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Bulgaria: Mass Protests Highlight Violence Against Women

The brutal assault on an 18-year-old woman and the leniency shown to her assailant sparked outrage and protests across Bulgaria this week. Why is violence against women such a big problem in the Balkan country?

“Not a single woman more!” was the rallying cry at protests in over 20 cities across Bulgaria this week when thousands of Bulgarian men and women took to the streets on the last day of July to protest violence against women.

Marching side by side and shouting slogans, many of the protesters held up banners in blood-red ink calling for an end to violence against women in the home, on the street and at the hands of their partners. There were also calls for a judicial overhaul, a change in legislation and better protection for women.

The latest wave of protests was triggered by the case of an 18-year-old woman in the city of Stara Zagora in central Bulgaria who was brutally assaulted by her ex-boyfriend. The woman says that he attacked her with a knife, broke her nose and shaved her hair off. The assault was so severe that she needed 400 stitches.

Although the attack took place on June 26 and the woman’s attacker was in court a short time later, news of the assault only reached the general public a month later when a woman close to the family of the victim alerted the media. The woman in question was subsequently threatened by friends of the assailant.

Court viewed injuries as ‘minor’

The court in Stara Zagora that heard the case ruled that since the woman had suffered no permanent disfigurement and her life had not been in danger at any point, the accused was guilty of inflicting a minor injury.

The assailant was released, even though he was on probation for an earlier, similar crime at the time of the hearing.

Outrage and solidarity

News of the case triggered a wave of outrage that has not been seen in Bulgaria for a long time. On the streets and on social media, there was disappointment and anger about what is perceived as both the inadequate response of the judicial system and a general tolerance of domestic violence in Bulgarian society.

“It’s really awful that there’s a culture of oppression in Bulgaria — in the 21st century, in a European country,” said a man at the protest in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, who gave his name as Simeon.

“I am here because the same thing happened to my granddaughter a while back,” one elderly woman told DW at the same demonstration. “They never sentenced her attacker. He has since left the country. No one knows where he is now.”

Anger at the legal system

A large part of the anger people felt was directed at the judges and the Office of Public Prosecution for letting the assailant walk free.

It later became clear that the original forensic examination conducted after the attack was partly to blame because the resulting report classified the young woman’s injuries as minor. This in turn triggered a debate about current legislation in Bulgaria that makes such a classification possible despite the brutality of the attack.

Movement in the case

The public anger has apparently set the wheels of change in motion: Both the deputy district prosecutor and the doctor responsible for the original forensic report have left their posts, and orders for a second medical examination have been given.

The accused was also arrested for a second time when the prosecution discovered that he had,  before the attack, sent death threats to the victim — a criminal offence in Bulgaria.

Call for a change in legislation

Another of the protesters’ key demands was that current legislation be changed. This demand would appear to have been heard.

The Bulgarian parliament will reconvene on August 7 for an emergency plenary session to introduce amendments to the penal code. The goal is to agree harsher sentences for minor and moderate bodily harm and to make psychological abuse a criminal offence, which is not the case at present.

A drive to change attitudes to violence

In 2022 alone, at least 26 women in Bulgaria were killed by people close to them, according to data collected by NGOs working to end domestic violence.

In addition, over 20% of women in Bulgaria between the ages of 18 and 74 years have been subjected to violence at least once in their lives by a past or current partner, according to a study conducted by the National Statistical Institute of Bulgaria in 2021.

“People look at this as something acceptable,” said a woman called Andrea at the Sofia protest. “They don’t condemn it, and it just keeps happening.” 

The ‘traditional values’ narrative

There is a strong lobby in Bulgaria for what are known as “traditional values,” which include the view that a family is built on a heterosexual couple, i.e. a man and a woman, and that couples should sort out whatever problems they have — including physical violence — between themselves.

These are “outdated patriarchal concepts,” psychologist Alexandra Petrova told DW. “According to them, the man has the right to control the woman. They can also psychologically abuse their partners because they think he or she is not good enough.”

Opposition to the Istanbul Convention

Bulgaria has not to date ratified the Istanbul Convention, an international treaty aimed at preventing and combating violence against women and girls, which was put forward by the Council of Europe in 2011. It has nonetheless become a weapon in an ideological battle in the country.

When it first came before parliament in 2019, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, a successor of the Cold War-era Communist Party in Bulgaria, opposed its ratification. The Socialists claimed that the convention sought to introduce a socially constructed concept of gender and that its ratification would be a way of introducing “a third gender” into law through the back door.

This narrative has been peddled again and again in recent years, among other things to incite hatred against the LGBTQ+ community. It cropped up again in recent days with demonstrators being accused of trying to force a ratification of the Istanbul Convention.

Nevertheless, the protesters were encouraged by the number of people who took to the streets to support the victim of the attack and call for change. As one man at the Sofia demonstration put it: “I hope that what’s happening now will open people’s eyes.”

Source : DW