“Not one woman left!” was the rallying cry of protests in more than 20 cities around the world. 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 chanting slogans, many protesters held banners in blood-red ink calling for an end to violence against women in the home, on the streets and at the hands of their partners. There have also been calls for a judicial overhaul, a change in legislation and better protection for women.
The latest wave of protests was sparked by the case of an 18-year-old woman in the central Bulgarian town of Stara Zagora who was brutally attacked by her ex-boyfriend. The woman says he attacked her with a knife, broke her nose and shaved her hair. The attack was so severe that she needed 400 stitches.
Although the assault took place on June 26 and the woman’s attacker was brought into court shortly afterward, news of the assault did not become public until a month later, when a woman close to the victim’s family alerted the media. The woman in question was then threatened by friends of the attacker.
The court considered the injuries “minor”
The Stara Zagora court which heard the case ruled that since the woman suffered no permanent disfigurement and her life was never in danger, the accused was guilty of minor injuries.
The attacker was released, although he was on probation for a similar prior crime at the time of the hearing.
Outrage and solidarity
The announcement of this affair triggered a wave of indignation unprecedented in Bulgaria for a long time. On the streets and on social media, disappointment and anger have been expressed at what is seen as both an inadequate response from the justice system and a general tolerance of domestic violence in Bulgarian society.
“It’s really horrible that there is 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’m here because the same thing happened to my granddaughter some time ago,” an elderly woman told DW at the same protest. “They never convicted his attacker. He has since left the country. No one knows where he is now.”
Anger at the justice system
Much of the anger felt by the population was directed at the judges and prosecutors who let the attacker go free.
It later emerged that the forensic examination carried out after the attack was partly to blame, as the resulting report classified the young woman’s injuries as minor. This sparked a debate over current legislation in Bulgaria that makes such classification possible despite the brutality of the attack.
Movement in the case
Public anger apparently triggered the change: the deputy prosecutor and the doctor responsible for the initial forensic examination left their posts and orders for a second medical examination were given.
The accused was also arrested a second time when the prosecution discovered that he had, before the attack, sent death threats to the victim – a criminal offense in Bulgaria.
Call for change in legislation
Another of the main demands of the demonstrators was that the current legislation be changed. This request seems 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 aim is to agree on harsher penalties for minor and moderate bodily harm and to make psychological violence a criminal offence, which is not currently the case.
A desire to change attitudes towards violence
In 2022 alone, at least 26 women in Bulgaria were killed by relatives, according to data collected by NGOs working to end domestic violence.
Additionally, more than 20 percent of Bulgarian women aged 18 to 74 have experienced violence at least once in their lives from a past or current partner, according to a study conducted by the National Statistical Institute from Bulgaria in 2021. .
“People see this as something acceptable,” a woman called Andrea said at the protest in Sofia. “They don’t condemn it, and it continues to happen.”
The story of “traditional values”
There is a strong lobby in Bulgaria for so-called “traditional values”, which include the idea that a family is based on a heterosexual couple, i.e. a man and a woman , and that couples should resolve all their problems, 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 may also psychologically abuse their partner because they think he or she is not good enough.”
Opposition to the Istanbul Convention
Bulgaria has not yet ratified the Istanbul Convention, an international treaty aimed at preventing and combating violence against women and girls, proposed by the Council of Europe in 2011. It has nevertheless become a weapon in an ideological battle in the country.
When first presented to Parliament in 2019, the Cold War successor Bulgarian Socialist Party Communist party in Bulgaria, opposed its ratification. Socialists claimed that the convention sought to introduce a socially constructed conception of gender and that its ratification would be a way of introducing “a third gender” into the law through the back door.
This speech has been peddled many times in recent years, among other things to incite hatred against the LGBTQ+ community. This situation has reappeared in recent days with demonstrators accused of trying to force the ratification of the Istanbul Convention.
Nonetheless, 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 demonstration in Sofia said: “I hope that what is happening now will open people’s eyes. »
This article was originally published in German.