There is a silent and invisible pandemic developing alongside the COVID-19 one, as cases of domestic violence against women spiked worldwide during lockdowns to contain the newly-discovered coronavirus. This was a comparison often made and a concern often raised by international and regional organizations, civil society organizations and state authorities. The European Parliament noted that in some European Union countries, cases of domestic violence rose by a third. It urged member states to “provide victims with flexible tools to report abuse” and warned that women will be affected harder by the post-pandemic economic crisis. The UN Secretary-General António Guterres asked world governments “to put women’s safety first” when countering COVID-19 due to what he called a “horrifying global surge in domestic violence” against women and girls. Among the measures UN recommended to curb domestic violence are declaring shelters essential services and creating safe ways for women to seek support.
Unfortunately, Bulgaria is among those countries where cases of domestic violence increased in the first half of 2020 compared to previous years. At the end of May, it was reported that eight women were killed by their partners since the start of the state of emergency on March 13, whilst hotlines for reporting violence and seeking assistance received a noticeably larger number of calls. However, worryingly, the number and the capacity of shelters in the country remains small. Furthermore, Bulgaria still “lacks a mechanism for the systematic collection of statistical data or analysis of data and cases related to violence against women, femicide or gender-related killing of women and girls”.
These are only two of the observations, made by Dubravka Šimonović, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, in a very recent report on Bulgaria published in May 2020 and presented at the 44th session of the Human Rights Council (15 June–3 July 2020). Whilst we cannot list all the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations, we can point out some, which stand out especially in the context of the COVID-19-driven lockdowns. For instance, Šimonović calls Bulgaria to “urgently ensure” that there are enough state-funded crisis centers and other services and that NGOs offering shelter and care to victims of violence receive adequate support. The Special Rapporteur advises entrusting a specific body (the Ombudsman or a new Femicide Watch/Observatory or other) with the collection of administrative data on both intimate partner femicide and family-related femicide. With respect to marital rape – another problem that remains unaddressed in Bulgaria – Šimonović calls for explicitly including a related provision in the Criminal Code. An expected and important recommendation is for Bulgaria to “counter the misinterpretation” of the terms “gender” and “gender-based violence” and ratify the Istanbul Convention.
In two more positive developments of the last months, Bulgaria’s Ombudsperson Diana Kovatcheva proposed to the working group at the Ministry of Justice draft amendments to the Criminal Code and the Protection against Domestic Violence Act. Importantly, these include removal of the word “systematic” from the description of domestic violence and substituting the term “economic dependence” with “economic violence” in Art. 93(1) of the Criminal Code, as well as defining clearly psychological and economic violence in the Protection against Domestic Violence Act. In May 2020, a new National Program to Prevent and Protect Women and Children against Domestic Violence was adopted. It envisions steps to ensure better coordination among all relevant institutions and stakeholders.
CSD has been continuously studying domestic and gender-based violence and offering concrete solutions to related issues. In 2016, it authored an important Analytical Report as part of a National Study on Domestic and Gender Based Violence and Elaboration of Victims Support Model. Another key publication is the 2019 report Violence against Women Key Findings and Strategies to Tackle Unreported Cases and to Enforce the Protection Order. At the moment, CSD is developing a monitoring methodology, which in the next two years will be used to conduct a national monitoring of policy and institutional practice in relation to domestic and gender-based violence in Bulgaria. On the basis of the methodology and as a result of the national monitoring, CSD will produce a study evaluating these policies and institutional practices.