Feminist mobilizations, 25 November 2022
In March this year, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Bulgarian authorities had failed to take timely action to prevent the death of yet another woman, who lost her life in 2017, barely 18 hours after filing one of many reports against her abuser. Urgent and coordinated measures to protect her were not taken by the institutions and she is not with us today. While we wait for effective legislation and good practices in institutions that have been promised to us for years to become a reality, we continue to count the victims. We must not allow the series of interlinked crises – health, political, economic, humanitarian – accompanied by the brutal war in Ukraine, to be used as a legitimate excuse for the lack of attention and political action on violence against women and domestic violence; on the contrary, it must push us towards even more urgent and urgent measures! We will not leave this issue on the back burner! This year, inspired by the struggle of Ukrainian and Iranian women for a life free from fear and violence in the family, on the street, at the border, by institutions, we will once again shout “No more!” and “Women, life, freedom!”.
As the Collective of Feminist Mobilisations we demand:
1. Crisis and counseling centers in every region of Bulgaria, decent work for social workers and adequate maintenance in crisis centers.
According to data gathered by a newly established organization in the Ministry of Interior, victims of domestic violence in Bulgaria in the first 5 months of this year are 4 times more than the police registered for the whole of 2021. The number of victims of domestic violence from the beginning of the year until May was 1,738. Of these, 1 194 were women and 409 were children. More than one woman loses her life every month in Bulgaria due to gender-based violence. Only since the beginning of November there have been FOUR victims.
It is absolutely unacceptable that, despite the annual escalation of registered cases of violence, there are only 8 state-funded crisis centres with temporary shelters in Bulgaria, with a total of only 94 places for the whole country. The state funding for feeding the people in the centres, as well as the pay for psychologists and social workers in crisis centres is extremely insufficient – BGN 2.17 and BGN 3 per hour respectively. How long will people who carry out life-sustaining social work continue to receive pennies?
There is a need for the establishment and maintenance of crisis and counselling centres to accommodate victims of violence and to work with victims and separately with perpetrators, as well as specialised centres for the care and recovery of raped women in absolutely every one of Bulgaria’s 28 districts. Without anyone to turn to, victims of violence will be forced to continue living in a situation that is risky for them, which is unacceptable.
We also insist that urgent measures be taken to resolve the housing crisis and to improve access to crisis services in small settlements.
2. We urge that the bill to amend the NHPA be prioritized and voted on immediately – enough waiting!
Although the Council of Ministers tabled new amendments to the Protection from Domestic Violence Act for consideration this summer after a years-long wait, no one has yet gotten around to voting on them. We welcome this long-awaited attempt to update the legislation, but once again the whirlwind of elections and constant political intrigue has taken precedence over the serious work that lies ahead in implementing all the urgent measures to tackle domestic violence set out in the Bill. The legal definitions of domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment, psychological harassment, etc., still need to be updated to bring them up to international standards, including a discriminatory element that reflects the fact that this type of violence disproportionately affects and targets women.
We welcome the extension of prevention programmes through these amendments to the DPA. Societal perceptions and stereotypical roles of women and men, as well as social norms about who can express ‘femininity’ or ‘masculinity’ and who cannot, give power and the means to control the perpetrator. They are at the heart of gender-based violence.
The key to preventing violence is therefore to eradicate patriarchal notions of women’s subordinate position and the stereotypical roles that are imposed and guided by these attitudes. These perceptions increase the risk of violence and control and also pose a barrier to awareness of the problem and seeking help and protection. School education and public policy in health, security and social services must be built on the principles of non-violence, anti-racism and gender equality. Violence prevention training programmes need to incorporate these elements, as do all regular training programmes for health workers, police officers, teachers, social workers, lawyers and psychologists, and there need to be mechanisms in place to monitor them.
We also insist on systematic national information campaigns for the prevention of violence against women and domestic violence – informing the general public about the various forms of violence to which women are regularly subjected, about the various manifestations of domestic violence, and about the available telephone lines and crisis centres where help can be sought and obtained. We also call for efforts to combat violence against men and to challenge societal norms regarding expectations of stereotypical behaviour.
We need a holistic approach to combating violence against women and domestic violence, which requires not only changes in criminal law, but also in a number of other areas, by reforming old institutions and creating new ones to coordinate different approaches centrally. Some of these actions should be undertaken by the National Council for the Prevention and Protection from Domestic Violence envisaged by the amendments to the VAWA and therefore its formation should not be delayed any longer!
3. Restorative justice and equal access to free legal aid.
We call for the active introduction of more appropriate modern approaches such as restorative justice, which put the needs of the victim at the heart of the justice process. We need not just aggression and anger management programmes targeted at bullies, but a holistic, long-term approach that incorporates different aspects of a bully’s psychology and socialisation.
We are also pushing for the development of restorative justice programs in domestic violence cases as alternative options to address the problem outside of the court system for those women victims of violence who do not see a just resolution to the problem in the criminal justice process or in prison sentences for their abusers. These programmes should necessarily be designed with the help of gender-based violence specialists who also understand the enormous pressures and safety risks that women victims of violence are often subjected to – for example, when they are forced into mediation processes in a situation where they are still under the control of their abuser and/or relatives.
We also demand free legal aid for every woman victim of gender-based violence, regardless of her income – free legal clinics should be available to all women in the country. Very often a woman victim of violence may be living above the poverty line, yet still not be able to afford to pay for the hiring of a lawyer. This can be a serious obstacle to her decision to seek help from the institutions.
4. Collect official statistics on violence against women, not just domestic violence.
It is a shame that Bulgaria still lacks annual, comprehensive and reliable statistics and studies on the causes and extent of violence against women and domestic violence in the country, its social, economic and political consequences, and the necessary measures that need to be taken to address the problem. We insist that the National Register of Domestic Violence Cases, which is envisaged by the amendments to the Domestic Violence Act, becomes a reality as soon as possible! But also, where are the statistics on sexual assault and rape? Which women are more disproportionately affected and why? There needs to be a commitment from all responsible institutions to conduct and collect these types of statistics and surveys that examine the entire spectrum of violence against women, as this will shine a light on the issue, lead to more effective action by institutions and put the experiences of victims at the centre.
5. Sex education and reproductive rights.
The lack of adequate sex education in schools leaves many girls without knowledge about their own bodies. It is educational institutions that should inculcate in us from an early age the idea that our bodies belong to ourselves and we are the only ones who can dispose of them. Lack of sex education is one of the main reasons why violence is not recognised as such in good time, both by the victims and by those around them. We believe that the state must make a clear statement in relation to the protection of our bodily autonomy. We call for the introduction of compulsory sex education classes in the school curriculum that are tailored to the needs of all children and their sexual orientation and gender identity, and that act as a preventive measure against sexual harassment.
6. Equality and dignity for women from the most vulnerable groups.
We call for a package of measures to guarantee the human rights and dignity of migrant women, refugee women, women from Roma and other minority backgrounds, LBTI+ women, women prisoners, women with disabilities, women with addictions, sex workers and underage mothers.
There is a need to overcome hate speech against these groups, which has been normalised and widely used by the media and various public figures as well as politicians. Racism and discrimination have no place in our society and must be condemned. It is time to put an end to the political demonisation of the Roma community, condemning them to socio-economic exclusion, by which they are trying to convince us that it is fair to cut social assistance and social benefits, thus turning us against each other. Institutional racism perpetuates segregation and economic inequality, oppressing and isolating victims of gender-based violence, preventing them from seeking and receiving adequate help.
Equal opportunities and protection must be guaranteed for undocumented migrants and asylum seekers in our country. In recent years, there has been a worrying escalation in the violent and illegal repulsion of migrants by border police, including the stripping of women and children and physical repulsion. Migrant women and all those seeking asylum have the right to due process in applying for protection.
There is a need to ensure decent living conditions for people deprived of their liberty, especially women prisoners.
We demand a state commitment to the provision of adequate/specialised social care and support for women with physical and mental disabilities, and the abolition of the disability of people with intellectual disabilities.
We insist on the adoption of a clear legal procedure for the recognition and civil gender reassignment of trans and intersex people, and the creation of a medical standard that, by their choice, governs their transition and provides free access to health care, counseling, hormone therapy, and surgery. The state should also develop laws against hate crimes based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, as a vast majority of LGBTI+ people, especially trans and intersex women, systematically face physical, sexual and structural violence, and homophobia and transphobia are currently not recognised by the courts as motives that aggravate the crimes in question. The state should also prohibit intersex patients from undergoing physical gender-shaping surgery without their free, informed, and prior consent.
7. Ensure conditions for gender equality in care work.
Women do the vast majority of care work – raising children and caring for the sick or elderly. When public services in this area are lacking or inadequate, the burden falls on women, exacerbating gender inequality and increasing the risk of impasse when violence occurs. A woman who has no income of her own because she does such work in her family is particularly vulnerable to intimate partner violence because she is dependent on her intimate partner. Women from communities with low access to public services and high distrust of state authorities are deprived of any protection. It is time for the state to recognise its role in perpetuating gender inequalities and to counter this by providing adequate healthcare, sufficient nursery places, and additional and appropriate child and adult care.
8. Tackling economic inequality.
Reducing inequalities will raise the socio-economic status of women and counteract the effects of low pay for women’s work. At present, “female” occupations include nurses, care workers, teachers, cleaners, seamstresses, saleswomen, etc. The state should take responsibility both to raise the wages of women workers in the public sector and to ensure that their working conditions improve, and to ensure that the incomes and working conditions of women workers in the private sector improve.
Socio-economic inequalities disproportionately affect women in the country and place additional barriers in the way of those women who wish to escape violent or risky situations. We therefore call for the introduction of income taxation to reduce inequalities and provide the necessary resources for public investment in social policies that relieve women of the burden of the ‘double shift’ of work and home.
9. Democratisation of governance through the targeted inclusion of women from all marginalised groups in decision-making.
The only way structural, economic and all the other problems listed above can be adequately addressed is through equality in decision-making processes based on the principle of intersectionality. Giving leading positions in power structures to individual women, usually from privileged backgrounds, often means that the concerns of the majority of women go unheard. All decisions relating to economic, social and political life must be taken with the participation of different social groups. The problems caused by socio-economic inequalities, racism, sexism, xenophobia, transphobia, etc. must be addressed by policies drawn up and adopted with the participation of all those whose lives are affected. In the realm of politics, this means more representation and opportunities for women citizens to participate directly in decision-making regarding their communities.