Kelly Sans Culotte


Poland's Female Trouble
Violence, prostitution and trafficking soar.

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JAN. 12, 2004. The treatment of women in Poland continues to be a blot on that country's human rights record. The U.S. Department of State devoted a good chunk of its 2002 report on human rights practices in Poland to the issue. Below is an excerpt.

Domestic Abuse
Violence against women continued to be a problem [in Poland].

While no comprehensive surveys document the problem adequately, the Women's Rights Center estimated that 23 percent of women have been victims of domestic violence, and the NGO La Strada reported that 18 percent of married women admitted to being victims of physical abuse by their husbands. Police statistics indicated that approximately 67,000 women were victims of domestic violence in 2001.

Women's organizations asserted that the number of women suffering from domestic abuse is probably much higher because battered women usually refused to admit abuse even to themselves. Violence against women remained hidden, particularly in small towns and villages. Government and police statistics do not differentiate between male and female victims of violence. Physical abuse is illegal and spousal rape is treated in the same manner as other types of rape.

Police intervened in cases of domestic violence. The police, in cooperation with the State Agency for Solving Alcoholic Problems, continued to maintain the "blue card," a record-keeping system designed to document incidents of spousal abuse. Law enforcement personnel continued to use the Blue Card Program, although with limited effect due to inadequate funding.

Sentences for abuse of family members range from 3 months to 5 years, or from 2 to 10 years if the victim attempts suicide as a result of the abuse. Most convictions (83 percent) resulted in suspended sentences. A police spokesman stated that there were 24,200 cases of family abuse reported in 2001, of which 213 involved particularly severe abuse. According to NGOs, the courts often treated domestic violence as a minor crime, pronounced lenient verdicts, or dismissed cases.

In 2001 there were 2,339 rape cases reported. However, NGOs reported that women often were unwilling to report the crime and estimated that the actual number of rapes was 10 times higher than that reported. According to the Women's Rights Center Report, there was significant progress in raising public awareness of the problem of violence against women. NGOs indicated that this was one factor in the government's increasingly receptive position on women's issues. Other reasons included legislation required for Poland's accession to the EU and the creation of the vice-ministerial position of Plenipotentiary for the Equal Rights of Women and Men.

In addition, NGOs operated 15 centers to assist victims, provide preventive treatment as well as re-socialization counseling to perpetrators, and train personnel working with victims of domestic violence. The Office of Victims' Rights Spokesman at the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Administration has responsibility to ensure that victims of violence are treated with respect by law enforcement and the judicial system. The office provides legal and psychological assistance for victims and their families.

The law has no provision for restraining orders to protect battered women against further abuse. For example, in divorce cases, courts frequently granted a divorce but did not issue a property settlement, forcing women to return to their abusive husbands. This problem was exacerbated by a lack of alternative housing in the country. Women's advocacy groups also complained about the small number of state-supported shelters for battered women.

Paying for sexual activity is illegal, as is pimping; however, selling sex is not illegal. Due to a crackdown on prostitutes who work along major thoroughfares and at truck stops, much of the prostitution industry moved to brothels, massage parlors, or agencies offering escort services.

Since 1997 the total estimated numbers of prostitutes has declined by 45 percent; however, police believed that this apparent decline may have resulted from much greater numbers of women working in brothels, or so-called agencies, who were not captured by the statistics. Police estimated that there were 7,000 prostitutes in the country of whom 3,000 worked in one of the 700 agencies in operation and 3,400 worked in hotels, pubs, discos, and on the streets. The remaining 600 prostitutes worked on major thoroughfares and at truck stops.

Trafficking in women for the purpose of sexual exploitation was a problem.

Sexual Harassment
While there are no laws specifically addressing sexual harassment, social awareness of the problem continued to increase, and there are mechanisms to deal with the problem. For example, the Criminal Code states that whoever takes advantage of a position of power in a relationship to gain sexual gratification may be sentenced to up to 3 years in prison.

According to a Supreme Court advisory opinion, such a relationship can occur between employers and employees, between supervisors and subordinates, or between teachers and students; however, this provision can be invoked only when alleged sexual harassment occurs between a supervisor and an individual in a subordinate position. Abuse of power cannot be claimed when harassment occurs between persons of equal rank.

In May a former director of a hospital emergency ward charged in 2000 of sexually harassing 6 nurses was sentenced to 16 months in prison (suspended) and 4 years probation.

Workplace Discrimination
The Constitution provides for equal rights regardless of gender and grants women equal rights with men in all areas of family, political, social, and economic life, including equal compensation for work of similar value. However, in practice women frequently were paid less for equivalent work, mainly held lower level positions, were discharged more quickly, and were less likely to be promoted than men.

The 2001 government statistical bulletin indicated that men had a higher employment rate (52.5 percent) than women (39 percent) and that women had a higher unemployment rate. In August the unemployment rate was 17.4 percent, and 52.7 percent of those unemployed were women.

Despite having a generally higher level of education, women earned on average 30 percent less than men. In January the labor code was amended to prohibit discrimination in hiring, with the burden of proof put on the employer to prove that discrimination was not used. Although women had access to a number of previously forbidden careers, they still were prohibited from working underground or in jobs that require heavy lifting. Apart from the Constitution, there is no other legal provision for equal rights for women.

Nevertheless women were employed in a wide variety of professions and occupations, and a number of women occupied high positions in government and in the private sector. Both men and women had the right to take time off to care for a sick child.

The pension law requires mandatory earlier retirement for women at age 60 (age 65 for men), and as a result women got approximately 60 percent of the average pension that men received. However, in 2000 the Constitutional Tribunal ruled that the law setting retirement age at 60 for women and 65 for men was discriminatory, as it reduced women's chances for promotion and better pensions. Based on this ruling, women can appeal to the labor court if employers insist that they retire at 60.

Fighting Back
The Ombudsman for Human Rights monitors the rights of women within the broader context of human rights. Observers noted that the broad scope of the office's mandate diluted its ability to function as an effective advocate of women's issues.

There are several women's rights NGOs; among the most notable are the Polish Foundation for Women and Family Planning and the Women's Rights Center. These groups were active advocates of gender equality and advanced their goals through research, monitoring, and publishing.

There are several church-sponsored women's advocacy organizations, but their cooperation with other women's NGOs was limited.

Trafficking in Persons
The law prohibits trafficking in persons; however, the country was a source, transit point, and destination for trafficked persons, primarily women and girls and, to a lesser extent, boys. Since statistics on prostitution did not distinguish victims of trafficking from those willfully engaged in prostitution, escort services, pornography, and other aspects of the sex trade, the scope of the trafficking problem was difficult to define. The international NGO La Strada estimated that 60 percent of foreign women who worked as prostitutes in the country were victims of trafficking.

Several provisions in the Criminal Code specifically address the problem of trafficking. The law prohibits trafficking in human beings and pimping and imposes sentences of up to 10 years on those convicted. It also bans recruiting or luring persons into prostitution; penalties for this offense are also up to 10 years. The most severe sentences are reserved for individuals trafficking in children and those luring women into prostitution abroad.

The scope of trafficking in the country was likely to be much larger than the numbers reflected in prosecutions and arrests for specific violations of the criminal code. In 2001 the Government prosecuted 34 cases of trafficking involving 42 victims and 345 cases of luring persons into prostitution.

Polish women and children were trafficked to western European countries such as Germany, Italy, and the Czech Republic for sexual exploitation.

Women Trafficked to Poland
Women and girls were trafficked to and through Poland from countries such as Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, Belarus, and Russia. Ukraine was the largest single source of foreign women trafficked in Poland. Women from Bulgaria tended to be from the Turkish and Romani minorities. Of the estimated 7,000 prostitutes in the country, 2,100 (30 percent) were estimated to be of foreign origin.

Women and girls who were trafficked into Poland were recruited from areas with low socioeconomic conditions, sometimes quite openly. Those women and girls from the lowest socioeconomic status were most vulnerable to trafficking and subjected to the worst conditions. For example, Roma and ethnically Turkish Bulgarians tended to be employed as prostitutes on highways. They may spend a few months in Poland before they are trafficked further west.

In contrast, women from other countries of Eastern Europe also were trafficked into agencies run as brothels. Educated Polish and Russian women were more likely than others to be employed voluntarily by escort services.

Unwilling Victims
Victims were trafficked through such means as fake employment offers, arranged marriages, fraud, and coercive measures. Some may believe that they were accepting employment as waitresses, maids, or nannies abroad. While they were en route to what they believed to be their destinations, their passports and identity papers were taken from them.

Stripped of their personal identity, the women and girls were kept under the control of the traffickers through fear and intimidation. They were required to serve a minimum number of clients each day to earn their keep. They were threatened with violence, and those who resisted were raped or beaten. If they tried to flee, their legs may be broken. There are also reports of victims being killed by their traffickers.

In the last few years, trafficking has become increasingly organized and has been associated with a rampant growth in document fraud. As many as 90 percent of the women and girls trafficked in the country had false travel documents, and the trafficking of a single woman usually involved a network of criminals. One criminal will recruit the woman; a second will provide false travel documents and traffic her across the border; and a third will supervise her work with clients, functioning as a pimp.

In one example offered by police, a Bulgarian woman was detained several different times by police, each time with a new identity and passport. La Strada and police also reported large-scale auctions of women held in Warsaw and other cities. Prices paid for women and girls who were trafficked reportedly started at $1,500 (6,000 PLN). Victims usually were trafficked by nationals from the same source country; for example, Bulgarian women were trafficked by Bulgarians and Ukrainians by Ukrainians. Foreign traffickers systematically paid a percentage of their receipts to Polish traffickers operating out of the same region.

Children Vulnerable
Children were victims of trafficking, although it was difficult to estimate to what extent. Legal authorities dealt with child traffickers more severely, in part because laws on statutory rape were easier to prosecute. As a result, the activity has been driven completely underground. Child prostitution is a crime, while prostitution of adults is neither banned nor regulated by law, making it more difficult for the police to pursue.

The authorities did not always recognize trafficking in children since minors can be trafficked on false documents identifying them as adults. Of the 589 cases in 2001 initiated by prosecutors, 43 involved victims who were minors. In 2001 at a hotel outside of Warsaw, police raided an auction where women and children were being sold to a human trafficking ring for use in brothels and pornography production.

Since the border guards and police may regard trafficking victims as criminals who have violated passport laws, victims were afraid to turn to officials for help. Victims have no legal status, and there were no public resources available to assist them. Victims usually were deported as soon as possible to avoid any expenses connected with keeping them in detention.

Victims were not informed about their legal status or rights. Many were unaware and were not told that under Polish law prostitution is not a crime. When detained by the police, they may be deported to the border where they were met by traffickers who quickly provided them with new travel documents and returned them to the country. There was no provision to allow victims to remain in the country long enough to pursue legal action against their traffickers.

Numerous NGOs were involved in anti-trafficking initiatives and victim services. Often these NGOs and educational institutions worked closely with local authorities to identify victims of trafficking and to develop training programs for local government providers.

La Strada — the only NGO dealing exclusively with trafficking — cooperated with shelters such as Caritas and other Catholic organizations. These organizations provided a range of services, including victims' assistance hot lines, safe accommodation, therapy and psychological support. In addition, they assisted by providing victims with contacts who can help with legal problems and reintegration into society.

La Strada also provided training on prevention and victim support to professionals such as police, border guards, prosecutors, judges, social workers, teachers, and journalists. Its "Guardian Angel" program, developed in conjunction with the Helsinki Foundation, was aimed at training social workers to help victims with legal issues, so they could be advocates for the victims before the courts, police, and prosecutors.

La Strada conducted various types of training, including awareness training for police, training of Helsinki Foundation personnel on trafficking issues and trafficking seminars to university students. In November [2001] La Strada worked with the Government to coordinate an inter-ministerial roundtable to develop a national plan to combat trafficking in persons.

From the Web

U.S. State Department: Report on Human Rights Practices in Poland 2002
La Strada Foundation-Poland
BBC Country profile: Poland
BBC Timeline: Poland

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