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Why focus on Polish women in the UK when domestic abuse affects all women?

Ewa Wilcock


Domestic abuse is a global issue and just over a quarter (27%) of women worldwide who have been in a relationship report being subjected to physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner (WHO, 2021). There is a variety of data sources relating to violence against women and girls in the UK, with the Crime Survey of England and Wales being the primary one. It offers details about the victims’ sex, age, ethnicity, marital status, disability, employment status, and area.


What can I learn specifically about Polish people who experience abuse in the UK from the available data? ‘Nothing!’ This is because the client’s nationality or country of birth is not consistently recorded by agencies.


The nationality of victims is shown in the Femicide Census, and this is the first time we see what happened to Polish women. The data from 2009 to 2020 shows that Polish women constitute the largest group of victims after British women and there was almost three times the number of Polish victims as the next most represented nationality. The Census also shows that after Poland (34 victims) other most represented countries of birth are Latvia (12), Romania (11) and Lithuania (10). These women are entirely hidden in the statistics as they are placed in the “white-other” category along with a mass of other white women who are non-British. It is particularly concerning for us because, despite the fact, that Polish people constitute the largest minority group in the UK (the most common non-British nationality in the UK since 2007, ONS, 2021) their needs and specific issues affecting families are not adequately recognised and addressed by agencies.


Vesta SFS CIC have been supporting Polish victims of domestic abuse since 2014. We set up the first Polish Domestic Violence Helpline in the UK and operated it until 2018 but couldn’t keep it going because of a lack of funds. There is now a helpline for Polish female victims run by Opoka now – 0300 365 1700.


We work with families experiencing complex issues: domestic abuse, problems with mental health, parenting difficulties, or addictions. Addressing these problems by offering specialist services to agencies supporting Polish clients including, domestic abuse awareness and recovery programme for women, course for perpetrators of domestic abuse, parenting course, counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy, courses for British professionals about effective working with Polish families and free resources in Polish and English.


We know that domestic abuse is a hidden problem in the Polish community and victims face a variety of barriers to reporting it including, language barrier, fear of Social Services, no knowledge of support options, social isolation, or financial difficulties. We also know that Polish people report abuse when the situation is profoundly serious and dangerous. Over 50% of victims who contacted our helpline were classified as high-risk victims which means that there was a threat of serious harm or death. Almost 80% of women who were classed as high-risk victims also had children.


The analysis of risk assessments completed with clients also showed us that 73% of perpetrators had police involvement in the past in the UK or/and Poland. It is concerning those previous problems with the police do not deter perpetrators from committing further domestic abuse offences. The ease of moving undetected from area to area or from the UK to Poland can add to perpetrators’ feelings of “being above the law.” The support agencies often see the removal of the perpetrator from the family home as the solution to the problem. In the context of domestic abuse in Polish families this in fact can be a major risk factor. Polish perpetrators who have no family or friends here can become homeless, abuse alcohol/drugs, their mental health will deteriorate, they can start harassing the victim, and use contact with children to continue with the abuse. Polish women often lack knowledge about civil protective orders and might be overwhelmed by the guilt of ‘breaking the family’, and so might be more vulnerable to giving in to perpetrators’ demands. Our recent work on several domestic homicide review panels involving Polish families also revealed to us those victims were killed with severe brutality.


In June, this year a report from the first UK-wide research was published – “Polish women’s experiences of domestic violence and abuse in the United Kingdom” Zielinska, I., Anitha, S., Rasell, M. and Kane, R. (2022). It is a long-coming study that helps us to fill the gap in our knowledge and understanding of domestic abuse in the UK’s largest minority group. It contains a lot of useful recommendations for practitioners, policymakers, and researchers.


Domestic abuse affects all women but the experiences of women from Poland will differ from the experiences of other women because of their migration history and settlement in the UK, understanding of domestic abuse shaped by their Polish background and barriers they face in reporting abuse and accessing support services here. Only when we fully understand these issues, we can support them more effectively to minimise the risks to them and their children.


The blog was published on the Domestic Abuse Commissioner's website in December 2022 - https://domesticabusecommissioner.uk/blogs/specialist-support-for-polish-survivors-of-domestic-abuse/



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