Fellow Since 2006
This profile was prepared when Krystyna Zytecka was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2006.
Starting in Poland, Krystyna Zytecka is changing the way domestic violence is handled by building alliances with the police and other authorities, creating centers that ensure the safety and confidentiality of victims, and shifting the focus from the perpetrator to the victim and the victim’s needs and rights.
The New Idea
Domestic violence creates a cycle of anxiety that continues to haunt victims long after a traumatic experience is over. Krystyna focuses on the barriers that keep victims stuck in this cycle and enables victims to regain control over their lives. Her work targets the police force and develops a police-citizen organization partnership to support a network of violence prevention centers. The centers are based at the local police station and operated by an independent counselor and a police officer. The center provides quality care and assistance to victims of violence and their families from the moment of the incident until the final court verdict is announced. Through advocacy at the state level, Krystyna shelters violence victims by providing them with a safe and comfortable environment from which to defend their rights. Krystyna continues to persuade public service institutions to shift focus from the oppressor to the victims and their rights. These institutions help monitor the protection of victims’ rights and safety, as well as the corresponding penalties for the assailant.
In Poland, one in three women is a victim of domestic violence. Of the domestic abuse cases that end in fatalities, 30 percent of the women are victims of their husbands, partners or ex-partners. Approximately 25 percent are beaten more than five times per year and a majority of offenses occur at home. Only a small percentage of cases are actually reported because many women feel that no one will believe their stories. Perpetrators of domestic violence in Poland are 96 percent male and from all social classes. Violence in wealthier families, particularly those of public officials and law enforcement officers, is kept strictly confidential to avoid public disclosure. According to the Women’s Rights Center in Warsaw, only 20 percent of domestic violence cases ever reach the court level. Most discontinue at the police level and many violent offenders are released unpunished. Regardless of their social or economic status, domestic violence victims are often alienated from a support network. Public officials—police, judges, social aid workers—are unprepared to help victims emotionally, and exhibit an extreme lack of sympathy and understanding. The complexity of multiple court hearings and intricate law regulations further undermines the victims’ ability to move forward. As a result, victims are unable to successfully defend themselves, advocate for their rights, and ensure safe separation from their assailants.The existing legal system provides protection opportunities for victims, but in practice, many perpetrators are simply placed on probation and continue to interact with the victim. As a result, court decisions provide more direction to the fate of the oppressor than the victim. Perpetrators are minimally punished, if at all, and allowed to return to their normal lives. Victims have to figure out on their own how to interact and protect themselves on a daily basis. If the victim and her oppressor remain in close proximity of one another, the cycle of violence almost always continues, leading to further physical and psychological harm to the victim and her children. Many organizations in Poland address the cycle of domestic violence, but focus on a certain stage during the cycle rather than a comprehensive approach to the issue. Some provide psychological support to women or shelters where women and children live, detached from their surroundings. Most of these services, as well as training for the police force and judicial officials, are available only in big cities. In rural areas of Poland, issues like domestic violence are very rarely ever discussed outside the home. Victims who reside in small towns have no access to resources.Krystyna firmly believes that public prosecutors and police officers need additional education to learn how to effectively work with domestic violence victims without causing them further harm. She also believes that public advocacy is necessary for law enforcement to fully penalize the perpetrator and protect the freedom of the victim.
Krystyna witnessed the absence of resources and care for violence victims while working to support victims of domestic violence, even when she was on the edge of poverty herself. She focused on victims from rural areas and provincial towns, due to the lack of resources available to them. In 2002 she started the Help for Women and Children Foundation. She realized who her critical partner needed to be in the fight against domestic violence: the police force. Police officers are the first people to come in contact with violence victims. Their proximity to the actual incident and first-responder status gives them the power to influence final decisions in the later proceedings. Aware that only a small percentage of these crimes get reported, Krystyna opened the first rural consultancy room for violence victims. The center also contains a sound-proof room where children may tell their stories to officials in privacy and safety. She hypothesized that having a safe, private place to tell their stories would empower more women to report crimes. During the first 6 months, more than 250 women came to the center. In 2005, together with regional police, Krystyna set up the first official Police Center against Domestic Violence. The Center is run jointly by trained police officers and foundation employees. In the first year of operation, the Center served 800 women. Krystyna recruited high caliber specialists to be a part of the Center’s resources—lawyers, advocates, and psychologists who provide psychological help and legal assistance. By combining these resources in one location, Krystyna has devised a method that involves both the victim and the perpetrator at the same time. While the foundation’s counselor gently interviews the victim, children are interviewed in a separate sound-proof room. The perpetrators of domestic violent crimes understand that a phone call from the foundation can have grave consequences because the foundation is directly linked with the police force. The police center provides shelter and safety for the women as soon as the incident is reported, lasting until a court verdict is rendered. Krystyna helped establish a stronger, more positive public image of the police force. People now see law enforcement as a supportive network to solve domestic violent disputes. She has played an integral part in changing public opinion of police officers, positioning them as friends of local citizens and able to ensure security, both outside and inside the home. Krystyna changed the internal attitude and culture of the police force as well. She has found that officers who become more involved in domestic violence cases have gradually developed empathy towards the victims. She designed an educational program for police training schools that encompasses psychological issues associated with violence, and also explains how to establish Police Centers in every municipal station. Most recently, she began offering free English classes to those policemen who have successfully worked with violence victims. During the past 3 years, Krystyna has trained over 500 policemen to work with victims of violence. The training is expected to continue; strengthened by police training centers. Krystyna envisions that municipal centers will be created across Poland. Two additional centers will be opened in 2007 to serve local towns ranging from 50,000 to 150,000 citizens. While the educational program will become standard in the curricula of police training, the rise of new centers will continue.Krystyna also approaches domestic violence in Poland from the legal side, appealing to judges to apply the laws that separate the offender from the victim and provide safe spaces for the victim and her children, and to shift their attention from the perpetrator to the victim. Using her foundation as the platform from which to approach reforms, Krystyna advocates for law enforcement with the Ministry of Justice, Ombudsman, Ministry of Interior Affairs and police forces. She participates in numerous national conferences on violence issues, publishes articles, lobbies the media and advocates for victims’ rights. To influence graduates from law schools, she convenes law professors to place special attention on the violence issues and related laws. The final but integral part of Krystyna’s strategy involves a temporary shelter built for violence victims. Here, women and children are allowed to stay for up to 30 days, until court verdicts are rendered. Women are provided with single family rooms, where they enjoy privacy and a sense of normalcy. Krystyna’s shelter is different from others because most in Poland only offer commune-style housing where everyone lives in one large commune together. Krystyna believes there is an opportunity to expand her program into other Eastern European countries, including Lithuania and the Ukraine. She anticipates that the approach will be the same, enabled by cross-national partnerships between police training centers. The first Ukrainian and Lithuanian policemen will begin training in 2007.She is convinced that by building on the strength of established police structures, shaping a new approach among judiciary officials, and providing comprehensive support to victims, she will set a new pattern for effective violence prevention. She hopes to break the cycle of domestic violence across the region.
Krystyna is a victim of domestic violence. She grew up in underprivileged suburban area of Warsaw and her mother began abusing her when she was 3 years old. As a teenager, she found solace in athletics and sports. She would occasionally skip class to spend time with her trainers, who seemed to understand her family problems. Despite missing classes, she maintained good grades in school and was a successful athlete. When Krystyna turned 22, she accidentally found out that her parents were not here biological parents but a foster family. She decided to leave home and work. She tried several jobs, building her independence and later established a successful career. She decided to give back to her community and focused on the issue of family support, where domestic issues reminded her of her former home situation. Krystyna’s best friend is also a victim of domestic violence. Krystyna stood by her as she endured an intense, 2 year legal battle against her husband, a prominent Warsaw citizen. It was through this process that Krystyna saw the inefficiency of the legal system and the overall apathy towards victims of violence. As a result of this experience with her friend, Krystyna decided to set up an organization that would support domestic violence victims in rural areas and small towns. By 2001, her foundation was established and attracted numerous people interested to work with her. The reality set in when assistance was needed at the community level, in the homes of abused women. Many staff left the foundation, unprepared for the hard work involved and disappointed in the lack of financial compensation. In 2002, Krystyna re-started the foundation from scratch. She created a new team who shared her vision for national transformation of law enforcement and the overall approach to victims of domestic violence.