Andrzej Dominiczak


Poland against women's rights

In March 1994, John Paul II, the former pope, granted an audience to Ms. Nafis Sadik, then undersecretary of the UN Conference on Population and Development. They met to discuss the agenda for the U.N. International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. In an argument about the proposed recognition by the United Nations of women’s unrestricted reproductive rights, the pope categorically rejected the proposal: “In the field of family planning individual rights are not an issue. There are only the rights of married couples!”1, declared the Pontiff.

Ms Sadik insisted that the matter had to be addressed, as domestic violence was on the rise and women often became pregnant unwillingly. John Paul II burst out angrily, "Don't you think that the irresponsible behavior of men is caused by women?"2

The Polish pope considered the family as the sanctuary and the heart of the culture of life, which should be defended by any means in the face of the West's culture of death", which he saw as the ultimate expression of its profane evil. He deplored liberal democracies, where people, men and women, feel free and have the right to choose whether they want to have children, what type of lifestyles they wish to pursue, or whether they want to remain in an abusive marriage or seek a divorce.

The pope’s views of the family and individual rights of its members were not a novelty. They had shaped oppressive, patriarchal cultures for ages, but in Poland, where John Paul II is still a cult figure, they have played and still play a particularly pernicious role. The idea of “sacred family” endowed with supreme rights has been delivered and preached countless times in writing and orally by the pope himself and by thousands of his followers: preachers and teachers, ultra-catholic politicians, judges, journalists and moralists: in schools, in the parliament, in courts, in the media and from the pulpits of the churches all over the country. It has permeated our minds and lives so deeply that today, having a family, any family, is the main goal and the highest value declared by the majority of the Polish people. Individual rights, personal liberty and fulfillment are mostly not taken even into account.

Familism and democracy

Poland differs from democratic states in many ways, including the way it adheres to the principle of the rule of law and to most other democratic and liberal principles. Polish state may respect the constitution, international treaties or domestic laws on condition, however, that they are compatible with the so called social teachings of the Catholic Church. For this reason alone, in 2007, Poland opted out from the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, as its full adoption might clear the way for gay and lesbian marriage equality in Poland.

The laws protecting women’s rights, particularly those that can undermine the “family collective”, seem to be equally reprehensible to God and his-or-her local representatives, so in this field too, the state, its institutions and agencies give priority to the Catholic agenda. In a recent case from the town of Chodel in southern Poland, a woman was murdered by her husband who had abused her for many years and threatened to kill her on numerous occasions. The man, who had been just released from a pre-trial detention center, has tried to justify himself by accusing his wife of infidelity, which proved to be a very effective line of defense. A local woman prosecutor, who has taken up the case, has ordered to take and examine the sample of the tissue from the womb of the dead woman to look for traces of other man’s sperm. “She was not saintly!” – explained the prosecutor.

Theory and practice

In theory, domestic violence is classified as a criminal offense under Article 207 of the Polish Penal Code, but the violence must be repetitive in order to be punished. Moreover, law enforcement and criminal justice officials do not generally treat domestic violence seriously. The commentary to Article 207 indicates expressly that it seeks to protect the family above all else: individual rights to life, health, freedom, and bodily integrity are of only secondary concern. As one Łódź-based police officer reported, “the most important crimes are robbery, rape, murder and assault – certainly not domestic violence.”3 A police officer in Warsaw agreed, remarking, “In Poland, if you rate domestic violence on a scale of one to ten with one being the most important and ten being the least, it’s a ten.” Such attitudes, prevalent among many members of Polish society, reflect the belief that a crime committed between intimate partners is less serious than the same crime committed between unrelated persons.

Some police officers reported being frustrated by domestic violence cases, as they rarely result in punishment for the offender. This opinion is strongly supported by a number of studies which found that although the number of cases of domestic violence that have been reported to the police has significantly increased in recent years, there is a growing tendency among the state prosecutors to refuse to instigate or to discontinue the criminal proceedings, mostly under Article 17 par. 1 (2)(3) of the Code of Criminal Proceedings, stipulating that “the proceedings shall not be instituted, or, if previously instituted, shall be discontinued, when the act does not possess the qualities of a prohibited act (…), or when it causes minimal social harm.”4

In 2000, among 34 837 cases of mistreatment under Article 207, par. 1, the prosecution was discontinued in 13 504 cases – in 90 percent of cases under Article 17 par. 1(2) of the Code of Criminal Proceedings, which means that according to prosecutors, there had been no grounds to instigate the proceedings in the first place. In 2005, the number of terminated cases was even higher (about 50 percent) – 80 percent of them on the same grounds.5

Particularly disturbing was the increase in the number of the cases dismissed under Art207 par.2,3  (if the perpetrator acta with extreme cruelty and if the victims attempts suicide as a result of the abuse) – 207 par. 2 and 3, when the perpetrator acted with extreme cruelty, or when the victim attempted suicide as a result of the abuse. In 2000, they accounted for 28 percent of instigated cases, and in 2005 – for 33 percent. One can assume that the decisions to discontinue may be mostly associated with the lack of sufficient evidence, however, the experience of women's rights advocates and the studies conducted by the Women's Rights Centre6 indicate that the main reason is the widespread neglect of the problem of domestic violence and the tendency to blame women for the violence inflicted upon them.

Despite the fact that only the most severe cases of violence end up in courts, most judges seem the pursue a similar policy. They do not treat cases of domestic violence seriously and impose little, if any, punishment on convicted perpetrators. Although the number of convictions is growing, still about 90 percent of cases that proceed to trial and end in a guilty verdict result in suspended sentences7. Even in cases of violence with extreme cruelty, in one third of cases the judges give perpetrators suspended or minimal sentences. In the case of convictions under section 3 of Article 207 (when the victim attempts suicide as a result of abuse), 66 percent of perpetrators receive suspended sentences.

In some cases, the courts interpret Article 207 of the Penal Code to permit a man to abuse his wife to preserve marriage or for the woman’s own “well-being.” An Appeals Court in Krakow held the following:

Abuse may be recognized as committed through necessity imposed by the desire to preserve marriage or justified by the well-being of children or the alleged victim or any other value protected by law and more important than the dubious dignity of misconducting victims. In such circumstances, even if violence amounts to maltreatment, it may still be recognized as not meeting the criteria of the offense under Article 207. In such circumstances, it may be recommended that the accused should be acquitted of any charges or that the penalty should not be imposed or that the victim should file a private charge against the perpetrator.8

There are more examples of appalling court rulings, not only in criminal proceedings. Polish divorce laws, for example, have been also absurdly designed primarily to preserve the family unit. Many women have difficulty leaving their abusers and obtaining satisfactory divorce settlements. In one case, a woman was refused a divorce, as in a judge’s opinion, she did not prove that there had been an “entire and permanent breakdown of marital cohabitation”, which is required under Article 56 of the Polish Family and Guardianship Code. The truth was that for a number of years, she was repeatedly raped by her husband, who was convicted of this charge and sentenced to prison. According to the family court, however, forced sexual relations combined with threats and beatings constituted simply a form of marital cohabitation.

In many other cases, women who are granted divorce still live with their abusive husbands, as there is serious shortage of affordable apartments. This unfortunate situation often results in further violence, or even in deaths of women. It should be noted that although the number of homicides in Poland has fallen since 2000 by striking 40 percent, the proportion of homicides resulting from domestic violence (particularly the proportion of uxoricides) has risen from 26,6 percent in 2000 to 32,5 percent in 2008.9

In women’s hell the times are not changing

“The Women’s Hell” was the title of the collection of essays written by Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński and published in Poland ten years before the Second World War. Its author, an eminent Polish writer, translator and medical doctor, touchingly described the misery and sufferings of women, mostly impoverished women, deprived of their reproductive rights. The book, although 80 years old, is amazingly timely, except that in the reborn, “democratic” Poland the “women’s hell” has been extended with a new circle, considered to be, as in an Orwellian nightmare, the family heaven. This new circle in hell has been created by the Polish state for women victims of violence suffered at the hands of their partners and husbands, for women whose rights and feelings are of no concern to the blind defenders of immoral and inhumane dogmas.

1 Carl Bernstein, Marco Politi, Córy Ewy: Jan Paweł II nie lubi kobiet, w: Andrzej Dominiczak, Bez Miłosierdzia, Prometeusz, Warszawa, 2004, s.25.

2 Ibidem.

3 Aberg, Kristina, Johanna Bond, Anne Daugherty-Leiter, Jean Norton, Robin  Phillips, and Rachel Taylor. Domestic Violence in Poland. Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights. 2002.

4 Beata Gruszczyńska, Przemoc wobec kobiet w Polsce. Aspekty prawnokryminologiczne. Oficyna a Wolters Kluver Business, Warszawa 2007.

5 Ibidem.

6 Andrzej Dominiczak, Law enforcement officers’ and prosecutors’ attitudes towards domestic violence, Women’s Rights Center, Warsaw, 2000.

7 Beata Gruszczyńska, Przemoc wobec kobiet w Polsce. Aspekty prawnokryminologiczne. Oficyna a Wolters Kluver Business, Warszawa 2007.

8 Urszula Nowakowska, Domestic violence against women and children, Report by the Women's Rights Centre, Warsaw 2000.

9 National Police Headquarters, Statistical data on homicide in Poland,

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