WARSAW — A strong hand means a strong family, according to an old Polish proverb.
But for Iwana Sukorwiecz, the daily beatings she received from her husband left her with nothing but scars - mental and physical.
"I didn't know my husband drank when we got married," says Ms. Sukorwiecz, a tired-looking young woman with several teeth missing.
"But after a few months, he started beating me up. Finally he stole my government residence permit from me, which meant I had no legal right to our apartment. Then one day we had a huge quarrel, so I decided to leave our home for good."
Sukorwiecz went to a shelter for battered women, the only one in the city of Katowice, in southern Poland.
But after one month - during which time she was unsuccessful in finding a job or a new place to live - she was kicked out onto the streets.
"They told me to leave, but I had nowhere else to go as my entire family are alcoholics like my husband," she says. "None of them would let me stay with them so I came to Warsaw, where I thought things would be better."
That was in 1993, and if things haven't got worse for Sukorwiecz, they haven't improved. For five years she's been homeless, living at the Warsaw Central Railway Station existing on handouts from Roman Catholic charities.
For generations, the man has been head of household in this predominantly Catholic country, and his word was never questioned. When a woman complained of abuse at the hand of her husband, more often than not she was told it was her fault.
As a result, Poland has only a handful of shelters for battered women. In fact Warsaw, the capital of this country of 38 million, has 2 million inhabitants - and no women's shelters.
"This is a chronic problem throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union," says Martina Vandenberg of the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch in Washington. In Russia, she notes, there are 4 million men registered as abusers on police records, but there are only two shelters for battered women in the entire country, one in Siberia, one in St. Petersburg.
In Poland, abused women are sent to homeless shelters, where their husbands are given complete access and people of both genders are often forced to share the same sleeping quarters.
"Often the men who run these shelters have a criminal past, and the women who are forced to stay there are therefore often put in a very dangerous situation," says Urszula Nowakowska, director of the nongovernmental Women's Rights Center in Warsaw.
While a limited number of shelters are available in other cities, such as Cracow and Lodz, they have been criticized for not accepting women outside their area, as well as for forcing some women into trying to negotiate agreements with their husbands to allow them to return home.
"Women don't want to accept the conditions in these shelters as they may be abusive or have strict rules. Still others may mandate that women do community work to be able to stay there, so our clients have to give up their jobs," Ms. Nowakowska says. "It's not easy to find a place to live or a new job in Poland because of the economic situation."
No government programs
Change, if it comes at all, will be slow. Last November, the government implemented a campaign to increase awareness of domestic abuse, offering telephone hot lines to women, publishing several magazine and newspaper articles, and sponsoring a poster campaign in Warsaw. "The Soup Was Too Salty," read one poster, displaying the punched and bruised face of a woman. "She Was Too Pretty," read another.
But the campaign was shortlived, and its critics say it stopped short of implementing any lasting change.
"The issue of violence against women is relatively new in Poland. It has only been openly discussed for the past five years; before then it was taboo," says Nowakowska. "And even though we now talk about it, the position of the Catholic Church is still not supportive.... Our center, for example, has been accused of ruining the family and breaking down marriages, just because we advise women to get out of violent relationships."
The country's previous government signed an agreement with the United Nations Development Fund to support 10 centers throughout Poland that would help educate people about domestic violence and train women to work in shelters for battered women.
But Kaziwimerz Kapera, the new government commissioner for family affairs, canceled the program when he entered office last year. He angered women's groups by saying he didn't agree with the philosophy behind it - especially as it didn't take into account the needs of men.
"A significant portion of victims of abuse are men who suffer physical and psychological violence at the hands of women. This is a problem that my administration must address, as current programs ignore it completely," he says.
Not long ago Mr. Kapera started up a "men's group" which aims to defend the rights and interests of men, which he believes are being undermined.
"Putting someone like Kapera in charge shows what low priority women's issues have in Poland," says one Western observer who has been living in the country for several years.
Like Sukorwiecz, Katazyna Fidler also lives at the railway station. She's been homeless for more than a year, ever since her sister's boyfriend started abusing her.
"He's my biggest enemy. He was always calling me a whore,... getting drunk and yelling at me," she recalls, sitting on a greasy piece of cardboard where her tattered blanket lies next to some cartons of juice. "But I couldn't stay at my parents, as they're both alcoholics. I don't want to talk about them. My father used to beat me, and he tried to rape me."
Ms. Fidler considers herself fortunate: she has a boyfriend at the station, and his parents have agreed to help the two of them eventually get their own place to live. The offer couldn't have come at a better time: recently, police removed an estimated two dozen homeless people from the station - using batons and tear gas - defending their actions by saying that the squatters could be infected with diseases and posed a potential health hazard.
The need for assistance
The homeless returned to the station the following day, saying they would not leave unless the government allocates them land to build a shelter of their own. But for abused women like Fidler, an anonymous refuge filled with both men and women isn't the answer.
"I'd like to get a job, any old job. I can do anything," she says defiantly. "I'm still looking for a different life for myself. There are so many women like me, who would be able to live quite happily if only the government got us apartments of our own. But they don't help us at all."
GROUPS HELPING BATTERED WOMEN IN EASTERN EUROPE
* Women's Rights Center in Warsaw, a nongovernmental organization, Urszula Nowakowska, director
* Centrum Praw Kobiet Women's Rights Center
Ul. Wilcza 60 #19
Web site: free.ngo.pl./temida
* Human Rights Watch
Women's Rights Division
1522 K Street N.W. #910
Washington, DC 20005-1202
Web site: www.hrw.org