Victims of Deadly Delays
Fighting violence against women in Bulgaria – problems outside the crisis centres
PERNIK, BULGARIA - The office of PULSE Foundation, a medium-sized aquarium is standing across the telephone, which receives calls from victims of violence. At the end of August the hotline often rings, while the goldfish move about in the water or pause to stare at the operator.
Women at risk and social workers from the whole country call the number for legal, psychological and social assistance. One of the few crisis centres that provide shelter is managed by PULSE, too. Its 12 official beds are now full, additional people are also taken in and at this point there’s just no more space.
In such cases the abused have to wait for their placement, which is impossible when the need for accommodation is urgent or there is a high risk for the victim’s life.
“We reach out to other organizations and centres, looking for help,” says Veselina Georgieva, a psychologist with a 15-year experience at PULSE.
But sometimes even urgent cases cannot be directed to a shelter.
The shelter places in Bulgaria’s crisis centres have never been enough. With its population of 7 million people, currently the country has only 64 state-funded places for victims of domestic violence, both children and women over the age of 18. Meaning that a mother can be accommodated with her kids. And all are located in a total of 6 centres.
Still, according to the NGO sector, working with abused women, simply obliging the state to build and maintain crisis centres in all its 28 provinces is a partial solution to bigger problems. Such a proposal was made in February by the Bulgarian Socialists.
Every 2 weeks a woman is murdered in Bulgaria and statistics show that 35% of all murders of women in the country are committed by a current or ex-partner and 25% - by other close relatives. Yet domestic violence is not a criminal offense and marital rape or stalking cannot be persecuted.
These are just a few of the gaps in Bulgarian legislation, which together with the lack of public awareness and established state policies to fight violence against women lead to systematic abuse and ineffective measures against fatal outcomes.
According to Blagorodna Makeva, deputy director of the National Police Directorate General, “the victims [of violence] do not seek legal but psychological support.”
The consultation centres that provide such counseling, though, are as scarce as those providing shelter. The scope of social services offered to women at risk is another issue in the long line of needed reforms.
Before and After the Istanbul Convention
Largely ignored by the state for years, the subject of violence against women surfaced in the government’s agenda due to the planned ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic violence (Istanbul Convention).
The treaty, which offers comprehensive legal framework, providing for synchronized reforms and a joint controlling body, caused an unprecedented public debate and was pulled from Parliament in March while Bulgaria was holding its first EU Presidency.
The constitutional court declared in July that the convention contradicts the Bulgarian constitution on the grounds that some texts blur the lines between sexes.
“…if society loses the ability to make a difference between a woman and a man, the fight against violence against women remains only a formal but unachievable task,” the statement reads.
Now, Bulgaria cannot ratify the convention and in order to reach the European level of policies and legislation on violence against women, the country has to act on its own. But the defenders of the convention question the political and social will for change.
Among the reasons for that are not only the neglected changes in the existing laws, but also the lack of official data, sufficient financing from the state budget and established procedures for handling cases of gender-based violence.
“0% domestic violence, 0% domestic violence victims and 0% crisis centres. And at the same time police departments wonder where to send the battered women,” said the Bulgarian ombudswoman Maya Manolova, commenting on the official statistics in her speech during the public debate on the convention in January.
This data has nothing to do with reality, but it shows that the state institutions are far from ready to advance changes in the system.
Unsafe from Harm
For the team of PULSE which fights the problems of violence against women and children since the founding of their NGO 19 years ago, the relationship with social workers and other representatives of state institutions is crucial. When action and measures are taken within a crisis intervention, they must be calculated to the last detail.
The crisis centre of the organization provides a 24-hour service and accommodation for up to 6 months. The location is secured and staff is constantly present. A group of specialists works with the abused to overcome their psychological traumas, provides them with support for official documents and assists their daily needs.
“Sometimes, however, a simple lack of understanding of the different processes by people in the state institutions, hinder our work. That’s why we are constantly doing trainings,” says Georgieva.
She shares one of her cases -- the story of a 20-year-old woman, abused by her partner and placed in the crisis centre of PULSE from another town. The woman was together with her two children and under the pretext that the father, her abuser, has the right to receive their address, the same social service department that handled her placement revealed the location of the crisis centre.
The fact that the victim was in hiding was not taken into account. The abuser appeared in Pernik and managed to persuade the victim, one month into her rehabilitation program, to leave the centre and come back to him.
“Such cases are extremely dangerous, as the outcome may be fatal,” says Georgieva.
The Stolen Focus and the Dirt Road Ahead
Reforms of the system have been delayed for years, but during the debate on the Istanbul Convention, populist speeches by politicians and opinion leaders were focused on the issues of the third sex, same-sex marriages and non-stereotype gender roles.
A comprehensive strategy to ensure prevention of violence, protection of victims and persecution of perpetrators was not addressed.
“The discussions [around the convention] brought me back in time years ago when I was still a volunteer at PULSE and we were handing in cards in support of the Law on Protection against Domestic Violence. We were going around the city and explaining why it was important that the law passes the vote,” says Georgieva. “When it passed the satisfaction was big, but now after all that happened with the convention, I have the feeling that nothing has changed since then.”
At this point Bulgaria’s road to reforming its national legislation and changing the range of social services, available to abused women and children seems blurry.
The social minister Biser Petkov commented before journalists at the Parliament, that the ministry does not have enough indicators to be able to determine what the scale of the problem was and what needs to be done to support the victims of violence in an adequate, rapid and consistent manner through specialized services.
“What the ministry is doing, under a project funded by the European Social Fund is to conduct a nationally representative survey ‘Violence in Bulgaria’ which will help developing indicators” the minister said, quoted by actualno.com in February.
The survey has not started yet, but there’s a public tender for it from August and the results will be announced by the end of 2019.
“This survey is the first of its kind, initiated by the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy,” the ministry’s press office confirmed. “Some results [on violence against women] of NGO surveys are published in the public space, but they are not official and do not engage the ministry with their data.”
According to NGO data, 1,000,000 of the women in Bulgaria are victims of violence and every third woman is a domestic violence victim. Yet only 14% report their assaults to the police and don’t believe they’ll receive any support.