March 22nd, 2022 dawned with yet another judgment of the European Court of Human Rights finding Bulgaria in violation of Art. 2 (right to life) vis-a-vis a case of domestic violence culminating in the death of a young woman, mother of two, at the hands of her husband. ECHR case law, non-governmental organizations’ reports, research papers, and media coverage of incidents paint a worrisome picture of the prevalence of domestic violence, concomitant to the absence of robust mechanisms to prevent and protect from this persistent social phenomenon in Bulgaria. Recent decisions of the Bulgarian Constitutional Court indicate that holistic engagement with violence behind closed doors is still very much a thing of the distant future. The proclamation of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention) as unconstitutional, and the resistance towards recognizing the social significance of gender are prime examples of the acute under-prioritization of a type of violence that overwhelmingly affects women.
While official statistics remain few and far between, in February 2022, the Ministry of the Interior acknowledged a near 10% rise in registered crimes in the conditions of domestic violence per Art. 93(31) of the Bulgarian Criminal Code between 2020 and 2021, yet solved crimes remain under 60% each year. On the other hand, in 2020, 2/3 of all calls to the national hotline for victims of violence pertained to domestic violence, more than half of which were in the spousal violence category. 81% of all callers were women. Should one deep-dive into the precise numbers, discrepancies between the number of hotline callers and the registered crimes bubble up, pointing to the problematic qualification of domestic violence as a repetitive phenomenon of physical manifestations in the Criminal Code. Hence, the number of victims of, for instance, one-off incidents of domestic violence, psychological violence, or harassment becomes that much more difficult to quantify. Gaps between the protections offered by civil (the 2009 Protection against Domestic Violence Act and the 2004 Protection against Discrimination Act) and criminal legislation, voids and flaws within those normative documents, and decentralized approaches to collecting data by the police, prosecution, courts, and service providers cumulatively result in a fragmented and unnavigable reality.
Exacerbating any normative and institutional deficiencies is an overall social climate that is slow to shed the bonds of gender roles, stereotypes, and trivialized discrimination. The significant social unrest and protests against the Istanbul Convention in 2018, including using depictions of “the traditional Bulgarian family” as counterpoints to “Western genderism”, embodied in the texts of the Convention, uncover discourses vastly different from what is inscribed in law. Despite the availability of anti-discrimination and equality legislation, beliefs about the traditional role of the woman in the family as a caregiver, mother, and housewife are seen as prevalent and persistent. This link between gender inequality in daily life, traditional dispositions on the role of women, and gender-based violence, including violence within the home, has long been recognized by international bodies such as the Committee to the Convention for the Elimination of all types of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Work by the Center for the Study of Democracy on the topic shows that domestic violence is a deeply privatized, even stigmatized and a shame-associated phenomenon, seen as a matter to be resolved within the four walls of a home, and often associated with minority cultures, low educational and economic status, alcohol and substance abuse. These skewed perspectives thrive in an environment of low awareness not only among the general public, but also among first responders, service providers, and experts that work with victims. Professionals both in the private sector and in healthcare often disassociate from the problem, deeming it beyond their responsibilities and competencies. Certain categories of first-line responders are yet to improve their intolerance of victim-blaming narratives and their sensitivity to victims’ needs. Importantly, capacity-building among a vast spectrum of social actors is what has significant potential to positively influence the rates of victims coming forward to report cases of domestic violence, prevention, adequate assistance, and rehabilitation.
Changing public attitudes toward women is a critical first step in tackling the complex issue of domestic violence in Bulgaria. The pivotal moment in preventing violence against women rests on the dismantlement of the myth that what happens behind closed doors is just ‘a family issue’. Violence against women is a public, social and cultural epidemic that far exceeds the private sphere and has become an inter-generational issue. However, access to resources is hindered by an institutional gridlock, which often leaves victims on their own. Navigating physical, emotional, and economic trauma often remains enclosed within the confinement of the domestic environment and under the control of a dominant abuser. Left to their own devices, victims feel ostracized and powerless. This is why prevention must be a community effort and should rest upon strong professional networks, equipped to support victims on the rocky road toward escaping and surviving abuse. Providing support is an institutional prerogative, but reaching the responsible institutions is the first obstacle to breaking free from a vicious and abusive cycle.
In order to set the foundations of a first step in the direction of empowering victims to seek help and support, the Center for the Study of Democracy works in cooperation with Demetra Association and the Bulgarian Institute of Public Administration to develop a training program for HR professionals to identify, support and refer victims of domestic violence. Working with personal files, accessing financial information, and being involved in the well-being and day-to-day professional affairs of potentially vulnerable women, HRs are well-positioned to identify the external signs and ‘red flags’ not only of physical abuse but also of economic, emotional, and psychological mistreatment and dependency. This professional position, coupled with the related skills of interpersonal communication and provision of support is a resource previously untapped in terms of tackling domestic violence in Bulgaria. Building the capacity for support has the potential to create a working and civic environment that is sensitive towards vulnerabilities, caring towards women, and intolerant of abuse and violence in any sphere.
*If you or anybody you know is affected by domestic violence or in danger of falling into an abusive environment, please refer to the national support centers The Alliance for protection against Gender-based violence hotline, PULSE Foundation’s hotline, The ANIMUS Association national hotline.