In April 2020, weeks after Poland went into its first Covid-19 lockdown, Krysia Paszko, a 17-year-old high school pupil, watched a TV report about Europe’s surge in domestic violence cases, which had increased by up to 60% on 2019, according to the World Health Organization. Poland’s largest women’s rights centre, Centrum Praw Kobiet (CPK), had reported a 50% increase in calls to its domestic violence hotline in March.
Learning from the report that France had implemented a scheme in pharmacies that women could use to report domestic violence using the codewords “Mask 19”, Paszko had an idea. With help from a graphic designer friend, she created a Facebook page for a fictitious cosmetics company.
Then she went to her personal Facebook page, where she wrote: “If you are in quarantine or isolation with a toxic or violent person, send a message” – and she linked to the cosmetics page. “If you ask a question about natural cosmetics,” Paszko explained, “we will monitor you. If you write ‘STOP’, we will call the police on your behalf.”
Paszko could barely keep track of the number of messages she received as her Facebook post was shared thousands of times. Within days, she had to call CPK for help. Since then, psychologists, lawyers and CPK volunteers, Paszko among them, have responded to the flood of requests.
The page is so convincing that it receives messages about the natural cosmetics advertised, along with supportive and congratulatory notes from people who have heard about the initiative through word of mouth or women’s groups.
To filter out the less urgent messages, a web developer created a bot to organise requests. Psychologists can then immediately identify the women who need assistance, and another team responds to inquiries about the cosmetics that appear in the “other” folder.
To protect women whose partners monitor their communications, Paszko developed a system of coded questions to determine the type of assistance needed. Based on her experience messaging with women, she created a 15-page guide to share with psychologists, who could begin by asking about “a skin problem”, when it started, and how many people in the household suffer from the condition.
“What surprised me is that you can say nearly everything using the code,” Paszko says, such as whether there is alcohol involved, or if violence is affecting the women’s children.
One of the first cases Paszko handled last spring began when a woman messaged the page while bathing her child. The emotional, physical, and economic abuse at her husband’s hands had got worse during the pandemic, the woman said.
Her husband was at home more, and even if she managed to escape, the man controlled her finances, so she had no money and no place to go. Because he worked during the day, Paszko told the woman to pack just the essentials for her and her child. CPK ordered and paid for a taxi that took them both to its shelter in Warsaw.
CPK’s shelter takes up one floor of an unassuming building in the capital. The space, whose location is kept secret, can house up to 20 women and children at a time. According to Urszula Nowakowska, the founder and president of CPK, violence during lockdown both escalated where it had already existed in a relationship and began in others for the first time.
Before arriving at the shelter, the woman Paszko had helped to leave her husband had been too ashamed and afraid to talk about her abuse with her parents. After a few days at CPK, she opened up to them. She has since moved in with her parents, found work and enrolled her child at a nursery school.
Even before the pandemic hit, domestic abuse was rife in Poland, although the extent of it was downplayed by the ruling ultra-conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS). Last August, a 2019 study commissioned by the government but not made public was leaked to the press. It found that 63% of Polish women had experienced domestic violence during their lives. The study noted that what connected perpetrators was a sense of impunity: they are confident they will not be punished.
A month earlier, according to reports, the justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro filed a request to withdraw Poland from the Istanbul Convention, a Council of Europe treaty drawn up to combat violence against women. The prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, and other ultra-conservatives claim the treaty represents an ideological view on gender at odds with Poland’s “traditional family values”. News outlets reported that the country aimed instead to create a regional treaty on “family rights” with other far-right governments in central and eastern European countries such as Hungary.
Efforts to withdraw from the convention and a decision by the constitutional court to impose a near-total ban on abortion represent “a very consistent march towards limiting women’s rights in Poland”, says Zuzanna Warso, an expert in human rights with the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights. The country already has one of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws. And the pandemic may have been used as a pretext to further reduce legal protections for women in Poland.
Last October, Paszko joined a rally of 100,000 people on Warsaw’s streets to protest against the abortion ban. Despite tight restrictions in response to Covid-19, the demonstration marked one of the largest in Poland since the fall of communism, a show of anger against the PiS. As proceedings wound down, Paszko headed home and tried to sleep. At 2am, she opened the Facebook page, and a message popped up.
“Help. Please help,” it said. “He wants me to leave the flat. I have blood on my face. I don’t know where to go. What should I do?” The woman’s partner had gone out to a party and come home drunk. Paskzo asked if she should call the police on her behalf, but the woman was scared because her partner had threatened more violence if she involved the police.
He had packed her belongings in a suitcase and ordered her to leave, but she had nowhere to go. Paszko coordinated with shelters in the area to find one that had room. Within a few hours, the woman had made it out safely to a local crisis intervention centre.
Since last spring, more than 500 women throughout Poland, and Polish women living in the Netherlands and Germany, have received help through Paszko’s cosmetics page, according to Monika Perdjon, a therapist and emergency responder for CPK. Paszko admits that taking on such an initiative as a teenager is a heavy responsibility, but she is happy that such a page exists and is having an impact.
“Maybe it’s a paradox, but it’s kind of optimistic: that [they] can get help instead of staying in the situation for years,” she says.
Adapted from reporting originally commissioned by the Stanley Center for Peace and Security’s journalism and media programme as part of Red Flags or Resilience.