29 September, 2023
Interview with Nadezhda Dermendzheiva - co-president of Bulgarian Fund for Women over the legislative changes and attitudes towards women after the outbreak of gender-based violence in Bulgaria
Надежда Дерменджиева по време на протестите в София (източник: Български фонд за жените)

Vladimir Mitev, Libertatea, 14 August 2023

Protests against violence against women continue in Bulgaria after a young woman was attacked with a knife and needed 400 stitches. Authorities initially classified the case as “minor bodily harm”, a decision that brought thousands out into the streets. “No to violence! We will not be silent! No more!” were the slogans under which protests took place in Sofia and other cities on Tuesday 8 August and Wednesday 9 August. Also earlier this week, the Bulgarian Parliament voted on important changes in the legislation on violence against women. 

The protesters’ demands include: opening centres for victims of violence in every region of the country, introducing a definition of gender-based violence, preventing domestic violence and better protecting its victims. Bulgarian Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov stressed that in recent weeks extremely serious cases of violence have come to light. “My feeling is that this has been a hidden epidemic and many people, encouraged by the support of society and institutions, have only now dared to talk about their specific problems,” he added.

Change is already happening in terms of protection against domestic violence and women’s rights, but it is slow, difficult and with mistakes along the way, says Nadezhda Dermendzhieva, head of the Bulgarian Fund for Women, a leading feminist organisation in Bulgaria, in an interview with Libertatea.Nadezhda Dermendzhieva is co-director of the Bulgarian Fund for Women. She is also a board member of Prospera – International Network of Women’s Funds and an advisor for Eastern Europe to the Global Fund for Women and the Urgent Action Fund. The Bulgarian Women’s Fund is the only major donor in the country supporting financially and through capacity building organisations working for women’s rights and gender equality. 

Libertatea: The Bulgarian Parliament voted on Monday, August 7, legislative changes that increased the penalties for bodily harm. Objections have already been raised over the way intimate relationships have been defined, with protection given only to people in a heterosexual relationship. What do you think of these legislative changes? 

Nadezhda Dermendzhieva: The definition of an intimate relationship in the Domestic Violence Protection Act has two very controversial points. First, the bizarre “length of time” of at least 60 days for a relationship to be recognized as intimate (when does it start, who will measure it, how will it be proven?). And second, the deprivation of protection for same-sex couples.My observations are as follows: the coalition “We Continue the Change – Democratic Bulgaria” had good intentions, but the attacks from the Revival (nationalist party – n.a.) and the Bulgarian Socialist Party, the level of the debate, the mean jokes, the misogyny and homophobia and yet another last-minute “twist” by GERB (changing the position of some MPs to support intimate relations as only between heterosexuals – n.r.), have tainted everything. I hope there will be discrimination cases at the ECHR, and I’m sure there will be issues in case law, yes. The only thing we can do next is to fight for better legislation – refining the definition, creating a component for gender-based violence in the Penal Code and opening new crisis centres.   

Bad jokes and sexist statements in the Sofia Parliament 

Discussions in Parliament were also marked by statements from the former already-president of the culture committee, Vezhdi Rashidov, who sided with Hollywood abuser Harvey Weinstein and described women victims of violence as “whores” who “remember years later that they were raped”. What did the level of debate in Parliament show about MEPs’ understanding of gender-based violence issues? To what extent do women MPs have the understanding and openness to positively influence the legislative process?

With each National Assembly meeting on domestic violence and violence against women, the level drops. Most MPs lack not only expertise and understanding of the issue and any desire to address it, but also basic humanity and empathy. I’m sure Vezhdi Rashidov is not an isolated case, he just happened to be near the microphone. If you listen to what MEPs have to say, you will hear bad jokes, sexist statements, embarrassment to talk about the subject, attacks on civil society organisations, cynicism, lies, hate speech, homophobia. These are the people who make decisions about our lives. Instead, they have turned the debate about violence into a circus, a humiliation for all victims. Unfortunately, the majority of the MEPs of the Renaissance, the Bulgarian Socialist Party and GERB also have no sensitivity on this issue and no humanity. I say this with great regret. 

“Change is definitely happening”

It looks like the protests are at a crossroads. In some cities there has been a noticeable drop in the number of protesters. Legislative changes have been adopted and Vezhdi Rashidov is leaving politics. Perhaps some would say that change is already happening. What do you think is the way forward for the protest movement now?

Change is definitely happening, yes. Not by itself, but there are people and organisations changing the environment, the laws, the thinking. It happens slowly and painfully, with many mistakes along the way (like the definition of an intimate relationship, for example). The way forward for the feminist movement remains the same – protests, marches, statements, open letters, bills, conversations with policy makers. But the feminist movement needs people’s support, a huge need. All those hundreds of thousands of people need to be on the streets all the time – especially on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and on 8 March. Our goals and demands also remain the same: more amendments to the Domestic Violence Protection Act, amendments to the Penal Code, opening more crisis centres, creating a safe environment for victims to feel comfortable to share and seek help, national awareness campaigns on the issue run by institutions and not by us. We will achieve our goals by working on many levels – changing attitudes and breaking down hardened stereotypes, a strong feminist movement at the grassroots, presence at the decision-making tables.

“Legal thinking in Bulgaria is backward”

We now see judges, lawyers, experts from NGOs talking about the legal dimensions of the problem. How could the search for solutions to this problem leave the technocratic and legal sectors of Bulgarian society and reach into its depths?

Despite all the talk, I dare say that legal thinking in Bulgaria is still quite stunted and backward, except for a handful of human rights defenders. The biggest proof of this is the Constitutional Court’s decision on the Istanbul Convention (which was declared unconstitutional and impossible to ratify – ed.). The Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence is the international treaty adopted by the Council of Europe on 11 May 2011 which aims to prevent violence, protect victims and prosecute offenders.If we are looking for real solutions, the state must play its part. At the moment, the whole problem and the whole fight against domestic violence and violence against women rests on the shoulders of NGOs. However, they are constantly denigrated, accused of all sorts of things, and when the time comes, their voices, those of the real experts, are not heard. The people of Bulgaria, of “deep Bulgaria”, can feel at ease when they trust the institutions and that there is justice. The case of Stara Zagora illustrates very well the lack of justice and the lack of functioning institutions.

Globally, there is a recent political awareness of women. In Iran, protests broke out in 2022, raising values such as life and liberty as the standard. To what extent are the current protests in Bulgaria part of the same process?

As much as some may not like it, Bulgaria is becoming more progressive, more European and more global, so I too believe that the protests in our country are part of this process. At the very least, the call for “Not a single woman more” is a direct translation of the slogan “Ni Una Menos”, the slogan of the feminist movement in Latin America. Of course, attacks on women in Bulgaria are also part of a global process. For example, attacks on the right to choose whether or not to have an abortion and on access to this health service come from evangelical and Protestant churches and circles linked to and/or funded by paleo-conservative America. Even though we are experiencing unprecedented backlash against human rights, especially for women and LGBT people, I believe that good will prevail. It will just take longer than we expect.  

“Not only do we have no funding, but the state itself constantly denigrates us”

What is different about feminist organizations and feminist action in countries that are semiperipheral to Western Europe and organizations and agency in the classical West? To what extent is there solidarity and cooperation between feminist organisations in SEE?

There are still many differences between us and Western feminism. Let’s not forget that democracy and civil society in Eastern Europe are still quite young and fragile. One of the big differences for me is access to resources. The Bulgarian Women’s Fund collaborates with other women’s funds – in Germany, France, the Netherlands. All of them are generously funded by their governments. That is, governments deliberately support civil society and feminist organisations to have a correction. In Bulgaria it is the other way around, not only do we have no funding from the state, but the state itself, through the government and its institutions, is constantly denigrating us, trying to close us down, to stuff us with administrative procedures. Another big difference is how far the feminist debate has come – in this country we are still at the level of “woman is a man”, while in Western Europe they are already talking about trans rights. In terms of solidarity and cooperation, both certainly exist.

“After the darkest moments come the brightest”

To what extent do the current protests offer hope for change in terms of the rights and status of women and disadvantaged groups in society, and to what extent are they likely to be just more protests in which people have legitimate grievances that experts cannot channel into a results-oriented direction, for example, because of a lack of media influence and the failure of leaders to turn them into change?

Protests of thousands offer enormous hope for change and are a testament to the power of civil society to bring about change. And the likelihood that, once again, political leaders will fail to achieve anything is very high. I hope things will be different this time, because we have experienced them many times before. My prediction is that difficult years are ahead for human rights and democracy in Europe and around the world. However, after the darkest times come the brightest times and I believe that in 5-10 years women and vulnerable groups will live better, happier and with more dignity, even in Bulgaria.

Note of the author: In the first half of the year, the Bulgarian National Police Directorate General received 1950 immediate and permanent protection orders issued by district courts – 18% more than last year. There is also a 40% increase in the number of preliminary proceedings initiated in the context of domestic violence.

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