Violence During the Time of Pandemic: COVID-19 and the Rise of Domestic Violence in Poland
Article by Katarzyna Szpargala.
Abstract: The Covid-19 outbreak has not only disturbed the global economy but also negatively affected the social life and mental health of many. Moreover, the pandemic affects various people and groups differently and increases already existing inequalities, prejudices, and violence. As we can observe, gender-based and domestic violence is increasing all around the world. This article will examine the growth of domestic violence and the effectiveness of actions taken by governments to prevent this problem. It will briefly look at the problem of the growth of domestic violence around the world, but will focus mainly on the situation in Poland.
Due to the Covid-19 outbreak, many countries decided to impose lockdowns to keep the virus from spreading. The economy is slowing down, and experts agree that the Covid-19 pandemic will not only have a massive impact on the global economy but will also negatively affect the social life and mental health of many. Isolation, deterioration of the financial situation, fear for each other’s health, and crowding of all family members in one space for 24 hours a day inevitably cause many emotions.
To prevent contracting the coronavirus people around the world were ordered or advised to stay at home. For many, home is the safest place, but for some, staying at home doesn’t offer safety. Forced quarantine has caused the growth of domestic violence. Because of the quarantine, the victims feel even more helpless, and abusers more powerful.
According to sociologist Marianne Hester, the increase of domestic violence was foreseeable during the forced quarantine, as it usually goes up whenever families spend more time together, for instance, during Christmas time or vacations (as cited in Taub, 2020). The number of cases of domestic violence has increased since the beginning of the lockdowns. The shelters and hotlines are already overstrained, and the governments are trying to address and combat this growth. However, most of them largely failed to prepare efficient ways and tools to prevent domestic violence even before the coronavirus pandemic. Furthermore, the number of victims of domestic violence will likely keep growing as studies show that violence is increasing after disasters and in the wake of personal problems, such as lost jobs or fears of uncertain future (World Health Organization, 2005). As Covid-19 harms the global economy and financial security of many workers, certainly, it will also increase personal problems. Consequently, domestic and gender-based violence will increase as well.
Domestic violence can affect anyone – a woman, a man, or a child. However, the vast majority of victims of domestic violence are women. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime report (2018), a total of 87,000 women were killed in 2017, and 58 percent of them were victims of domestic violence. Moreover, following the UN Women report (2020), globally, 243 women and girls (between 15-49 age) have been a victim of domestic violence last year.
This article will analyze the effect of Covid-19 pandemic on domestic violence and governmental involvement, or lack of it, in the fight against it. The situation of domestic violence around the world will be briefly introduced, but the particular focus will be on Poland.
The Prevention of Violence against Women
Many scholars agree that domestic violence existed in every known culture and throughout history. Victims of domestic violence are mainly women. Violence against women has been recognized by international organizations such as the United Nations or the European Union as a violation of human rights, and its root is seen in the centuries-old disadvantaged position of women in the family and the society (Urban and Cianciara, 2008). The United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) from 1979 is considered to be one of the most important documents that fight against structural and private violence against women. Recommendation 12 and 19 require the Member States to provide protection and support for victims of domestic violence, rape, and other forms of gender-based violence (Urban and Cianciara, 2008).
Moreover, the 1950 Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms guarantees everyone the right to life, health, and freedom, and it imposes on its signatories the obligation to prevent violence against women. Years later, in 1997, the European Union began implementing the DAPHNE Program, the main goal was to support projects that combat gender-based violence and discrimination. In 1997-2000, the Committee on Women’s Rights, operating in the European Parliament, carried out a campaign that promotes equality and fights against violence. In 2011 the Council of Europe introduced the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating domestic violence and violence against women. A few years later, in 2017, the European Commission presented the NON.NO.NEIN campaign to raise awareness about the problem of violence against women. Moreover, in the same year, the European Union and the United Nations launched the Spotlight Initiative to eliminate all forms of discrimination and violence against women and girls.
The United Nations, European Union, and other international organizations have undertaken many actions to prevent gender-based violence. However, still many women cannot enjoy their human rights, such as equality or security, and research shows that gender-based violence and harassment are still ongoing worldwide problems. This violence and harassment have only been increased by coronavirus pandemic and exposed the inefficiency of protection of domestic violence victims.
The Problem of Domestic Violence during the Pandemic Around the World
The escalation of domestic violence is a global problem. The uncertainty of one’s security, health, and financial situation causes a storm of emotions that are difficult to unload during the lockdown; thus the aggressive behaviors are increasing. Following the United Nation Women’s report on Covid-19 and Violence against Women and Girls (2020), the helplines in most countries have registered an increase in incoming calls. In some other countries, the number of official reports of domestic violence has increased as well. In France the police recorded a 30 percent increase in domestic violence since the lockdown on March 17, in Singapore, the hotline for victims of violence has registered a 33 percent growth in calls, in Argentina, it was 25 percent. Denmark registered the increase of calls for emergency accommodation, as victims couldn’t stay safe at home with their abusers (Higgins, 2020). This trend can be observed in Canada, the United States, China, Germany, and many other countries. In all cases, the growth could be observed soon after governments’ imposed lockdown.
Italy was one of the first European countries to announced the lockdown on March 9. Soon after, the imposition of the national quarantine, domestic violence reports began to increase. However, the victims were forced to stay with their abusers at home as shelters were afraid to take battered women as the risk of infection was too high (Taub, 2020). And on March 30, would-be doctor, Lorena Quaranta was killed by her boyfriend (Higgins, 2020).
The same happened in Spain. The Spanish government announced the national lockdown on March 14, two weeks after the emergency number for domestic violence registered an 18 percent increase in calls (Taub, 2020). In Spain, a young woman, Carina, was the first woman in the country killed by her husband not long after the announcement of the lockdown.
The victims of domestic violence fear the abusers inside their houses and the virus outside. According to Marceline Naudi, president of the Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, the fear of infection with the coronavirus can be a direct obstacle to seeking help (as cited in Higgins, 2020). The victims can be afraid to seek medical help as hospitals are now not the safest places and the possibility of infection is high, but also there aren’t many places to ask for help, as some shelters are afraid of the risk of infection thus have stopped the admissions or are already crowded.
However, some national and local governments noticed the need to start acting. Together with NGOs, they are trying to combat domestic violence during the Covid-19 pandemic. For instance, Canada keeps its shelters for domestic and gender-based violence open and allocated $50 million to support them (Lennar, 2020). In Spain, victims are provided with an alternative and safe place for quarantine, and the UK government spends £ 1.6 billion on actions to prevent domestic violence and ensures that victims can leave their homes without the violation of the quarantine policy (Wrzos, 2020). France is creating an alarm system for victims of violence, which will operate in pharmacies. Victims can safely contact the police station from the pharmacies.
The Growth of Domestic Violence during the Covid-19 Pandemic in Poland
Yearly, roughly 70,000 women in Poland experience domestic violence. According to the official police statistics on domestic violence (2020), the total number of victims of domestic violence in 2019 was 88,032, including 65,195 women, 12,161 children, and 10,676 men. The total number of the suspected perpetrators of domestic violence last year was 74,910 – 6,448 of women, 314 of children, and 68,148 of men. These are, however, official statistics, because many cases are never reported, the real number of domestic violence victims is higher.
Polish criminal law penalizes domestic violence in art. 207 § 1 of the Penal Code. The subject of protection is the family and its safety. According to the Penal Code 1997 (2009), “whoever mistreats physically or mentally of a person near or over another person in a permanent or transient depending on the relationship of the perpetrator or a minor or helpless person because of her mental or physical state, be subject to imprisonment from 3 months to 5 years.” However, the theory doesn’t always go together with the practice. Domestic violence is a huge problem in Poland. According to professor Beata Gruszyńska, there are more victims than the official statistics show (as cited in Gzyra, 2020). Moreover, the Polish government still has to properly implement the 2011 Convention, which Poland ratified in 2015. According to Amnesty International (2018), Polish legislation requires reform to prevent domestic violence efficiently. Moreover, the effective anti-violence policy must cooperate with the NGOs. However, for many years the Polish government doesn’t effectively support NGOs that deal with violence prevention. For instance, in 2018, the Women’s Right Center did not receive the government subsidy for the third time, and the Ministry of Justice didn’t grant money to the Foundation “We Give Children Strength,” which fights violence against children (Ambroziak, 2018).
The situation of Polish victims of domestic violence was already difficult, but the Covid-19 pandemic has only increased the problem of domestic violence.
During the isolation, violence against women and children has escalated. For instance, a few months ago, Avon, together with the Feminoteka Foundation, launched the first application in Poland for victims of violence – Avon Alter (Wrzos, 2020). Several weeks into quarantine, the number of users has increased by 38 percent.
Moreover, there is a difference in statistics from independent entities and police statistics. Going through police statistics, one can get a false image of domestic violence during the pandemic as they don’t show the increment since the number of police interventions is falling. In March 2020, under the Blue Card procedure, there were 5,307 police interventions, compared to 6,377 interventions in March 2019 (Wrzos, 2020). However, there are no such differences in the corresponding months – January and February this and last year. Thus, as many psychologists stated, in the current situation, battered women and children are often completely isolated from the outside world and easier controlled by their abuser, so it’s harder for victims to call the police as their abusers are around them all the time. Moreover, during the pandemic time, police and other public organs have a lot of different work, thus the perpetrators can remain unpunished. According to Mariusz Ciarka, spokesman for the Police Headquarters, the police are responding to every report they get and that the interventions related to domestic violence are still carried out (as cited in Wrzos, 2020). However, the Ministry of Family, Labor and Social Policy has fundamentally changed the conditions and forms for assisting domestic violence victims. According to the recommendation, interdisciplinary teams and working groups, including social workers, should be created, and separate representatives of the groups should contact the victim and the abuser (Wrzos, 2020). The indirect contact is recommended, but if the situation requires it, direct contact is possible. However, observation of the situation in the family takes place over the phone or the Internet (Wrzos, 2020), which is not enough. Many victims of domestic violence are not able to ask for help through the phone as their abusers are near them almost all the time. Urszula Mortyniszyn, a chairwoman of the board of the “HumanDoc” Foundation, noticed that problem and issued an appeal to the Polish police to create a quick and safe way of contacting the nearest police station in a way other than calling the emergence numbers (as cited in Gmiterek-Zabłocka, 2020). For instance, by creating a “one-click help” system, a tab on the official website of the Police Headquarters with the list of e-mail addresses to particular police units.
However, it’s still not enough, and it’s necessary to remember that the verification of the situation via phone or the Internet is also constricted. Furthermore, as psychologist Agata Woyciechowska pointed out, the victims and offender are staying in the same place, even after the intervention of the police, so it’s necessary to provide the solution where the perpetrators will be isolated, and victims can stay in their place of residence, without the fear of experiencing violence again (as cited in Wrzos, 2020) .
The aggression and violence will be increasing, as the isolation, the fear of the uncertain future, and the financial situation will be with us till the end of the pandemic, and as many psychologists have warned, these and many more factors can act as stressors leading to conflicts and aggression. Also, the stressful situation can increase aggression not only in people who already have problems with it but also in people who were able to control it before, which will lead to an even bigger increase in domestic violence.
During the pandemic, the Polish national emergency line for victims of domestic violence, “Blue Line,” is getting more calls as more people are searching for help. Renata Duda, manager of the Blue Line, declared that the elderly, children and disabled people are calling more often and seeking for help (as cited in Gmiterek-Zabłocka, 2020). Duda also brings awareness to the problem of economic violence. Economic violence is still not fully recognized by Polish law; therefore, there aren’t many efficient solutions in helping victims of that form of violence. Adam Bodnar, a Polish ombudsman, stated that people threatened by domestic violence shouldn’t be left without support. Thus, together with the feminist organizations, Feminoteka Foundation and the Women’s Rights Center, and the Blue Line, the “Emergency Plan” for the victims has been created (as cited in Bełbot, 2020). The “Emergency Plan” includes information about the ways of obtaining help during the Covid-19 pandemic. And the Feminoteka Foundation created a map of safe places for women experiencing violence. The map is updated daily.
In the time of pandemic and with the lack of sufficient governmental solutions, it’s necessary to remain sensitive to the harm of others and do not be indifferent. Any witness of violence should report this issue to proper organizations.
For many people, home, especially during that uncertain times as of now, is the safest place in the world. Politicians, celebrities, and many others keep telling people to stay at home to stay safe, but for victims of domestic violence, staying home doesn’t mean staying safe; it’s quite contrary.
The lack of efficient tools and methods for the prevention of domestic violence is now more visible than ever. Institutions that should protect women from domestic violence are often underfunded and left without much support from the governments. Now, these institutions vow to fight for every woman, but the strain is too much for many of these institutions. The national and local governments released many recommendations on how to prevent domestic violence during the Covid-19 pandemic of which some are practical, some not nonetheless, most of them are just short-term responses in the face of the pandemic. The victims of domestic violence need a long-term response, and economic and socio-cultural changes in the combating of domestic violence are needed. The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed worldwide failures in preventing and combating domestic and gender-based violence.
 On April 30, 2020, the Polish government passed a new anti-violence act. According to the act, the abuser will be isolated from the victim and will have to leave the place of residence for at least 14 days.
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