BULGARIA: ‘Women’s rights organisations are working together towards the goal of a feminist Europe’
CIVICUS speaks about the upcoming International Women’s Day and Bulgarian civil society’s role in eliminating gender-based violence (GBV) with Iliana Balabanova, founder and president of the Bulgarian Platform of the European Women’s Lobby (BPEWL).
BPEWL was founded in 2005 by a group of civil society organisations (CSOs) working for gender equality and social justice, and against violence towards women. Since its inception it has organised at the community level to raise gender issues and push them up the agenda, promoted petitions, organised workshops, implemented projects and collaborated with civil society in other European countries on joint advocacy initiatives against gender inequality.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated GBV in Bulgaria?
As reported by civil society, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic there has been a significant increase in violence against women and children. One of the main challenges in preventing violence has been the lack of a coordinating body bringing together both government and civil society. There is need for much better coordination among all institutions to review cases of violence and identify the best ways to deal with them.
According to the office of the World Health Organization in Bulgaria, at least seven women lost their lives at the hands of a partner or family member since pandemic-related confinement measures were put in place. The national helpline for children received 80 reports of a parent abusing another parent in March 2020 alone. This indicated that violence against women and children doubled compared to the months before the pandemic.
The pandemic impacted very negatively on the work of the centres that provide assistance to GBV victims. The impact was dramatic on victims of domestic violence and rape in need of emergency support. Assistance had to be provided exclusively through the phone, while phone calls for consultations increased by 30 per cent.
In addition, the interaction with public institutions – judicial, health and municipal bodies – was difficult. And the pandemic had a negative effect on the justice system, as it delayed court decisions. During lockdown periods, applications for protection orders in domestic violence cases were submitted by mail to the regional or district courts, and most other applications could not be sent due to the huge backlog.
What role has Bulgarian civil society historically played, and continues to play, to tackle GBV?
Bulgarian women’s organisations have worked against GBV and domestic violence for decades. At the very beginning, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, we started to work on domestic violence by counselling victims and we opened the first shelters for victims of domestic violence in Bulgaria.
At that time there was no legislation to prevent domestic violence or protect victims, and Bulgarian women’s CSOs – joined later by other human rights CSOs – drafted the first such bill. The lobbying campaign and the advocacy work to get the bill passed lasted almost five years.
Thanks to this work, in 2005 the Bulgarian parliament passed the Law for Protection against Domestic Violence, which defined domestic violence quite widely, encompassing all forms of violence – physical, sexual, psychological, emotional and economic – committed by family members or partners in a formal or de facto relationship or cohabitation. The process was hurried by the fact that Bulgaria had started harmonising its legislation with European Union (EU) regulations, and women’s CSOs took advantage of the momentum to exert pressure for a new legislative framework to protect women from domestic violence.
By then the Bulgarian women’s movement had gained enough experience, knowledge and expertise, and we started to work to change societal attitudes and create an understanding of domestic violence as an expression of unequal power relations at the personal, community and societal levels. We tried to shine a light on the link between social domination, economic control, power inequalities, stereotypes and GBV. The BPEWL and its member organisations have worked on disrupting the continuum of violence against women and girls ever since.
After 2011, one of our main goals was to get the Bulgarian state to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence – the Istanbul Convention. Unfortunately, mostly because of the rise of populist, nationalist and transphobic politics, Bulgaria rejected the Istanbul Convention. Moreover, in 2018 the Bulgarian Constitutional Court ruled that the concepts of gender and gender identity were irrelevant for the Bulgarian constitutional and legal system. They said they have no clear and precise legal content and would have dangerous legal consequences.
As a result of this decision, Bulgaria does not keep official statistics on domestic violence and other forms of GBV. The number of complaints registered by the police and cases submitted to the courts are not counted in publicly available statistics. Murder, the most serious form of intrusion against a person, is also not captured through a gender-specific lens – that is, as femicide. So it fell on civil society to do this work, and so far information on GBV has been gathered by CSOs and some social agencies.
According to this data, one in three women in Bulgaria are subjected to GBV and approximately one million women experience domestic violence. According to the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, every two weeks a woman is killed in Bulgaria, a third of whom have been subjected to systematic violence by their murderer, and a tenth of whom have sought police protection against their murderer. Civil society reported that between 2014 and 2017, over 5,500 women sought protection from women’s CSOs providing victim services and over 700 women and their children were placed in crisis centres.
As I mentioned, during the pandemic domestic violence increased. Worryingly, however, the number and capacity of shelters remained very limited, and no progress was achieved in systematically collecting and analysing statistical data on GBV, including registering femicides. So women’s CSOs continue to lobby for the government to increase the number and capacity of state-funded crisis centres and other services, provide adequate support for CSOs offering shelter and care to victims, collect administrative data on all forms of GBV and ratify the Istanbul Convention.
How is the European Women’s Lobby (EWL) working at the regional level?
The EWL is the largest European women’s rights network, involving more than 2,000 organisations throughout Europe. It brings together the European women’s movement to influence the public and European institutions to support women’s human rights and gender equality. The Bulgarian Platform became a member of the EWL in 2005 and ever since we have worked together with member organisations at both national and EU levels. Our vision is that of a society in which women’s contributions are recognised, rewarded and celebrated, and in which all women have self-confidence, freedom of choice and freedom from violence and exploitation.
The EWL works towards the goal of a feminist Europe. In a policy brief published in April 2020, ‘Women Must Not Pay the Price for COVID-19!’, we called on governments to put gender equality at the heart of their response. We call for a universal social care system with infrastructure to provide social and quality care services that are accessible and affordable for all women and girls.
The 2022-2026 EWL strategy was developed during the pandemic, as all aspects of our work and our mission were being impacted on significantly. Over the course of this period, the EWL adapted to the restrictions brought about by the pandemic, sharpened its actions in a radically changed world and enabled online spaces for the women’s movement to come together, analyse and strategise about the significant and long-term impacts of this crisis, which will surely be shouldered disproportionately by women and girls.
What are your plans for International Women’s Day?
This year’s International Women’s Day in Bulgaria will be focused on peace. We are working on providing support to women and girl refugees coming from conflict areas in Ukraine.