How one high schooler’s Facebook beauty brand is saving survivors of domestic abuse in Poland

This is our Poland

19 July 2021

All pastel pink backgrounds and pen-and-ink flowers, the Facebook page for Rumianki i bratki (“Chamomiles and Pansies”) is a shrine to soft-toned beauty brand aesthetics.

“We are a newly-established company dealing in the creation and sale of natural cosmetics”, the first, sunflower emoji-studded post reads. On sale are a plethora of immaculately packaged cleansing masks, make-up removers, soaps, and balms.

But appearances can be deceiving.

In fact, Rumianki i bratki isn’t a beauty site at all. Set up in April 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic began to take hold in Poland, the page is actually a front for a project designed to tackle domestic violence by supporting those struggling behind the scenes.

Individuals at risk are encouraged to contact the fake store by email or via Facebook under the pretence of placing an order. When the message is received, the team behind the store will check up on the individual, and, if they have included a “delivery address”, they will call the police.

“This undercover channel is a response to the pandemic, and it will probably be needed until the pandemic is over”

The page now has more than 20,000 followers, and is manned by a large team of volunteers mainly consisting of students and graduates, with added support from psychologists and therapists from the Women’s Rights Centre, an NGO working to promote women’s equality across Poland.

The project was set up by a young high school student, Krysia Paszko, who recently won the Civil Solidarity Prize of the European Economic and Social Committee for the project. At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Paszko was shocked to read reports of increasing levels of domestic violence. Later, she heard that local authorities in France and Spain had launched a scheme where victims of domestic abuse could ask for help discreetly by saying a code word at a pharmacy. For victims trapped in lockdown with their abusers, this secret initiative might be the only way to seek support at a time when many other businesses and support centres are closed.

Paszko decided that creating a fake cosmetics store could do the same in Poland. She quickly mocked up a Facebook page for the store and posted it onto her private profile with the aim of supporting people close to her. “I was hoping that in the best case scenario, I would help my friends or their friends,” she explains.

Instead, the project went viral, amassing thousands of likes and shares, as well as almost immediate messages from those in need of help.

“The responses came very fast, in an hour or less,” Paszko adds. “I didn’t expect that my project would grow to have a national scale.” Though Paszko might have underestimated the level of interest in the page, the project is certainly a much needed initiative in Poland. Police statistics show that nearly 250,000 people in Poland are affected by domestic violence every year, with an estimated 400 to 500 women losing their lives annually as a result. A government report made available to the Polish press last year showed that over half of Poles say they have experienced some form of domestic violence in their lives.

The official response to domestic violence in Poland has so far been mixed, and there remains fears that the situation could deteriorate in the future. Positive steps have seen the Polish government introduce new legislation requiring that perpetrators of domestic violence are immediately separated from their victims. A few months later, however, Polish Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro announced that he would commence the process of terminating Poland’s ratification of the Istanbul Convention, an international treaty which aims to combat violence against women. Government ministers from the ruling party Law and Justice labelled the document “left-wing gibberish” and claimed it promoted “gender ideology”. In July, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki asked the Constitutional Tribunal to assess whether the treaty was “in line with Poland’s constitution”, ahead of the country’s possible exit from the agreement.

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Meanwhile, domestic violence has worsened as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Women’s centres in Poland have noted increased numbers seeking support due to the coronavirus lockdown, with the Women’s Rights Centre reporting that calls to their helpline increased by 50 per cent in March.

“It is often that a pandemic forces victims to spend even more time under the same roof with the perpetrator of violence, which makes it difficult to contact the outside world and call for help when needed,” explains Joanna Gzyra-Iskandar, from the organisation.

That is where Rumianki i bratki is stepping in. Gzyra-Iskandar says that the Women’s Rights Centre was asked to join the project by Paszko a couple of days after the idea was launched, when “people who needed real help” began to contact the page.

Though the page receives messages from people requiring different levels of support and intervention, the Women’s Rights Centre steps in for the most serious situations, providing psychological and legal help.

Gzyra-Iskandar says that one woman who contacted the page was eventually housed in their Specialist Support Centre after one of their therapists remotely helped her escape from a home where she had been abused by her husband.

“This undercover channel is a response to the new realities of the pandemic,’ she adds, “and it will probably be needed until the pandemic is over.”

Since Rumianki i bratki was launched in April, the page has helped around 350 people of all genders and ages. The occasional visitor asking for prices shows that cosmetic brand ruse is working. The team quietly encourage these commenters to send a private message to the page, so that they can provide more information on their “offers”.

Aleksandra Kuliberda, who is part of the page’s technical team for the page — whose work includes inventing the attractive, if fictitious, range of cosmetic products — adds that the design of the project allows people to take the ‘first step’ in breaking free from abusers.

“Our initiative has become so popular because it doesn’t cost anything to get in contact with us,” she explains.

“It’s a big step, but not too big from the victim’s perspective. They can remain anonymous, they don’t have to meet anyone face to face, they don’t have to undertake any further steps.”

For her, the page is just one example of the role younger generations are playing in the fight for women’s rights in Poland.

“Seeing thousands of people on the streets, protesting against Poland’s near-total abortion ban and setting up underground initiatives and funds for people who need abortions, I am almost 100 per cent sure our generation will change this country,” she says.

“Such initiatives show a strong will and desire for change, and it is uplifting to see it grow.”

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