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Airing the Dirty Laundry: Exploring the Challenges of Domestic Violence in Poland

 

“The woman was seven months pregnant [….] The beating started in the backseat of the car after she had sex with her partner. He pushed her to the back seat of a very small Polish car where there was little space. He punched her in the head, arms, and belly. He pushed her on her stomach with his knees. She managed to crawl out of the car, but he got on top of her while she was lying on her stomach on the ground. He sat on her and jumped many times. She managed to get home [and] called an ambulance to take her to the hospital. [.…] During the sonogram, they saw that the umbilical cord was broken and the fetal heart was not beating. They did a cesarean section, but the baby had died from severe injuries. The baby had a broken skull, bleeding inside its brain, and a swollen liver [….] They needed to remove her uterus [….] If not for the loss of her uterus, her injuries would not have qualified as serious. The man was charged with assault and with death of a child. He was sentenced to two years in prison. The prosecutor asked for ten years, but the additional eight years were for the loss of the uterus (Domestic Violence in Poland, 2002). 

Polish society is currently undergoing dramatic political, economic, and social transitions: from totalitarianism to democracy, from communism to capitalism, and from a passive society to a civic one. However, in the field of women's rights, both the current right-wing government and the Catholic Church have been exceptionally rigid and conservative in their view of women’s place in society. Indeed, political and religious authorities often see a woman’s role as serving the family entity as wife and mother, or as a mere reproductive unit. The Polish woman is dangerously simplified and consequently deprived of many individual freedoms and rights; indeed, policies concerning them are presented primarily in the context of the family (Mach: 2000). As a result of these attitudes, stories such as the one presented above are not uncommon. Domestic violence, the intentional use of power over another family member while infringing upon their rights and/or causing them suffering and pain, is common in Poland where in 2006 alone over 39,000 women reported such violence (Szulc: 2007). Although there has been a movement to raise awareness about this problem and to deal with it legally, the codification of domestic violence as a crime is all too often undermined by failure to effectively enforce these legal provisions. As such, in order to reach the roots of the problem one must look not only to the legal foundations set to deal with domestic violence, but to the social perceptions of, and attitudes towards, the advancement of women’s rights. 

Polish Identity; a Historical Overview

In order to truly understand the roots of gender perception and gender politics in Polish society, it is crucial to explore Polish history, namely, the formation of Polish identity and values alongside, and as a result of, the development of Polish nationalism.

Geographically bordered by seven countries, including historically powerful Germany and Russia, the Polish state was for centuries invaded, partitioned, and dominated by absolutist and totalitarian powers. Since the struggle for a sovereign Polish state was constant, Polish nationalism developed distinctly from that of most Western European countries. Primarily, nationalism formed in opposition to the state rather than within it. Moreover, the lack of a guaranteed state allowed for the formation of a collective identity through the Catholic Church.

In times of communism, the church served not only a point of religious unification for the Polish people but also a form of political rebellion against the atheist regime. Indeed, almost all those opposed to the “illegitimate, atheistic regime held in place by [the] foreign (communist) power” (Stoltenberg, 2) were simultaneously Catholic believers and dissident citizens. It is due to the stateless history of Poland as well as the collaboration of “religiosity and resistance”(Stoltenberg, 2) in bringing a democratic regime, that ethnicity and religion became the two most fundamental components of Polish identity (Gebert: 2007); even today over 90 percent of Poles identify themselves as Roman Catholic (Gruber: 1995). 

Also, because of Polish society’s antagonistic relationship with, and distrust of, the communist regime, and because of Poland’s current unsteady state of transition, many Poles still fail to believe in government effectiveness; they look to social rules and approval in their everyday life from other sources, namely, the Catholic Church. 

Conserving Tradition: Defining Gender Roles 

After its prominent contribution to Poland’s transition into democracy, the Church found a significant role in instilling Roman Catholic values into the new social order. Indeed, religion classes are taught in public schools, significant political changes such as the accession to the European Union are consulted with church authorities, and social mores lay strongly in religious doctrine. Thus, “The Catholic Church in Poland has not only spread the system of Christian values — it has been placed in Polish national structure. Because of this the Church has been one of the most important actors in the Polish socio-political life and it has always exerted a substantial influence on different fields of Pole’s life” (Dominiczak: 2002).

One the primary influences of the Catholic Church on Polish society’s has been the widespread reverence of family and the Polish-Catholic cultural construction of gender. Indeed, as in most societies, much of Polish society has internalized stereotypical views of the “healthy woman” as caretaker of the family. In her article Agnieszka Graff, a faculty member at Warsaw University explains contemporary Polish resistance to the re-negotiation of gender roles as part of an attempt to create a “consoling narrative about an orderly past [by restoring] order in the realm of gender relations” (Graff, 3). Conserving traditional gender roles can be seen as part of a greater means of forming a collective identity in “an effort to dispel, or contain, collective ambivalence and anxiety concerning European integration and globalization, and the resulting diminution of Poland’s autonomy as a nation-state a mere decade and a half after this autonomy was restored” (Graff, 3).

A nation is made up of collective notions of what is “’natural’ and what is ‘cultural’. Therefore, the acceptance and naturalization of traditional gender ideologies “in the end, men are men and women are women”(Graff, 9) has undercut the aura of change and enhanced nationalism by instilling a calming sense of timelessness among so many transitions. Consequently, the adherence of Polish women to accepted traditional roles reinforces the nation’s collective agreement and understanding of gender functions and responsibilities; women become bearers of culture (Graff, 3).

An interesting phenomenon Graff points to is the metaphoric representation of Poland, the nation, as a suffering woman who takes care of her male children while her husband goes off to war. This two-dimensional portrayal of Poland as a concerned mother limits the woman to a mere symbolic image taking away from her complex humanity (this can be seen in images 1-3, pg. 10). The metaphor of the Virgin Mary as the ‘Queen of Poland’ further stresses the selfless Matka Polka (Polish Mother) who is admired for sacrificing her desires for the needs of her family, whose suffering is considered her strength (Graff, A different chronology, 2). Again, women are seen as self-sacrificing instruments through which tradition can be retained and a more stable society achieved. 

Domestic Violence –Challenges for Polish Society

Domestic violence is a serious problem in Poland where surveys show that “one in six women has experienced violence at the hands of her male partner” (Domestic Violence in Poland, 8: 2002). Perceptions of, and expectations from, women in Polish society have significant implications for victims of domestic violence as conservative tradition hinders women from recognizing, reporting, and seeking help when they experience abuse. According to Urszula Nowakowska, director of the Women’s Rights Center in Warsaw, “the expectation of women to fulfill household duties causes many women to see their abuse as a result of their own failure to comply with familial obligations”. As Nowakowska describes, when women seek help at Christian-run organizations, they are often encouraged to attend family therapy along with the perpetrator. However, such therapy programs are unsuccessful; women are frequently encouraged to change their behavior and adjust to the situation by being more “obedient”, rather than to seek separation. By failing to view the perpetrator as responsible for violence, such programs contribute to the shifting of blame to the victim. Often, especially in rural areas, neighbors, friends, and even family view the victim as culpable for their own abuse. These people refuse to publicly admit domestic violence as they see it as a reflection of the woman’s failure to fulfill household obligations rather than a crime that must be tried and condemned. Furthermore, Nowakowska explains, Church run programs stress that abusive men cannot control their own behavior. However, men’s lack of violence outside of the home show that they are capable of controlling themselves, but are unwilling to do so.

Nowakowska states, “another misconception in Polish society about the causes of domestic violence is the association of such acts with poverty or alcoholism rather than a power-related act. In reality, abused women come from all facets of life regardless of marital status, occupation, education level, and economic situation”. Partly contributing to this fallacy is the government’s response to domestic violence through the State Agency for Prevention of Alcohol Related Problems. However, basing “policies and programs on the premise that alcoholism causes domestic violence […] contradicts international research showing that, although alcohol may be a contributing factor to domestic violence, it is not the cause” (Domestic Violence in Poland, 9: 2002). As a result, women who do not come from alcoholic families don’t know where to look for help, as they do not see alcohol-related problems as applying to them. 

The Catholic Church also plays an important role in the way women choose to respond to violence. Since marriage is seen as an unbreakable bond, the option of leaving abusive husbands is unacceptable (unless the woman’s life is at risk, in which case Church law allows for separation, although not divorce) (Priest Chudzik: 2007). Obstacles to divorce are aggravated by the law as divorce cases have been assigned to higher-level courts, which are harder to access than family courts. Likewise, according to Ms. Zientara, a lawyer at The Committee for Protection of Child’s Rights, some church-supported legal institutions, such as the Law Clinic at Collegium Iuridicum that provides free advice for victims of violence, require volunteers to sign papers forbidding them to advise divorce as a solution as this goes against Christian values. As a result, many women, especially those in rural communities have very little possibilities of obtaining a divorce (Domestic Violence in Poland, 27: 2002). Also, in many cases women are psychologically, emotionally, and economically dependent on their husbands, making it almost impossible to file for divorce (Platek: 2007).

 

Notably, in Poland there seems to be a distinct separation between the private (home) sphere and public spheres. This separation is partly a product of communist times where the family sphere was the least penetrable place for the state (Gebert: 2007). The notion of “the family [as] a self-contained unit, deserving privacy at the expense of other rights and freedoms” (Domestic Violence in Poland, 23: 2002) is especially dangerous for victims of domestic violence. Women who are victims of domestic violence are expected to “bear their cross” or as Poles would say ‘not wash their dirty laundry in public’, leaving family issues private. 

Reacting to Domestic Violence

Despite its reluctance in re-defining gender roles, the Polish government has taken measures to address domestic violence, recognizing it as a criminal offense under criminal code article 207. However, it seems that despite significant improvements in legislation for dealing with domestic violence, the government is still hesitant to take large steps towards recognizing, dealing with, and condemning domestic abuse. For one, government prosecutors do not consider isolated instances of abuse as domestic violence. In the case that a woman wants to file a report after a single severe incident (the deprivation, or serious crippling of critical bodily functions), her abuse will be publicly prosecuted as a crime against the individual. However, if the single incident is not severe, the prosecution will only be pursued when initiated by the victim (Zientara: 2007). In reality though, women who experience single abusive incidents are often unaware of their legal options and find the legal process confusing and frustrating, usually choosing not to prosecute (Nowakowska).

Of the most critical actors responsible for dealing with domestic violence are police authorities as they are often the first to interact with the victim after abuse is reported. Under law there are a number of procedures police have to follow in cases of domestic violence. As Commander Iwona Szulc from Police Headquarter explains, principally, police are required to check the homes from which they receive reports, to validate the call, and then to determine the type and severity of the crime. If the incident is an act of violence within the family, police authorities fill out a “blue card”, a card containing information about the occurrence along with witness data; a sheet explaining domestic violence as well as emergency information is left for the victim. These ‘blue cards’ are designed to “standardize the procedure for police interaction with families experiencing domestic violence” (Domestic Violence in Poland, 31: 2002). Cards are then sent to the local precinct and must be followed by a visit to the home by police within a week to assure that the violence hasn’t continued. Although these follow-ups are mandatory, such visits do not always occur; they are often considered “impractical, because police are too busy to check in with families that report abuse” (Domestic Violence in Poland, 31: 2002). Moreover, according to Ms. Nowakowska, since some police officers see domestic violence as a family issue, they will use any hesitation on part of the woman to prosecute, as an excuse to poorly investigate the issue and dismiss the case. 

In terms of dealing with the immediate family situation, it is only in very serious cases- when the perpetrator is violent to the police, in front of the police, or under the clear influence of alcohol, that the police are allowed to arrest the man; however, confinement can only last between 24-48 hours and the perpetrator can soon return home. This inefficient dealing may discourage women from reporting incidents of violence for fear of retribution. 

Another provision recently added to the law is the right to file a restraining order after incidents of domestic violence (Zientara: 2007). However, these orders can only be filed if the perpetrator is under arrest, in which case he is given the option of leaving his home or continuing arrest. In actuality though, most prosecutors don’t understand the importance of temporary detainment thus making separation of victim and perpetrator rare; again, the victim often experiences more violent attacks. 

Women who are victims of domestic violence are also advised to conduct an evidentiary medical examination. Forensic doctors who provide documentation of women’s injuries in domestic violence cases often doubt the ‘credibility’ of the wounds and believe the injuries are self-inflicted as to receive favorable divorce settlements (Domestic Violence in Poland, 9: 2002). 

According to Ms. Nowakowska, a critical reason domestic violence has not been dealt with efficiently enough is the classification of domestic violence as a crime against the family, a collective unit rather than a crime against the individual; the choice to prioritize family over the individual shows the influence of the Catholic Church on public policy. In addition, society fails to see domestic violence as a gender issue despite the fact that women are the ones most affected by this type of abuse; women are seen as part of a greater family unit rather than an entity in and of themselves. Prosecuting domestic violence as a crime against the individual could endanger Catholic principles regarding gender and family structures as it could lead to the breakup of family. However, classification of domestic violence as a family violation has led to extremely hazardous verdicts in court. Indeed in 1997, a judge in a domestic violence case stated that domestic violence is not verbal abuse or even physical violence if it is for the ‘good of the family’; the victim provoked the abuse by ‘behaving badly’ in her home. Similar judgments were repeated again in 2000 and 2005. Such verdicts highlight the danger of incorporating traditional values of the Catholic Church into law and their clash with democratic principles. 

Conclusion

Domestic violence is a serious problem affecting thousands of women in Poland today. In exploring the roots of such violence in Polish society various issues arise. Most prominently, given the turbulent past of the Polish people, social trust has turned to nationalist and Catholic values and institutions. Although nationalist and religious morals are meant to reinforce a united society, insistence on traditional gender roles is often detrimental to women, especially victims of domestic abuse. Women are expected to keep domestic violence a private issue. Moreover, laws addressing such abuse are often ineffective, as they are not taken seriously by both enforcement agencies and the wider society. Although there has been some shift towards addressing problems of domestic violence, greater measures must be taken to care for this issue. Improvements can include greater dissemination of information and education for the wider public regarding domestic violence, in order to make preventive and reactive acts more effective. Domestic violence education and training programs should be extended and expanded for police, prosecutors, doctors, and judges. Also, legal institutions should be more adamant in enforcing the penal code and prosecuting domestic violence offenders in order to provide an exemplar for the political processes of democratization and justice.

Despite the many problems with domestic violence in Poland, there are numerous institutions and non-governmental organizations women can turn to for help. It is these type of institutions, along with innovative programs such as the ‘blue line system’, where victims can call for help, that can begin to lobby for the improvement of women’s situation on a personal, social, and political scale. 

Indeed, the development of a greater civil society in Poland, along with its accession to the European Union has begun to change some of the perceptions and practices that harm women. However, it is only with a greater shift in public mentality about gender roles and individual rights that domestic violence can begin to be adequately addressed.

 

References

 

Works Cited:

Aberg, Kristina, Johanna Bond, Anne Daugherty-Leiter, Jean Norton, Robin Phillips, and Rachel 

Taylor. Domestic Violence in Poland. Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights. 2002. 27 June 2007.

Dominiczak, Andrzej. "Church and State in Post-Communist Poland." 1 Nov. 2002. Polish Humanist 

Federation. 27 June 2007 <http://www.iheu.org/node/1124>.

Graff, Agnieszka. "A Different Chronology: Reflections on Feminism in Contemporary Poland." Third 

Wave Feminism: a Critical Exploration. Comp. Stacy Gillis and Gillian Howre. 142-155.

Graff, Agnieszka. "The Land of Real Men and Real Women: Gender and EU Accession in Three Polish 

Weeklies." 26 June 2007.

Gruber, Ruth E. "Poles Foresake Catholic Church, Seek Western Democratic Values." 1995. 26 June 2007 

<http://www.jewishsf.com/content/2-0- /module/displaystory/story_id/2473/edition_id/41/format/html/displaystory.html>.

Mach, Zdzisław. "The Roman Catholic Church in Poland and the Dynamics of Social Identity in Polish 

Society." 2000. Centre for European Studies. 24 June 2007 <http://www.ces.uj.edu.pl/mach/church.htm>.

Stoltenberg, Steven. "Religious Identities in Post-Communist Central Europe: the Polish Case." 27 June 

2007.

Interviews:

Anna Zientara, lawyer at Committee for Protection of Child’s Rights [June 22 2007]

Priest Wiesław Chudzik [June, 25 2007]

Urszula Nowakowska, director of Women’s Rights Center [June 26 2007]

Iwona Szulc, commander at the Poland Police Headquarters [June 27 2007]

Dr. Monika Płatek, faculty at Warsaw University [June 27 2007]

Konstanty Gebert, psychologist and journalist at Gazeta Wyborcza and Midrasz

PhD Agnieszka Graff, scholar and writer

 

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