Bulgaria has long stood accused of having outdated and narrow protections for victims of domestic violence. Broad restrictions to accessing legal protection include that the couple must be married, or can prove a “de facto marital” relationship, with absolutely no legal protection for same-sex relationships. However, public uproar, catalysed by a highly publicised recent attack, has prompted a re-energised debate and forced parliamentary action to redress the issues of systematic misogyny and normalised violence. These efforts, however, have been met with contempt from certain political factions, whose fear of allowing a “gender ideology” to enter Bulgarian politics outweighs their desire to protect vulnerable women, blocking work towards crucial judicial reform.
In June 2023, an 18-year-old known as “D” reported a brutal assault perpetrated by her partner, Georgi Georgiev, who attacked her with a box cutter, as well as forcibly shaving her hair. Despite the victim requiring over four hundred stitches, Georgiev was prosecuted for inflicting only minor bodily harm by a District Court, after being released from custody after just 72 hours. Compounding the grossly underwhelming prosecution, it appears that Georgiev had a previous criminal conviction for assaulting another partner, for which only a small fine was issued. D’s parents, concerned by the extraordinary mishandling of the case, alerted local news outlets in hopes of increasing the sentence against their daughter’s abuser. Media coverage surrounding the issue exploded, leading to widespread outrage, heavily pushed by women’s rights movements within Bulgaria.
July and August saw protests erupt in over 40 cities, with 10,000 people attending a rally in the country’s capital, Sofia. D’s case appeared to be the breaking point for generations of women frustrated with the weak and ineffective legislation offered by the Bulgarian judicial system failing to protect victims in a country whose civic attitude remains conducive to violence against women. A 2021 survey revealed that 20.5 percent of Bulgarian women had experienced violence incited by a current or previous partner—a startling statistic highlighting the still endemic levels of domestic violence in the country. Protests of such scale were a startling and unexpected reaction. In a country with few examples of grassroots movements, this mass mobilisation pressured political and legal action to be re-considered.
In response to the civil uproar, the Bulgarian parliament extraordinarily interrupted their recess, and finally adopted amendments to the Protections Against Domestic Violence Act, despite considerable resistance within parliament. The amendments include protection for those who have never cohabited with their abusers, and revised the Penal Code’s maximum sentence from six to eight years for perpetrators of abuse. However, limits still apply to what is classified as an intimate relationship, and the new legislation requires such relationships to have lasted over 60 days before attacks are considered domestic violence. Secondly, the definition only applies to relations between persons of the “male and female sex,” and hence still fails to protect those in same-sex relationships. While repealing the marital and cohabiting requirements presents a significant step forward, necessary further reforms to widen the scope of legislation are still facing resistance in parliament. The most vocal opposition comes from Bulgaria’s Socialist and Revival Parties, whose homophobic dispositions have underpinned their efforts, fearful that broadening the law would invite further legal recognition of same-sex relationships.
Similarly, resistance in 2021 succeeded in blocking Bulgaria’s ratification of the Istanbul Convention, which aims to protect and promote respect for all women and girls suffering gender-based violence, a failure which deals another major blow to domestic violence victims. The country stands as one of the few EU members yet to ratify the legislation, after cross-party efforts demonised the Convention for opening doorways to a “third gender” and arguing that it would undercut traditional family values. The ongoing rhetoric that legislative reforms are damaging Bulgarian family values is dubious at best, with many arguing that the real motivation for opposing the Istanbul Convention is due to homophobic or anti-EU sentiments. However, irrespective of the true motivations, these efforts have proved thus far to be a successful roadblock for judicial reform surrounding women’s rights and gender-based violence.
As it stands, Bulgarian legislation has broadened its scope, but remains far from comprehensive, with relationships under 60 days and all victims in homosexual relationships left wholly unprotected. Factions of the political party Democratic Bulgaria, who currently govern through an uneasy coalition with centre-right party GERB (Grazhdani za Evropeysko Razvitie na Bŭlgaria, meaning Coat of Arms), are continuing to push for reform surrounding the controversial issue. Their work will surely be aided by mounting pressure following the EU’s recent ratification of the Istanbul Convention. However, such efforts will continue to face opposition from polarised political rivals. It appears that the wider women’s rights programme has been demonised for supposedly proliferating “gay propaganda,” further relegating the likelihood of reform in a country that fears any affiliation or acceptance of non-heterosexual relations within politics. Before meaningful and comprehensive judicial reform is enacted, societal attitudes must change, with the introduction of education on bodily autonomy and gender equality being arguably essential to developing a new climate in Bulgarian politics.