Polish teen’s fake beauty site helps lockdown abuse victims

Worried about reports of rising domestic violence during lockdown, Polish teen Krysia Paszko set up a website purporting to be a cosmetics shop that actually offers victims covert help.

“I was inspired by this French idea, where by going to the pharmacy and asking for the number 19 mask, you could signal that you were a victim of abuse,” the Warsaw high school student told AFP.

The 18-year-old decided that Poland could also use some kind of code during the pandemic, when families have been cooped up together under stress, with less privacy and more abuse.

During the first lockdown that began in March last year, the Centre for Women’s Rights, a Polish NGO, observed a 50-percent increase in calls to its domestic violence hotline.

The World Health Organization also reported a surge in Europe.

Paszko created the Facebook page Rumianki i Bratki (Chamomiles and Pansies) in April 2020.

Featuring photos of lavender soap and cleansing sage face masks, the shop looks real.

But instead of salespeople, on the other side of the screen is a volunteer team of psychologists from the Centre for Women’s Rights.

“If someone places an order and provides their address, that’s a signal for us that a police response is required right then and there,” said Paszko.

Those who just want to talk will request more product information, leading the psychologists to ask coded questions like, “how does the person’s skin respond to alcohol or are children’s cosmetics also required.”

– ‘Under constant surveillance’ –

So far the team has helped around 350 people, notably offering free legal advice and action plans.

Paszko said “the more restrictions there are, the harder it is to leave the house and even see a friend, the more people write to us.”

“And often aggressors will become more active when times are tough, when there are more infections, more restrictions, more pandemic fear.”

The majority of those who reach out are female and under 30 years old.

The abuse can be physical or psychological and at the hands of a partner or relative.

Between 10 and 20 percent of the cases resulted in calls to the police.

“I remember this one young woman who was under such constant surveillance by her partner that she could only write to us when she was bathing her child,” Paszko said.

The woman had previously tried to break off the relationship but her alcoholic, abusive partner refused to move out.

Paszko said that thanks to her team’s intervention, the police came and “made him give up his keys, informing him of the consequences if he returned.”

“Fortunately that was the end of the harassment.”

– Istanbul Convention –

For her efforts, Paszko won the EU’s Civil Solidarity Prize, a 10,000-euro ($12,000) award for Covid initiatives.

Paszko said that the problem of domestic abuse in Poland “is somewhat disregarded and neglected… More government support is needed.”

She cited the Istanbul Convention, a landmark international treaty combating violence against women.

Poland’s justice minister announced last year that he had set in motion the process to withdraw from the treaty, arguing it contained provisions that undermine conservative family values and are “ideological in nature”.

The plan triggered an outcry at home and abroad.

Last week, lawmakers from the governing conservative Law and Justice party and far-right MPs voted in favour of a draft law to quit the treaty.

They sent it to committee after outnumbering those who had wanted to kill the project.

Initiated by the ultra-conservative organisation Ordo Iuris, the “Yes to Family, No to Gender” bill proposes an alternative convention banning abortion and gay marriage.