Anastasia Podorozhnaya is an activist and journalist from Ukraine. Several years ago Anastasia came to Poland to study. At first she focused on women’s rights and sexual education, and a year ago she created the Martynka project, which helps emigrant women in crisis. “Not Today, Not Yesterday, Not Tomorrow” spoke to Anastasia about Matynka’s work, abortion in Poland, and her own path to activism.
– Tell us what pushed you to become involved in defence of women’s rights, how did you come to this?
– As a student, I became interested in the topic of sexuality education and even defended my thesis on sexuality education among Polish schoolchildren.
Later, in my master’s program, I wrote a thesis on sexual education on the internet. I did interviews with different bloggers from Ukraine, Belarus and Russia on the topic of sex. Before that, I also worked in a sex shop as a content manager. Therefore, this topic, as well as the topic of reproductive rights, has always been interesting to me. At the same time, I also worked as a journalist: I wrote about human rights and abortion.
I found myself in Ukraine during a full-scale invasion. Together with my sister, we assumed that such a situation was quite possible, so I came to visit my family in February to be close by. And just a day later, the war started. I helped my sister and her three daughters leave Ukraine for Poland. And as soon as we were safe, we started to think how we could be useful, how we could volunteer. I made an announcement on social networks that I could help people from different parts of the country to go to Poland and people from different parts of the country started to write to me.
Meanwhile, I started working for a publication for Ukrainians in Poland. Once I did an interview with an organisation that works with the problem of human trafficking and my world just turned upside down: I didn’t think that this problem was so relevant for refugees from Ukraine. It affected me very much, because both I and my relatives were on the Ukrainian-Polish border, and I did not even think that someone was stealing people there under the guise of helping them.
In addition, 5 years ago I personally had such a story, after which I came to myself for a long time. In the evening, I was returning from a friend’s house and a strange man started following me. I told him that I was in a hurry and did not want to meet him. Then he attacked me and tried to rape me. Fortunately, he did not succeed and the police found him quite quickly.
In such cases, the woman may not even write a statement, as it is a very serious crime that must be investigated. But the police let him go. Before that they allowed themselves xenophobic jokes in my direction, like “you are Ukrainian and he is Ukrainian, apparently he felt a relative soul”. And they didn’t want to accept the statement. I went through a very scary night then, I felt very bad. The man who attacked me is still at large, I was afraid that he would look for me.
I had to go through a whole bureaucratic circle to bring him to justice. They even checked if I had any mental disorders or if I had made up the story. In court, they asked me about my grades at university. I felt that I had to prove myself as a “good immigrant.” After that incident, I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder for a long time. And when I learnt about the situation with human trafficking at the border, it really resonated with me. I know how hard it can sometimes be to protect yourself when you’re an immigrant. So I invented Martynka – the girl who talks about safety rules. And if something happens, she can go with you to the police, like a real person. So I decided that I would find volunteers and each of us could be a Martynka.
Based on that, how protected are women’s rights in Poland?
I love Poland very much because it’s my home. But precisely because of that, I will strongly criticise it now because I care about what happens in this country.
Firstly, Polish law defines rape as cases where the person actively resisted in the process. But one of the reactions of the psyche to danger can be stupor. So many women cannot prove that they resisted very strongly. At the trial, after that incident when I was attacked by the man, they asked me many times if I shouted, if I told him something. It was very important for them.
I find it very frustrating that many obvious cases of rape or sexualised violence in other forms are ignored by the Polish law enforcement system. I am not talking about cases where a girl was intoxicated and was used without her consent. There was such a case when the victim was intoxicated, but she resisted. Several times the guy tried to undress her and she wouldn’t let him do it. And still the prosecutor’s office didn’t want to prosecute. There was also a known case, it was written about in the media, when a 40-year-old man gave a roof over his head to a 19-year-old refugee girl, and then raped her. The girl immediately went to the police and the case was transferred to the prosecutor’s office. But due to the fact that she did not resist, the court reclassified the article from rape to use in a dependent situation, for which a shorter prison term is given.
The second problem that Matynka also works with is reproductive rights. In Poland, abortion is possible only in two cases: if the pregnancy is the result of a crime (rape, incest, paedophilia) or if there is a threat to the life of the mother. But in practice in Poland there are many cases when women died because they did not have an abortion in time.
If we talk about pregnancy as a result of rape, it is worth referring to statistics, which show that abortions for this reason are almost never performed in Poland (according to the data of the “Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth”, 107 abortions were performed in 2021, of which: 75 because of foetal malformations, 32 because of a threat to the health or life of the pregnant woman and 0 – if the pregnancy was the result of rape – Edit.).
This is not because there are no women in Poland who have become pregnant as a result of a crime. In order to have an abortion, you first need to bring a special document from the prosecutor. But it can take a long time for the case to be referred for investigation.
The second reason is that a doctor may refuse to perform an abortion because of religious views. Recently there was a case I wrote a media article about: a 24-year-old girl with intellectual disability was raped by her native uncle. The aunt who took care of the girl travelled with her to hospitals, but everywhere she was refused by doctors. Fortunately, she was helped by the Polish organisation “Federa”, which works with such cases.
There are also problems with the insertion of an intrauterine device, even here doctors can refuse a woman.
Sexual education for adolescents is also lacking in Poland. In schools there is a subject called “preparation for family life” (the name itself says something). In some schools it is still taught by priests or nuns. Of course, I am in favour of freedom of religion, but it seems to me that a qualified specialist is needed for school children.
– Let’s go back to Martynka. Tell us what other help the project provides?
– We have legal and psychological help. Now we allocate about 200 consultations with a psychologist per month, that’s quite a lot. We work with women who are in a crisis situation, who were forced to leave because of the war, from the occupied territories, or who have lost loved ones. People come to us with different stories.
We also have a psychologist who works with children. Often Ukrainian children face bullying at school, this problem has become topical recently. We help queer organisations, many of my colleagues are non-heteranormative people. Queer immigrants have their own specifics, their own problems. In Poland, unfortunately, there are problems with the safety of LGBTQ+ persons.
Another area of our activity is helping those who have faced domestic violence. In emigration this problem is acute, often people start living together, not because they have made a conscious decision, but for economic reasons. Or a couple had a long-distance relationship when the partner worked abroad. And then the girl comes to live with him, and it turns out that he suffers from alcoholism, or he turns out to be an abuser. And she has nowhere to go, because she is economically dependent.
That is why last year we opened a shelter for refugee women who have faced violence. You can live there for a month free of charge, during which time we help the woman, advise her on how to get social assistance, give up to 20 hours of legal counselling, including support in court. Talking to a lawyer is actually a very important stage, because there are many options that emigrant women do not know about. And sometimes, realising that you can protect your rights gives you a lot of strength. Anyway, Martynka is about finding inner strength. I am very inspired when the women we have helped then tell their friends and bring them to our organisation. In essence, they become Martynka too.
In addition, we advise on reproductive rights: how to get to a doctor, how to get emergency contraception, because in Poland you cannot buy it without a prescription. But we know doctors who can prescribe it legally.
By the way, under what conditions can one get emergency contraception?
– A woman has the right to apply when she has had unprotected sex, no special reason is needed. However, doctors can refuse again for religious reasons. Moreover, I know cases when pharmacists did not want to sell medicines. But this is already completely illegal. So it is always better to ask that they record their refusal. It usually works, magically the pharmacists do agree.
I heard you had problems with Polish right-wing radicals. Can you tell us about that?
– Yes, sometimes people write unpleasant things to us, and more often specifically to me, because I give a lot of interviews. Once they wrote to me that I am worse than Putin because I kill unborn Ukrainians. But the most curious case was when a Polish publication published an article called “Ukrainians kill children”. And there was my picture there. Of course, you start to think about your safety. I have a rather noticeable hairstyle, before that I didn’t hide the fact that I live in Krakow.
I’m mentally prepared for the possibility that my flat might be searched. There was a famous case of Justyna Wydrzyńska, who was sentenced to correctional labour for giving abortion pills to another woman. So they searched her apartment. This story, of course, touched me.
But it just happened that my heart responds to topics that are considered controversial in society. And I hold this cause very dear. Yes, I go to therapy, take antidepressants. But I understand that this is often a part of my work. However, it brings me a lot of joy because I can help people.
We also have free therapy for Martynka employees. In general, we try to take care of each other and provide support.
-Do Belarusian women approach Martynka for help?
Yes, they do. Both in cases of domestic and sexual violence. There was one case I can tell you about: there was a situation of domestic violence, but the woman was afraid to go to the police and receive social assistance (it’s called a blue card, a program designed specifically for women victims of abusive relationships). She was scared that her partner could be deported, and they left Belarus due to the threat of political persecution. And I understand what a difficult choice and responsibility it is.
We collaborate with some Belarusian organisations and can refer individuals there if the opportunity arises. However, if there is no one to assist, we never refuse help, regardless of nationality.
-What are the organisation’s plans for the future? And what are you lacking?
Money… yes, it doesn’t sound very romantic, but it’s the truth of life. In the summer, we had a crisis and almost closed due to a lack of resources. Now we are slowly recovering from this situation. In fact, this has been happening a lot with Ukrainian initiatives lately. As soon as the topic of the war in Ukraine stopped being the main topic in the news, funding magically started to disappear.
My task now is to find donors and partners. We recently got a patreon, and we have 36 donors on a regular basis. I am very touched and inspired that people are willing to donate every month.
-How can one help Martynka?
– We have an option, if you speak Polish well you can become a local expert. You need to fill in an application form. The task of the expert is to go together with refugee women to the police and help them there. You can also donate in any currency or become our patron.
This article was created as part of the “Free Belarus Center” steeplechase programme.