Women in Bulgaria, a country of seven million people in eastern Europe, have a story to tell. Women in Bulgaria have been waging a battle for equal rights and equal protection of the law for decades. Very recently, women in Bulgaria have achieved landmark successes in this campaign for freedom. One such achievement includes the passage of national legislation criminalizing domestic violence. Since 2005, when the national law passed, women’s rights groups have led reformations to the law, which still fails to protect women from violence in some key ways. Aside from grassroots women’s rights groups in Bulgaria, international NGOs have partnered with local women’s rights groups to help craft, implement, and monitor some of the measures that Bulgaria has put into law. Additionally, Bulgaria is an active participant in regional and international bodies and treaties, ratifying several treaties that specifically obligate the state to protect women and ensure equal rights and protection of the law. In other words, Bulgaria is talking the talk, and taking all the appropriate measures that would suggest the state prioritizes women’s rights. And so begs the question, has the government led actual change in the country, and in fact made Bulgaria a better place for women? Many leaders say the country still has a long way to go.
The national legal framework represents one key piece in achieving gender equality and protection of laws – or not. Bulgaria’s framework has only begun to take shape post-1990, when the one-party socialist state turned to democracy. Considering the vast cultural and political differences women’s rights groups have confronted, the achievements to date are impressive. The holes in the framework which need amendment are not unbeknownst to Bulgarian elected officials, either. Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev recently proclaimed, ““We need to turn words into actions in order to be true to the commitments we all made when adopting the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.” For example, the nation’s domestic violence legislation only allows a woman to procure a protection order against a perpetrator within 30 days of a police-reported attack. According to the Advocates for Human Rights, a Minnesota-based NGO working with Bulgaria on women’s right issues, parliament is actively working on rewriting legislation that will remove time requirements from receiving protection order. But there are other holes in the framework: no national law (including the Protection from Domestic Violence Act) specifically addresses or prohibits gender-based violence or discrimination, a key tenant in the modern gender equality framework. Bulgaria’s domestic violence laws wrongly places the burden to initiate criminal proceedings upon the victim. Unless the violence results in grave injury, the state expects victims to collect evidence and prove the accusation.
The European community, including Bulgaria, signaled their support of a modern gender equality framework in the Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence. As of November 2017, Bulgaria had signed, but not yet ratified the Istanbul Convention. The Istanbul Convention is the first international effort to prevent and combat violence against women, and mandates comprehensive legal and policy frameworks for preventing violence, supporting victims, and punishing perpetrators. The delay in passing the requisite legislative measures necessary to ratify the Istanbul Convention results in more and more perpetrators living with impunity and potentially harming more victims. The delays in passing the legislative framework has consequences in perpetuating gender stereotypes that contribute to inequality. For example, Bulgaria has been criticized for allowing the hypersexualization of women and underage girls in media and entertainment. National, regional, and international bodies have concurred that addressing hypersexualization of female children through policy and government involvement is both necessary and appropriate in Bulgaria. Yet, in 2017, two popular teenage singers’ sexualized photos proliferate the media, with one being just fourteen years old. The term “hypersexualization” may be an understatement when describing the portrayal of women and girls in Bulgarian media world. In one music video, fourteen-year-old Suzanita is featured in Bulgarian singer Andrea’s music video, which features an all-female pool party featuring young swimsuit-clad models groping, licking, and kissing each other. By Bulgarian standards, anything you’ve seen on MTV is G-rated compared to this video. But the council charged with promoting gender equality dismisses urges to ban such hypersexualized content of underage girls. They say that children are becoming adults earlier.
(Andrea, (30) left; Suzanita, (14) right, https://twitter.com/andreamusic_bg)
Another area the Bulgarian government seems to be failing to live up to its own standards are those enshrined in the Convention to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The Advocates for Human Rights, an international NGO who has worked extensively with Bulgaria over the past two decades, cites four main areas the country seriously fails to uphold its obligations under CEDAW:
1. insufficient public visibility of legislative efforts and lack of government awareness of women’s rights;
2. failure to prohibit discrimination against women through a gender equality law and allowing stereotypical women’s role patterns to persist;
3. high prevalence of domestic violence, lack of criminal prosecutions, and absence of laws criminalizing marital rape, and the judiciary’s failure in shifting the burden of proof to favor victims;
4. the practical obstacles women face when seeking shelter, support, or services for domestic violence.
The shortcomings in these four areas lead to real and harmful consequences for women. Studies show that domestic violence, including assault, rape, harassment, and other forms of violence, are widespread amongst Bulgarian women. Over 23% of women in Bulgaria suffered physical abuse or sexual violence from an intimate partner, according to the European Agency for Human Rights. But as many as 90% of these assaults go unreported. Women and girls do not report physical and sexual assault they suffer at the hands of their partners because they fear they will not receive family or institutional support.
The change that must occur in Bulgaria must be from within. No government treaty can force gender equality and freedom upon Bulgarians. The brave men and women waging the fight for equality must win the hearts and minds of their countrymen who are stuck in an old, but not forgotten, time. although Bulgaria’s regional and international treaty obligations are they are not entirely upheld or implemented, they are not in vain. The treaties provide support for Bulgaria and for all nation-states, and create a forum to learn and hold each other accountable. Bulgarians know the path they must pursue for an equal Bulgaria, it is one many other nation-states, including the U.S., is walking along as well. Let us walk hand-in-hand with Bulgaria as the U.S. confronts its own gender equality crisis and confrontation of sexual harassment in the workplace. No country has figured this out – but Bulgaria seems to be trying.
 Central Intelligence Agency, The World Fact Book, Europe: Bulgaria (Nov. 8, 2017), https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/bu.html.
 Social Watch, supra note 1.
 President Rosen Plevneliev, Bulgaria, Statement, Global Leaders’ Meeting
on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment: A Commitment to Action (Sept. 27, 2015), http://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/initiatives/stepitup/commitments-speeches/bulgaria-stepitup-commitmentspeech-201509-en.pdf?la=en&vs=2224.
 Social Watch, supra note 1; Suggested List of Issues Relating to Violence Against Women, The Advocates for Human Rights & Gender Research Foundation, Bulgaria’s Compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, 70th Session of Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Pre- Sessional Working Group) 20 November-24 November 2017 ¶ 4 (Sept. 29, 2017), http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CEDAW/Shared%20Documents/BGR/INT_CEDAW_ICS_BGR_29043_E.pdf.
 Suggested List of Issues Relating to Violence Against Women, The Advocates for Human Rights & Gender Research Foundation, Bulgaria’s Compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, 70th Session of Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Pre- Sessional Working Group) 20 November-24 November 2017 ¶ 5 (Sept. 29, 2017), http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CEDAW/Shared%20Documents/BGR/INT_CEDAW_ICS_BGR_29043_E.pdf.
 Id. at ¶ 6.
 Id. at ¶ 5.
 U.N. Women, Information from Bulgaria on the progress made after the Global Leaders’ Meeting on Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and Girls held in New York on 27 Sept. 2015, http://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/initiatives/stepitup/commitments-speeches/bulgaria-stepitup-commitment-followup-20170227-en.pdf?la=en&vs=3657; European parliament, Legislative Train Schedule – Area of Justice and Fundamental Rights, EU Accession to the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women ('Istanbul Convention') (Oct. 20, 2017), http://www.europarl.europa.eu/legislative-train/theme-area-of-justice-and-fundamental-rights/file-eu-accession-to-the-istanbul-convention
 Suggested List of Issues Relating to Violence Against Women, supra note 8 at ¶ 5.
 European parliament, Legislative Train Schedule – Area of Justice and Fundamental Rights, EU Accession to the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women ('Istanbul Convention') (Oct. 20, 2017), http://www.europarl.europa.eu/legislative-train/theme-area-of-justice-and-fundamental-rights/file-eu-accession-to-the-istanbul-convention
 Suggested List of Issues Relating to Violence Against Women, The Advocates for Human Rights & Gender Research Foundation, Bulgaria’s Compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, 70th Session of Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Pre- Sessional Working Group) 20 November-24 November 2017 ¶ 6 (Sept. 29, 2017), http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CEDAW/Shared%20Documents/BGR/INT_CEDAW_ICS_BGR_29043_E.pdf.
 Id. at ¶ 9.
 Suggested List of Issues Relating to Violence Against Women, supra note 8 at ¶ 9.
 Id. at ¶ 3.
 Id. at ¶ 2.