When I was asked to sew facemasks, I started a friendship with a woman who works with homeless people and shelters. Before I knew what hit me, I got involved, jumped in head forward -not knowing what I got myself into.
I wanted to help, and I started collecting bras and feminine hygiene products for http://www.isupportthegirls.org, an organization I had never heard off. I spread the word to all my customers, friends and neighbors. They all were generous. I collected so much more than I had aimed for and it felt good. I was hooked!
My new friends called a few months ago. “Bridget, this year we do the same, but only for battered women shelters,” she informed me. “Are you in?” How could I not? Thanks to our dogs and online shipping, I have six empty, large CHEWY boxes in my garage, waiting to be filled. I was ready! What I got to see and the stories I heard, left me feeling helpless. How lucky am I to have a husband who would never harm me in any form or way?
Battered women shelters! Shelters for women and children, who had to leave their life behind, because of domestic violence. Often fearing for their lives, they arrive at the shelters with nothing.
These shelters exist all over the world but we don’t know where they are. We are not supposed to know. The woman’s safety is at risk. So I will not tell you how it works where I live, but instead you will travel with me to Poland and further.
Cheerful images of chamomiles and violets adorn the Polish Facebook shop “Rumianki I bratki,” an e-commerce platform for natural cosmetics and, as the website promises, a touch of spring. “Remember –change is important. Could this be your moment?” reads an advertisement for a cream. “We are happy to help you take care of yourself!”
But there is nothing to buy behind the ad. Indeed, the entire shop is a fake. It is actually a place women can turn to should they be the victims of domestic violence. What looks like a normal Facebook shop, is so much more. A crisis intervention team.
If the team receives a request, the pretend saleswomen ask a number of questions: What is the condition of your skin? How does your skin react to alcohol? Do you need cosmetics for children? All of the questions are coded inquiries to help the intervention team determine if the woman, and perhaps her children, are in acute danger -if they are at the mercy of a violent, drunken partner. They want to know if immediate action is necessary.
The pandemic has forced initiatives combating domestic violence to get creative. Since the emergence of COVID-19, domestic violence has risen around the world, according to UN Women. Many countries have set up hotlines and expanded pre-existing services but such efforts aren’t all that helpful in situations where women live together with their tormentor, and can’t speak on the phone in private.
Lockdowns have made things even more difficult, increasing stress levels and further limiting women’s freedom of movement. Furthermore, abusive men often read their partner’s telephone messages and emails and some women don’t even have their own mobile device. Organizations and initiatives around the world have come up with code systems –such as fake online shopping platforms– to secretly offer help to domestic violence victims.
When a “customer” uses certain codewords in discussions with the psychologist, orders a product and provides her address, the counselor calls the police. Sometimes, they help find an alternative solution. For one woman, they sent a taxi to collect her and her child and provided them shelter until they could move to her parents’ place. She simply hadn’t seen any other way to get away from her husband, and she had no money of her own.
There are many initiatives similar to Paszko’s around the world. In Colombia, activists urge women to get in touch via social networks or WhatsApp using the codeword “VendoMaquillaje” (“I’m selling makeup”). The Colombian organization Nosotras Hablamos has urged victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse to “write to us if you are isolated with your tormentor and he hurts you. Ask us to send an eyeliner to your home and give us your address.” The network, which includes more than 100 women, then notifies the authorities.
The group Proyecto Fem Reynosa in the Mexican border town of Reynosa also acts as a link between domestic abuse victims and the police, notifying the authorities when somebody inquires about a certain lipstick. “In the pandemic, many of the large factories here on the border have had to close down. A lot of people have lost their jobs,” says team member of the collective. “Women were locked up day after day with their brutal partners, who grew increasingly aggressive.” The group doesn’t just notify the police. It also helps women file charges and provides them with legal and psychological assistance.
Even donuts have a role to play in the battle against domestic violence. In the poverty-stricken communities of Cape Flats, an area located just outside of the South African metropolis of Cape Town, the sticky-sweet confectionary known as “Koeksisters” are quite popular. Caroline Peters and the others from the Cape Flats Women’s Movement communicate with endangered women via WhatsApp by negotiating Koeksister deals.
They ask their “customers” periodically if they want to buy more of the pastries, with a negative answer being a sign that the situation has improved. But if somebody asks how expensive the donuts are, I know that I have to intervene immediately. The Movement keeps a database containing the addresses of township residents who face abuse so that they can respond quickly in an emergency and notify the police.
The use of codewords to assist victims of domestic violence is something of a balancing act. For the system to work, women must be aware of them. But if they become too well-known, perpetrators of such violence could learn of them too. A slippery slope if we aren’t careful.
In the United Kingdom you asked for ANI (Action needed immediately). If women are in immediate danger they can call 999 and ask for the police. If they can’t talk, silent calls will work as well. They can call 999 and then press 55 when prompted. Even text works.
Domestic violence is a problem we have neglected for too long.
I cant’ change the situation, but at least I can collect bras and feminine hygiene products. While it doesn’t seem much, every bra will give one women back their dignity.
There is so much we can do, we often just don’t know until someone points us in the right direction.
Check it out! www.isupportthegirls.org is collecting nationwide and is looking for females who are willing to collect where they live.