The Bulgarian summer of 2023: indignation against domestic violence

Resignations of state officials or imprisonment are not enough to make a real difference to the fate of women in Bulgaria, say representatives of the organisation Feminist Mobilisations

Vladimir Mitev, Libertatea, 7 August 2023

On 31 July 2023, tens of thousands of people in 40 cities across Bulgaria came out to protest against gender violence and in solidarity with the 18-year-old victim of an attacker in Stara Zagora. Following the attack on her, the young woman needed more than 400 stitches in hospital.

The attack outraged Bulgarian society, not least because it was initially classified as “minor bodily harm” and the suspected attacker was released on bail, although he had been involved in other public order violations. Following a strong public reaction, the suspect was arrested on charges of threatening to kill the young woman. A new forensic examination of the victim’s condition was ordered. And the deputy head of the Stara Zagora prosecutor’s office was forced by the Prosecutor General to resign.

Libertatea spoke to Tomislav Andonov and Dessislava Dimitrova, part of the Feminist Mobilisations collective, one of Bulgaria’s leading feminist organisations. This is an informal feminist collective that fights for social, economic and political equality between women and men by organising protests and awareness-raising campaigns on women’s rights and gender-based violence.

Demands from the protests in Bulgaria

On 31 July 2023, Feminist Mobilisations organised a large-scale protest in Sofia against violence in Bulgarian society and in solidarity with an 18-year-old girl from Stara Zagora who was assaulted by her “partner”. What solutions to the problems of domestic and institutional violence were heard at the protest? And what solutions do you propose?

Certainly, the last week has seen an unprecedented mobilisation of people across the country against violence against women. The motivations have been diverse – from ineffective legislation, rampant lawlessness and corrupt practices in the courts at the local level to the total neglect and abdication of the state from its social functions, as well as deep-rooted patriarchal attitudes in institutions, the education system and people’s daily lives.The problems are many and often, because of this obsessive sense of powerlessness, it seems to us that only changes in the criminal and legal order will bring the justice we deserve. We have heard cries of “resignation”, “life imprisonment” and, indeed, some rotten apples in the justice system have surfaced as a result of the popular anger that has built up after so many years of empty expectations.But in order to have lasting change, we believe we need not just the ending of the careers of a few individuals who will most likely then be appointed to other, less visible positions, but, more importantly, systemic interventions that have a long-term effect and that get to the root of the problem of violence against women. Our demands now and at the protests we are organising for 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, have remained much the same over the years, with few changes. Here are a few of them:

  • The most important: the immediate inclusion of the “intimate partner” as a victim of domestic violence who can seek protection under the Domestic Violence Defense Act;
  • Ensuring and announcing the opening as soon as possible of crisis centres for victims of violence in every district of the country;
  • Introduce definitions of feminicide, gender-based violence and gender-based hate crimes in the Penal Code. To date, Bulgarian criminal law does not recognise the existence of systemic sexism and that gender can be a ground of discrimination to justify harsher punishments/protective measures and more effective non-custodial measures for the perpetrator in pre-trial proceedings;
  • establish a legal framework to address psychological, economic and all other forms of violence against women that go beyond physical assault – the only type of gender-based violence currently recognised under Bulgarian criminal law.
  • Inequality in the labour market and the state’s expectation that women should take care of society’s welfare
  • To create a legal framework to address psychological, economic and all other forms of violence against women that go beyond physical assault – the only type of gender-based violence currently recognized under Bulgarian criminal law.
  • The state must make a clear statement in relation to the protection of the bodily autonomy of adolescent children and young people. The lack of sexual education is one of the main reasons why violence is not recognised as such in a timely manner, both by the victims and those around them. We call for the introduction of compulsory sex education classes in the school curriculum, tailored to the needs, age, sexual orientation and gender identity of all children, which will act as a preventive measure against sexual harassment.
  • We call for the active introduction of more relevant modern approaches such as restorative justice that put the needs of the victim at the heart of the justice process. We need not just aggression and anger management programmes aimed 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.
  • The state should take responsibility both to raise the wages of public sector workers, especially those in the social protection sector, which is heavily feminised, and to ensure that their working conditions are improved, and to ensure that the incomes and working conditions of private sector workers are improved. 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. Socio-economic inequalities disproportionately affect women in the country and pose additional barriers to those women who wish to escape violent or risky situations.
Feminist Mobilizations protest before the Bulgarian Parliament during its extraordinary discussions in commuission about the legislative modifications regarding protection against domestic violence, 3 August 2023 (source: Feminist Mobilizations, Facebook)

To what extent do Bulgarian women feel sufficiently secure and independent in terms of physical and mental safety and economic stability in Bulgaria today? What policies is the Bulgarian state pursuing to promote gender equality and the autonomy of its citizens?

Fear of assault, sexual assault or verbal harassment is part of everyday life for women in Bulgaria. Women continue to be underpaid for their work. While almost half of self-employed women are below the poverty line in Bulgaria, the poorest country in the European Union, women continue to be underpaid (although they do not work less), with a lower pension than men, are at greater risk of fuel poverty due to the increased cost of electricity and heating, continue to bear the main responsibility for caring for relatives, the sick, the elderly and children, instead of opening more nurseries, homes and social centres to support them in their caring work – the responsibility of our whole society.The lowest paid and most stigmatised jobs are disproportionately filled by women. They have access to the labour market, but are again subject to the stereotypical role of people who are increasingly expected to care for society’s welfare and do the reproductive work that the state assumes – an expectation supported by the widespread arguments of the conservative political circle about women’s family responsibilities in the face of the country’s looming ‘demographic crisis’.

Poor representation in elected office

Not surprisingly, these social inequalities are not at all on the radar screen of parliamentarians, given that women in Bulgaria have extremely low representation in elected office, both locally, nationally and internationally. Although they represent a higher percentage of the country’s electorate, they accounted for only a quarter of the total composition of the 48th National Assembly, due to the low number of women on the candidate lists in general. Of course, representation in itself is not always a guarantor of gender-sensitive policies, but it is a baseline that should not be totally ignored.

The importance of equal partnership for children’s development

If we turn our attention to the large number of children growing up with separated parents, are we not witnessing a major failure of attempts to create sustainable and viable families and partnerships in Bulgaria today? What are the reasons for this failure?

In the ‘traditional’ Bulgarian family, the mantra still prevails that the man is responsible for the important decisions in the family and the woman tries to balance the emotional well-being of all. Women are also told that when there is conflict or, in more serious cases, violence, they should be patient and keep quiet, put up with it and not make their husband even more angry. This type of relationship does not inherently create an environment conducive to raising children and a safe family environment. The unequal relationship between partners in a family also creates enormous stress for children. Empowering women, ensuring economic independence and challenging these traditional beliefs helps women to move out of toxic relationships and seek their place in the world, where they feel free to make their own choices without the burden of the role assigned to them by accumulated social norms.

Every year on 25 November, Feminist Mobilisations is among the organisers of a protest against domestic violence, and every year various deficits in this regard are identified, while Facebook groups such as Not Alone show that this is commonplace. To what extent does the solution have to come exclusively from the NGO sector and to what extent does it lie in state institutions and social services, which are themselves poorly paid and work in difficult conditions?

State institutions and services must be at the heart of the fight against domestic and gender-based violence. The NGO sector can provide services and monitor the development of state policies and their implementation, but reaching every locality, regulating and applying all available tools for social workers equally can only be done at state level.

Feminist Mobilizations is a grassroots organization that promotes feminist and LGBT rights (source: Feminist Mobilizations, Facebook)

“At a single call of a woman who has suffered violence, let there be immediate action”

In Romania, feminist organisations have been fighting in recent years and have obtained that rapists wear electronic bracelets so that they can be monitored if they approach their victim, who has protection orders. To what extent is this solution being sought in Bulgaria?

Each country has its own specific context and its own way of implementing policies.We would like to pay more attention to the needs of victims of violence. Women survivors of violence who turn to the responsible institutions are not systematically given the trust and attention they need, their problems are neglected and their concerns and insecurities are minimised. Let us first reach a point where, at the single call of a woman who has suffered violence, there is immediate, long-term and appropriate action by the institutions to protect and support her, in accordance with her wishes, whether she lives in the capital or in a remote village, because this is where we have the most work to do.

We are seeing a rare public energy for change in terms of protection from domestic violence and safety for women, children and queer people. Who and how should harness this energy to bring about positive and lasting change? What is your organisation’s role in this process?

Legislative changes to the Penal Code and the law against domestic violence are badly needed, but they alone cannot achieve lasting change. The focus should also be on prevention, education and access to social services. For example, incorporating into the education system lessons and discussions on topics such as bodily autonomy, gender roles, domestic and care work, and their role in society and the family; conducting national education campaigns and creating programmes to rehabilitate abusers; and having psychotherapeutic counselling and long-term therapy covered by the National Health Insurance House.The role of Feminist Mobilisations is to create visibility for all these issues, as well as to provide a platform and amplify the voices of women in our daily lives who face discrimination or gender-based violence.

“Systemic change comes from the bottom up”

Part of the discontent that has now brought people out onto the streets has been directed at the failure of the justice system to realise the human dimensions of what happened to the 18-year-old, which has been classified as “slight bodily harm”. It was only after outrage flooded social media that the assailant was arrested and arrangements were made for a new forensic examination of the woman’s condition. The public pressure on institutions in this case has paid off. But is it too ambitious to expect institutions and bureaucracy to be able to overcome legal formalism?

The short answer is no. Without public pressure, they will never overcome it. At Feminist Mobilisations, we deeply believe that systemic change comes from the bottom up. That is, broadly speaking, from the general public putting pressure on those in power and lawmakers. So far, whenever issues and legislation affecting gender inequality and women’s rights have been discussed, we have seen systemic disinterest. Parliamentarians fighting among themselves in committees and in plenary are unprepared and disinterested.What happened in the country after the Stara Zagora case, which is by no means the only one, has turned the tables, at least for a moment. Let us hope that this process of change does not get bogged down in bureaucratic and formalistic disputes, only to be stopped prematurely. Legal and legislative experts are needed, but until they understand that we cannot wait another minute, public discontent and extreme distrust will continue.

A protest against gender-based violence in Sofia (photo: Feminist Mobilizations, Facebook)

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