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Support Is Scarce for Abused Polish Women

By Wendy SloaneSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 19, 1998


A strong hand means a strong family, according to an old Polish proverb.

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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.