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Bulgaria: Women’s rights at risk

On March 12th, the European Parliament called upon EU countries, including Bulgaria, to ratify the Istanbul Convention. Only one Bulgarian MEP was present at the debate. And he was against the treaty.

March 23, 2018 - Marija Bogdanovic - Stories and ideas

Image by Julian Nitzsche

On the eve of International Women’s Day on the March 8th, the Bulgarian government, under pressure from political parties, the Holy Synod and Grand Mufti, said it would abandon its plans to send the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence to parliament for ratification. In Bulgaria, a European Union member since 2007, conservative politicians and clergymen continue to influence the political agenda.

The Council of Europe Convention, known as the Istanbul Convention, was signed in 2011 in Istanbul. So far, it has been supported by 45 member states of the Council of Europe and ratified in 28 countries, 17 of them being EU members.

However, the Convention still faces fierce opposition in many European Union countries. Thus, when in late February Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borissov said the motion to ratify the document had been rejected, Slovakia announced it would also withdraw its request for the ratification of the Convention due to pressure from conservative politicians.

Having signed the Convention in April 2016, Bulgarian government announced it was going to ratify the treaty only at the end of 2017. A statement came from Deputy Minister of Justice Desislava Ahladova during the round table discussion on the prevention of violence through education, organised by the Bulgarian Fund for Women.

The announcement of Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s ruling coalition GERB sparked off a wave of criticism. First, the United Patriots, a group of three parties known for their radical views, lashed out at the government’s decision. “A woman cannot refuse her husband sex. That is why she gets married,” said Volen Siderov, chairman of the parliamentary bloc. In another statement, the United Patriots claimed that the Convention would legitimise the “third gender” and open the door to “transvestites from Iran.”

Soon, the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church joined in, though it backed the Convention in January 2015. Urging the National Assembly not to ratify the document, the Synod published a declaration blaming the government for introducing “a new understanding of man – man as an absolute master, the man without God who follows his desires and passions to such an extent that he can even determine his gender.” According to the Church, the term gender is the one that raises much concern. “The consequences of denying biblical truths are tragic and we are witnessing them in many societies where “gender” ideology has long been a state policy,” the Synod stressed. The Orthodox Church even called for prayers against the ratification.

Just a day after the Orthodox Church came up with comments, the Bulgarian Grand Mufti followed suit. In a quite lengthy statement, the supreme body of Muslims in the country provided a number of theistic and secular arguments against the ratification. First of all, some legal uncertainties are a reason for the Grand Mufti’s disapproval. Although the government officials have stated several times that no changes would be made in the Constitution if the Istanbul Convention is adopted, the Mufti worries that important documents such as The Family Act, the Anti-Discrimination Act, the Young People’s Act, the Internal Policies Act would have to undergo substantial changes in order to fulfill the Convention’s requirements. Both Christianity and Islam stand for traditional values, so it is not really surprising that their positions in this matter coincide.

On the January 25th Bulgarian Socialist Party introduced an initiative to submit a referendum proposal in the National Assembly. “[The convention] has generated enormous tension in the Bulgarian society and diverging opinions. That is division,” BSP leader Kornelia Ninova said, as quoted by public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television. “We think that the one who has to have their say on this issue is the Bulgarian people. This is why tomorrow we will be tabling the necessary signatures of Bulgarian Socialist Party MPs to ask for a decision to hold a referendum on the Istanbul Convention.”

However, her initiative failed as on the same day the government changed its mind and withdrew the proposal for ratification.
Obviously, the reaction of confessions and politicians depends on the current mood in Bulgarian society. Recent surveys show that the majority of Bulgarians are against the proposed Convention. According to the Barometer Bulgaria pollster, 63 per cent of respondents said they disapprove of ratifying such a document. Moreover, four in five people in Bulgaria think that the most important role of a woman is to take care of her home and family, according to November 2017 Eurobarometer survey.

Marija Bogdanovic is the founder and Executive Director of the Endowment for Public Awareness (EPA).

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  • Irakli Bokuchava

    I think,to hold a referendum on the Istanbul Convention is the best decision to solve this problem.As Georgian I want to add,that this problem absolutely not actual in my country,but Bulgaria is member of the EU and Georgia not.

  • Stela

    Thanks for this great article! It is such a shame that Bulgaria is dragging its feet with regards to this convention. I think people take issue with the definition of ‘gender’ in the document. In Bulgaria, ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ are not separate words and therefore ascribing the social definition to gender is seen as controversial in a country where if you’re born female you’re expected to ascribe to the female gender and anything else is seen as outrageous. People have started seeing this convention as one pushing for trans rights rather than women’s rights, and they ignore the good it is trying to do because there are still prevalent transphobic attitudes. Many are afraid that this will somehow lead to the political correctness we see in the West, although I think that is unfounded as my country hasn’t even began to explore such concepts in any real way yet.

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