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Domestic abuse does not only involve violence

This opinion piece is over 6 years old

Magdalena Grzymkowska, of the Polish Women Support Network, looks at what needs to be done to help protect women within the community from abuse

In Poland, domestic violence is traditionally understood only as physical or sexual violence and this belief is transferred by Poles to the country of emigration. Therefore, other kinds of coercive control like psychological, emotional, religious or financial abuse are underestimated by the victims themselves. This is why the Abuse, That’s Not Only… (Przemoc To Nie Tylko…) initiative was launched as part of the 16 days of Action campaign.

There are a few cultural barriers to reporting domestic abuse in the Polish community. They may be linked to attachment to the traditional family model as well as lack of awareness and confidence in support services in the UK.

The traditional perception of the role of a man as a provider and head of the family, entitles him to keep the hand on the family budget. Thus, financial control is the most common form of coercive behaviour affecting Polish families. Not being able to afford a bus fare or a mobile phone can lead to the complete isolation of a woman strengthened by the loneliness of the emigration itself. The poor knowledge of English, due to the isolation and lack of opportunity to practice, influences the already low self-esteem and hinders chances to reach out for help.

Magdalena Grzymkowska
Magdalena Grzymkowska

The reason for under reporting of the domestic abuse may also lay in Polish culture where violence against women is not addressed as a mainstream policy issue. The domestic abuse is seen as the family problem and should be solved privately, which can be an additional source of shame and guilt for the victim, who failed as a wife and a mother. This effects in the poor understanding of the consequences of the domestic abuse on children and how this would affect their adult life. As Professor Karatzias from Edinburgh Napier University highlighted at the launch of 16 Days of Activism in Edinburgh on 25 November, untreated childhood trauma has a great impact on adults’ mental health and influences the way they enter the relationships and undertake other destructive behaviours.

The results of the FRA – European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights study (March, 2014) - indicate the positive relationship between violence and abuse of alcohol by a perpetrator. Alcohol misuse is a great problem in Poland. According to the Polish Alcohol Problems Agency there are 600,000 alcoholics and 350,000 new addicts who appear in the treatment system every year. On the other hand, over three million people drink alcohol excessively. Alcohol is closely linked to development of the dysfunctional families and causing attachment issues in adult life, broadly explained as adult children of alcoholics syndrome. This problem should be highlighted and treated as a factor contributing to the use of violence against Polish women in Polish families. The adults can feel the effects of alcoholism, likewise people in violent relationships, often experienced this in childhood. In addition while many Polish victims of domestic violence admit to suffer from the syndrome of Adult Children of Alcoholics, this problem is not much recognised in the UK and there are not many therapies or support groups available.

Another cultural barrier is the lack of faith in the resourcefulness of the police and lack of awareness of procedures or the rights of the victim. As a result, many myths grow around this topic, for example, requesting help is tantamount to taking away children by social services or, another one, that Poles are not entitled to an interpreter.

The tragedy of the victims is magnified by the welfare reform and ever changing conditions around how social support is awarded. Often, women have no or little work history, and sometimes have never acquired a National Insurance Number as the result of isolation they have experience. This - unexpectedly for the EEA nationals - results in the “no recourse to public funds” status, which significantly hinders the level of support the services are able to provide.

Regarding all above factors, Polish workers and volunteers supporting victims of domestic abuse identify a crucial need to raise awareness about various forms of domestic abuse within the community. The effects of the education and information campaign can already be seen. Currently our Polish helpline in the UK which operates only eight hours a week, is reporting twice as many applications now compared to previous weeks.

Magdalena Grzymkowska, is a media relations support officer for Feniks, and prepared this article with help from Magda Czarnecka