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Gender violence in EU lowest in Poland - should we rejoice?

by Magda Mis | @magdalenamis1 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 6 March 2014 16:41 GMT

A woman walks with child at underpass in centre of Warsaw, Poland, August 19, 2013. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Is “scoring” lowest a reason to celebrate or is it a wake-up call to shine a light on under-reported violence?

Poland is the country with the lowest rate of violence against women in the European Union (EU), according to a report published on Wednesday.

Are women really safer in Poland compared to, say, Denmark which came last in the survey with a staggering 52 percent of its female population having experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lives?  In Poland that percentage is “just” 19. 

So is “scoring” lowest a reason to celebrate or is it rather a wake-up call? After all 19 percent still means that almost one if five women in Poland experienced violence.

When you walk the streets of Krakow, Poland’s second largest city, you probably wouldn’t see many women clearly bearing signs of physical abuse. But you probably wouldn’t see them in Denmark either.

This is because violence against women is largely an “invisible” crime the scale of which remains hidden until victims come forward.

Many women don’t admit they were victims of violence for various reasons: the stigma that comes with it, fear or further abuse or because they’re not aware that it’s a crime and that there are laws in place to protect them.

This is very much the case for Poland, where very few women come forward and report being abused, people working in the field say.

“I don’t think that we should be happy about this figure, because in my opinion the situation in Poland is not that great and those numbers do not exactly show the real situation and we should rather worry that the awareness in Poland is lower than in Denmark and other Western European countries”, Urszula Nowakowska, director of Warsaw-based Centre for Women’s Rights told Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

According to Nowakowska, women in Poland are still ashamed to talk about violence they experienced, even in anonymous surveys. Also oftentimes, those who are supposed to help, including the police, confuse women by hinting that the violence they were subject to can be reduced to a solvable “conflict” within the family.

“Those indicators (being) so different in different countries is largely the result of women’s awareness and what is considered violence and how you define it in different countries”, she said.

“(In Poland), we don’t call certain behaviours ‘violence’, but rather a ‘conflict in a family’ and that’s what really worries me. In this respect we are going backwards.”

Nowakowska said another reason why women may not want to admit that they were victims of violence is that family is being glorified in Poland to a point where problems and shortcomings reflect badly on the women in the family.

However, since 2005 the number of victims of domestic violence in Poland has fallen by 22 percent in 2012, according to police statistics.

But this figure doesn’t show the real scale of the problem either, Nowakowska said.

“(Statistics) show a false picture of the problem. We have many reports from women who say that (when they went to file a report) police asked them to see social services or other groups of support,” she said. “The police didn’t start criminal proceedings,” she said.

In Poland, rape by a spouse is punishable by law and there are other laws in place to protect women from violence, but Nowakowska thinks the measures adopted so far by authorities are not enough.

“In those countries that created systems that do work, the number of registered cases (of violence against women) grows and this proves that women have the courage and want to reveal those things, but in case of Poland it’s just the opposite”, she said. “Based on our experience and what women tell us, I don’t think that this situation is improving. I think it’s just the opposite”.

It’s difficult to say to what extent all these factors played into the survey’s results, but one thing experts agree on is that the more we talk about violence against women the bigger the chance more women will seek help.

“We have to raise awareness among women so that they revel (cases of violence), but also to create systems that would make it easier for women to report violence, and not act as a deterrent”, said Nowakowska.

“If you back a few decades, it was taboo to talk about this. I think if the survey is repeated in five years what you will then see is that rates will potentially be going up,” the head of the Freedoms and Justice Department at the EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) Joanna Goodey said.

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