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Sexism and violence against women. Will this nightmare in Bulgaria end?

While Bulgaria’s government claims advancing the rights of women is a top priority, a UN Committee has raised concerns over the situation in the country.

February 2, 2021 - Radosveta Vassileva - Articles and Commentary

Rosa Damascena, which is the traditional symbol of Bulgaria, is also the symbol of love. However, many Bulgarian women experience a different treatment at home.

Those familiar with Bulgarian politics know that the country’s government often does not practice what it preaches. Moreover, it often attempts to mislead international institutions that Bulgaria is making progress. When it comes to women’s rights, both observations are equally valid.

In February 2020, during a hearing with the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, part of the latest monitoring for compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the country’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Georg Georgiev, contended that “Bulgaria accorded the highest priority to advancing the rights of women and protecting them from violence”. The observations in the Committee’s subsequent report released in March 2020, as well as the reality Bulgarians continuously witness on the ground, however, seem to disprove Georgiev’s statements.

Condescending sexist attitudes

One of the concerns of the UN Committee involves the increase of “misogynistic statements in the media, including by high-ranking politicians”, as well as the “increasing occurrence of hate speech in the media”. Sadly, the problem in Bulgaria does not concern just the media, but the working environment as a whole.

Prime Minister Boyko Borissov was caught up in several scandals in 2020. He compared female journalists asking him questions to “turkeys”. In a leaked recording whose authenticity was proven by two independent forensic analyses – one commissioned by MEP Elena Yoncheva and one by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) partner, Bivol – Borissov used highly offensive vocabulary to refer to the Chairwoman of Bulgaria’s Parliament from his own GERB party. In the same recording, he also threatened that Yoncheva was going to be “burned”. In 2019, Bulgaria’s Vice Prime Minister, Krassimir Karakachanov, attacked the vulnerable Roma minority by offering them “free abortions” to deal with the “Roma question”, which many perceived as a reference to Nazi ideology. During one hearing, the current General Prosecutor, Ivan Geshev, asked his female colleagues to “throw their sanitary pads in the trash bin rather than in the shredder”, making a highly provocative joke. These powerful men have not faced any consequences for these statements, which may set the tone in many households and working places.

The UN Committee is also concerned about “[t]he promotion of a concept of traditional family values that confines women solely to the role of mothers with domestic responsibilities…” Indeed, the Special Eurobarometer 465 survey on gender equality revealed that in 2017, in Bulgaria, 81 per cent of respondents agreed that the role of women was to take care of the home and the family, which makes Bulgaria the country most inclined to this stereotype in the European Union. In stark contrast, in Sweden, only 11 per cent agreed with this statement. An empirical study by the Student Society for Equality at Sofia University, which was published in 2019, concluded that sexism was normalised in this higher education institution, traditionally considered the most prestigious in the area of humanities in Bulgaria, which further indicates the severity of the problem.

Violence

Research has not only demonstrated the relationship between sexism and violence, but also has underscored that sexism plays a role in the recognition of violence. In this light, it should be underscored that in 2017, the European Institute of Gender Equality gave Bulgaria the worst score in the EU in its composite measure of violence against women. During the hearing at the UN committee mentioned above, it became clear that “[a]t least two women per month lost their lives to domestic violence in 2019, and more than 30,000 women had called the national hotline asking for help”. The Bulgarian Fund for Women recently presented alarming statistics about women murdered by their partners in 2020, which they assembled via media reports.

Meanwhile, while Bulgaria signed the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention), it still has not ratified it. Unsurprisingly, this is not only a key point of worry for the Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner, Dunja Mijatovic, but also for the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. It is all the more worrisome that domestic legislation does not provide adequate protection.

The reasons why the Istanbul Convention was not ratified can only be deemed striking. In 2017, Bulgaria saw the rise of a campaign against this document based on controversial rhetoric. Vice Prime Minister, Krassimir Karakachanov, leader of VMRO, one of Borissov’s three far-right coalition partners, repeatedly threatened that the hidden motive behind the Istanbul Convention was imposing “the third sex” on Bulgaria’s society and legalising gay marriage, even though none of these are mentioned in the Convention. Somewhat surprisingly, but with a clear attempt to ride on a populist wave, the main opposition party in parliament, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), also attacked the Convention – in stark contrast to the official position of their EU umbrella, the Party of European Socialists (PES). This caused a rift between them and the President of PES, Sergei Stanishev, who is a BSP member. Stanishev called BSP’s position “a political mistake”.

Amidst the public hysteria, Borissov’s GERB party took the view that the Istanbul Convention had to be examined for compliance with Bulgaria’s Constitution, so it addressed the Bulgarian Constitutional Court.

Sexism in a court decision?

As soon as the Constitutional Court decision came out in July 2018, I published a highly critical piece about its flawed legal reasoning and its conclusion that the Istanbul Convention was anti-constitutional.

There are a few details that merit attention. First, this is not a decision taken in unanimity – four judges dissented. Second, the majority was particularly troubled that the notion of “gender” enshrined in the Istanbul Convention could not be reconciled with the Bulgarian “binary understanding of the sexes”. They referred to Article 47(2) of Bulgaria’s Constitution, which obliges Bulgaria to provide paid maternity leave and free obstetric care, concluding that the female biological sex was related to the following social roles according to the constitution – being a mother, giving birth and obstetric care.

How a provision ensuring particular rights of mothers and their children can be interpreted to define the role of women in society as a whole is not only questionable, but also may reveal inherent sexism. Even further, the reasoning of the majority implies that women who have not given birth because of choice or because they simply cannot are not women socially. What about women who have become mothers without giving birth or receiving obstetric care, for example, by adopting? What is their social role when they do not seem to check the boxes laid out by the Constitutional Court? Moreover, Article 5(a) of CEDAW, which Bulgaria ratified in 1982, explicitly obliges contracting parties to modify social and cultural patterns to eliminate prejudices, including those based on stereotyped roles of women.

Where are we now?

The most disconcerting aspect of the picture that emerges from Bulgaria is that domestic laws neither provide adequate protection to women subjected to abuse, nor do Bulgarian officials seem to take these issues seriously enough. In the spring of 2020, to a formal question about violence against women by an MP from BSP, Krum Zarkov, then the Bulgarian minister of interior, Mladen Marinov, responded in this manner: “Domestic violence does not constitute a crime under [Bulgaria’s] Criminal Code and the ministry of interior’s system does not gather statistics about domestic violence”.

Zarkov was unsatisfied with the response because the minister of interior seemed unaware of amendments to the Criminal Code from 2019 enacted as a substitute for the lack of ratification of the Istanbul Convention. These amendments, however, are clearly cosmetic and do not address the problem at its core.

The UN Committee, for instance, has indicated that Bulgaria is lagging behind in the following: Bulgaria needs to amend legislation to recognise all forms of gender-based violence and to ensure they can be prosecuted, Bulgaria needs to criminalise marital rape as an aggravating circumstance, Bulgaria needs to provide shelter and ensure psychological and medical support for victims, Bulgaria needs to create a database and systemically collect data on all forms of gender-based violence, etc.

Yet the members of civil society who monitor women’s rights have raised concern that as of November 2020, they are not aware of any legislative drafting in this direction. Bulgaria still does not have a functioning national database on gender-based violence, either.

To end on an even sadder note, the UN Committee has also expressed worries that there are “restrictions on the activities of some non-governmental organisations,” including “the suspension or closure of several such organisations that work for women’s rights and gender equality”. Not only are Bulgaria’s authorities not doing enough to prevent abuse and protect victims, but they also are not supporting the valuable work of civil initiatives and organisations that are attempting to make a change in the hostile environment.

Does any of this indicate that advancing women’s rights is the highest priority of Bulgaria’s government, as Georgiev argued before the UN? It seems that the nightmare in Bulgaria will continue for some time.

This article is published as part of a project to promote independent digital media in Central and Eastern Europe funded by the National Endowment for Democracy and coordinated by Notes from Poland.

Dr. Radosveta Vassileva is a Bulgarian legal scholar whose research interests encompass EU law and comparative public and private law. She maintains a personal blog dedicated to the rule of law in Bulgaria.


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