Sylwia Chutnik has created a number of initiatives to prevent the social, economic, and cultural exclusion of mothers. She is reforming institutions and influencing society to make the public sphere accessible and friendly for mothers with small children.
The New Idea
A mother herself, Sylwia is paving the road for various mother-led initiatives across the country that integrate mothers into society. Mothers are often expected to fully sacrifice their careers and social lives in order to care for their children. The result is isolation, depression, and ultimately, complete invisibility to the rest of society. Sylwia recognized this invisibility as the biggest obstacle to the well-being and empowerment of mothers. As such, she has developed her approach around the idea of getting mothers out of the house. Sylwia works with all types of mothers—single mothers, disabled mothers, mothers of disabled children, mothers from rural areas, and so forth to voice their needs and demands. She also works with the government and businesses to better the policies and practices that inhibit the full potential of mothers.
Through mother-led initiatives, Sylwia proves that a mother’s participation in public, economic, and social spheres is not just for the sake of respecting the mother’s rights, but also creates a better environment for her child. By bringing women out of their homes to engage in “safe” public spaces—“Mother-child friendly” businesses, Banks of Time, Clubs of Moms and Dads— she directly challenges the public perception that mothers are selfish or uncaring when they address their own needs. Sylwia is also advocating for changes in public policy to improve the economic situation of mothers by enabling them to choose to be professionally active rather than remain at home. She is reforming institutions, employers, and service providers to become open and accessible through enabling mothers to voice their needs and demand respect for their rights.
Social and economic isolation affects women with children regardless of their socioeconomic status. In Poland particularly, mothers are disempowered and forced to stay at home because public spaces do not adequately serve the needs of mothers with young children. Moving around with strollers is difficult and public buildings do not have facilities for changing diapers or comfortable spaces for breastfeeding.
Moreover, the public’s attitude toward mothers with children is often either hostile or over-caring. There is a strong cultural notion that mothers are expected to be enthusiastic about their motherhood and sacrifice the whole of their time and mind to their children. As a result, after giving birth, a vast majority of women renounce their usual activities, such as school, work, and social activities to avoid being condemned as anything less than a loving, caring mother. Unless directly related to the well-being of the child, their own needs end up being neglected.
While leaving home is already difficult for mothers, continuing professional development is almost impossible. Due to the high costs of social insurance, employers are reluctant to sign permanent job contracts with young women and often force them into unlawful declarations, e.g. they must state they will not have children in the following five years. The Polish legal system does not promote the improvement of mothers’ economic situation. Most efforts to protect them on the labor market, such as three-year protection periods or prolonged maternity leaves, discourage employers. The execution of alimonies is not effective and offenders remain unpunished; even public officials show hostile attitudes toward women coming to public institutions with children, implying “This is not a playground but a serious institution, where serious matters are attended to.”
Because they are invisible as a social group, mothers across Poland do not realize that there are hundreds of thousands of women in similar situations with the same problems and needs. Presently, mothers do not have a supportive voice in Poland. Feminist organizations are often unable to appreciate the complicated balance mothers must strike between their careers and family life, while conservative Catholics are not ready to recognize the role of mothers as extending beyond the home. The institutional and societal disempowerment of mothers repels many women from having children. Those that do decide to have children receive little support from the state. In order to reform the system, mothers must become more visible within society. As long as they stay at home, invisible and silenced, neither institutions nor public perception will change.
As a radical feminist, Sylwia began to understand that the feminist movement was not and is still not taking mothers’ needs into consideration. Sylwia came upon this realization when, in 2003, she gave birth at the age of 24 and her colleagues believed that she would no longer be socially and politically active. Instead of falling into this prediction, Sylwia decided to escape from the path of frustration by gathering women in similar situations to help lead a movement to encourage mothers to leave home and become active members of society.
Sylwia believes that the first step in getting mothers to leave their homes is to provide them with comfortable spaces in society to bring their children. She offers mothers a number of opportunities where a mother, or both parents, can go out with a child to a place such as a movie theater, restaurant, or cafe with facilities both pertinent to children’s needs (i.e. with baby changing facilities, a baby sitter for older children, and so on) and designed to the taste of parents. Once she has located these spaces, Sylwia provides the business with a “mother-child friendly” sticker to publicize it as a “safe” space for mothers. By doing this, Sylwia is creating a new culture among service providers, one where they are fully aware of mothers as a client and consumer. While families gain fair access to entertainment, service providers compete to be listed as mother-child friendly as a means to win new customers.
Venturing outside of their homes, to common and popular public spaces, is the first step in making mothers more visible in society. The sole act of seeing other women in similar situations begins to empower mothers. Women begin to believe that they have equal rights to participate in all spheres of public life and that this type of social participation is not at the expense of the child’s wellbeing. Sylwia taps into the initial stages of self-awareness by offering further opportunities for mothers, such as personal formation workshops and professional training where they can come with children or leave them with an onsite babysitter. Sylwia also encourages mothers to use the Bank of Time platform which allows mothers to exchange services, e.g. I will teach your child English once a week for two hours and you will pick up my child from school on Tuesday and Wednesday. Through Sylwia’s initiatives, mothers begin to organize themselves in informal groups, such as moms and dads playing groups, and realize that they can satisfy their needs in their own environment, without looking for the help of an institution.
To create opportunities for mothers is not enough when they are discouraged by a number of institutional obstacles limiting their freedom of movement in public space. Sylwia is suggesting simple methods to the responsible parties to make public space more accessible to mothers. Through the “Oh Mamma Mia! I can’t enter here with a stroller” campaign launched in 2006, she reached out to district halls around Warsaw with a brochure showing how to make their institutions accessible and comfortable for mothers with a set of simple and inexpensive methods; more seats in the waiting hall, access to toilet, free water distributor, priority in attending to pregnant women’s inquiries, and so on. District halls made the unexpected effort and adjusted their buildings and services in only one month.
Sylwia is currently taking advantage of the positive reception by district halls by tackling yet another problem mothers are facing: Participation in the labor market. Within the Warsaw City Hall, she is piloting the idea of kindergartens at work as a practical way to encourage mothers to be professionally active rather than stay at home. Sylwia has also consulted the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy on amendments in the labor code to encourage entrepreneurs to employ mothers. She advocated for parental leave rather than an extended maternity leave or extended protection period at work. At the same time, she organizes self-formation workshops for mothers. For example, the last workshop organized together with Poland’s most popular job portal (Pracuj.pl) gathered 30 beneficiaries who, after the course, were further piloted to return to the labor market. Sylwia is working toward making this type of course routine and helping approximately 100 mothers a month.
In the next year, Sylwia plans to further challenge aspects of the public presence of mothers. She is going to use the approaching European Football Cup 2012 hosted by Poland and Ukraine to influence changes in Poland’s train communication. Trains and train stations must be adjusted before the event and Sylwia wants the amendments to be made with respect for mothers with children, e.g. entrances and driveways for children’s strollers, toilets with baby changing facilities in the stations and trains, and so on.
Sylwia recognizes the connection between the wellbeing of mothers and their economic independence. As such, she is also going to continue her work to improve the socioeconomic situation of mothers in Poland. Sylwia is currently checking the ground to help reform the state social insurance system, which, instead of helping working mothers, often accuses mothers of taking advantage of their motherhood to accrue unduly benefits. The first step has been made, as mothers are becoming more visible and do not want to be ignored and robbed of their rights.
While building the financial stability of her organization through public grants and private sponsors, Sylwia is increasing the impact of her work through inspiring mothers across Poland to take action, while supporting them with practical know-how and step-by-step instructions on how to change situations around them. Although her organization is still extremely young (founded in 2006), Sylwia plans to start various income-generating activities, such as manufacturing gadgets for mothers.
Sylwia is spreading her message to mothers from varied backgrounds through the Internet, TV, radio, and press. Her foundation website contains information about initiatives organized for mothers and is visited by 1,500 to 2,000 guests every month. Apart from approximately 30 beneficiaries of legal counseling, in every month approximately 100 mothers contact a lawyer through Internet chat. Sylwia is using traditional media to empower mothers across Poland. She is building further recognition and raising awareness in Poland by publishing the work of her foundation. After having presented a collection of “scary stories” of mothers who experienced difficulties at the workplace to the Ministry of Labor in 2009, she has published a collection of stories written by mothers showing cases of a disabled mother, a mother of a disabled child, a refugee mother, an adoptive mother, a lesbian mother and others. The book is distributed free of charge and used as a tool to voice the problems of mothers in Poland.
Sylwia has been socially active and engaged in the feminist and anarchist movement since her teenage years. In 1990, she organized demonstrations where women were singing and dancing, demanding respect for their rights; the movement changed the image of public demonstrations. Until this demonstration, most demonstrations were commonly associated with workers burning tires protesting against low wages. Unlike many other people who grew from the anarchist environment, Sylwia turned her rebellions into positive action and decided to change what she believed was unfair. Based on her personal experience as a woman and a mother, she led a group of women in similar situations to create the MaMa Foundation. She used to work as a journalist and a tourist guide, and she uses both these experiences to pursue her vision to change the position of women and mothers in society. People recognize her as a writer and approach her to engage in her movement as volunteers.
Sylwia believes that her task is to show mothers that they can be active and encourage them to make the first step. While her foundation acts as an expert body on problems of mothers in Poland, she shares her experiences to encourage other women to act on their own behalf rather than do everything for them. With herself as an example, Sylwia proves that a small group of mothers, who demand their rights be respected, can successfully change the reality and social norms around them.