims with safe hotel rooms for those who need to flee from their homes. These actions are much needed, as the number of police interventions for domestic violence has increased by over 30% in Paris.

In the United Kingdom, meanwhile, where the national domestic abuse helpline has seen a 25% increase in calls, services dealing with the problem are to receive an extra £2m to support those vulnerable to abuse.

Alarming reports are coming from all over the world. In response to this global challenge, the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has called for immediate worldwide actions protecting women and girls against domestic violence linked to lockdowns in the midst of the pandemic.

“I make an appeal today for peace at home – and in homes – around the world. We know lockdowns and quarantine are essential to suppressing COVID-19, but they can trap women with abusive partners. I urge all governments to make the prevention and redress of violence against women a key part of their national response plan to COVID-19,” he appealed.

UN statistics show that before the outbreak of coronavirus one third of women around the world had experienced some form of violence in their lives. Its domestic violence reduction recommendations include increasing investment in online services and civil society organisations, ensuring judicial systems continue to prosecute abusers, and setting up emergency warning systems in pharmacies and groceries.

Also recommended are declaring shelters as essential services, creating safe ways for women to seek support, without alerting their abusers, avoiding releasing prisoners convicted of violence against women in any form, and scaling up public awareness campaigns, particularly those targeted at men and boys.

As the lockdown in Poland continues, the victims of domestic abuse face an even tougher time than usual. While resources for the whole country are spread thinly at present, it is clear that they need more support.

Polish helplines for anyone affected by these issues include:

  • CPK intervention hotline: 600 070 717 
  • CPK psychological (Mon-Wed, Fri) and legal (Thur) helpline between 10.00-16.00: (22) 621 35 37 
  • Fundacja Feminoteka Warsaw helpline (Mon-Fri) between 8:00-20.00: 888 88 33 88

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