People hold signs reading 'Not one more'during a protest in support of an 18-year-old victim of a knife attack, in front of a court building in Sofia, Bulgaria, 31 July 2023.
© EPA-EFE/VASSIL DONEV   |   People hold signs reading 'Not one more'during a protest in support of an 18-year-old victim of a knife attack, in front of a court building in Sofia, Bulgaria, 31 July 2023.

How a Case of Gender Based Violence in Bulgaria Unlocked Reforms and Protests

From law amendments and unprecedented protest waves to MP’s resigning: how a brutal knife attack on a 18-year old woman in the town of Stara Zagora brought seismic changes in the way the country looks to domestic and gender based violence. Although in the last few years several cases brought media attention to Bulgaria’s untackled issues with violence on women while awareness increased thanks to activists, this one felt different. The case coincided with long-awaited yet imperfect reforms.

A wave of protests triggered by an attack on a young woman

When over 40 Bulgarian towns are protesting at the same time, it’s likely because of a political turmoil, of the usual variety: a government that needs to go, a geopolitical danger, a politician that played too long with society’s patience. However, on the late afternoon of July 31, thousands took the streets all over the country to protest against gender violence, in light of a brutal attack which happened in late June in the town of Stara Zagora but came to the attention of the media by the end of July.

The attack that caused the outrage happened on June 26, when a 26-year-old man under probation, Georgi Georgiev, allegedly attacked 18-year old Debora Mihaylova with a knife, leaving her with various wounds, bruises, a broken nose and a half-shaven head. Over 400 stitches were required, with the number becoming one of the symbols of the protest.

Shock spread like wildfire on social media, despite the brutality of the attack not being entirely unparalleled: several cases of gender based violence ending in death have caused protests before, while since 2018 the topic of the ratification of the women’s rights treaty – the Istanbul Convention – became a major point in the disinformation campaign by Bulgaria’s nationalist and predominantly pro-Russia parties, who claimed that the Convention would validate the rights of the LGBTQ+ community.

The magnitude of the citizen unrest is, however, unprecedented: thousands surrounded Sofia’s Hall of Justice, while people in smaller towns where protests rarely occur also demanded quick reforms. The reactions of all concerned institutions was also scrutinised – including the court in Stara Zagora describing the wounds sustained as a “minor bodily injury”, one of the judges first publicly mentioning the names of the perpetrator and the victim casually in an interview and the hesitant moves by the police. The case also reignited debates on the need of harsher penalties and systematic changes in the way the state treats gender based violence.

Many other cases of severe gender violence became public knowledge when it was too late to do anything about it. This time the victim survived and she released a video on August 7 thanking people for standing for her: “My hair will grow again, the scars will fade out but your support will stay forever in my heart.”

Initially arrested in late June, then released, Georgiev was arrested again, under the public pressure, and as of the time of writing, he is still in custody for sending life-threatening messages to Mihaylova in the days before the attack. The exact nature of the relationship between Georgiev and Mihaylova remains unclear, as in court Georgiev described himself as a family man with a wife and a daughter “who are waiting for me to come home”. He maintains his innocence.

Public figures reacting to gender violence: blaming the victim, joking, and denouncing the so called “LGBT agenda”

Just as the Stara Zagora case was making headlines and people were taking to the streets, the Parliament adopted amendments to the Law Against Domestic Violence, after numerous discussions and delays around Bulgaria’s two year election cycle which imposed a stop and start nature around many reforms. The amended law should see an improved system of indicating gender-based crimes as well as the formation of a new National Council for the Prevention and Protection of Domestic Violence.

In an open letter, 48 women’s rights organisations stated that further improvements are needed as the current amendments do not take into account relationships in which there is no marriage.

The discussions around the attack got quickly politicised – with the nationalist tattoos, visible on perpetrator’s social media photos, also fuelling speculations on the influence of the nationalist movements in the country.

Bulgaria’s two main pro-Russia parties – far-righters Revival and the left-wing Bulgarian Socialist Party – treated the amendments with the same rhetoric that they have used before for the Istanbul Convention. For them, it’s all a bid to promote “gender ideology” through the new term “intimate relationship”, introduced in the amendments in order to cover non-married couples. The two parties, along with the nationalists from There’s Such People, demanded for the relations to be specified as concerning only men and women.

The law passed on August 7 with the votes from the current coalition (currently featuring opposing blocks GERB and Movement for Rights and Freedoms, and the pro-European We Continue and Change and Democratic Bulgaria) but with GERB siding with Revival and the socialists on the need of the relations being defined as occurring between men and women.

Another heavily discussed point, criticised by law experts and activists, is that the law specifies that an “intimate relationship” is a one that has lasted at least 60 days, meaning that the law won’t work for shorter relationships.

This wasn’t the only case where GERB proved unable to entirely convince the public there are pro-reforms.

During a break in proceedings on August 7, GERB’s Vezhdi Rashidov, a former speaker of parliament and a former Minister of Culture, otherwise known as a sculptor, was caught on microphone saying: “There are enough laws now, anyway. What is this nonsense? Every whore has suddenly woken up and decided they were raped 15 years ago.”

Rashidov issued an apology later the same day but after further pressure, on Monday, Rashidov resigned as an MP and a party member, essentially quitting politics.

These developments also brought attention to recent statements by other public figures. Locally well known basketball coach Titi Papazov was heavily criticised, including by sports associations, after a recent YouTube episode, led by rapper Toto, in which in a joking matter he retold a story from the 90’s where he attacked and tortured a former girlfriend. The episode, now offline, became widely discussed in light of the case in Stara Zagora and passed unnoticed before.

According to NGO’s such as the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee and Bulgarian Fund for Women, at least 14 women have lost their lives due to domestic violence since the beginning of the year. Demonstrations in the country are expected to continue while currently a second medical expertise on Debora Mihaylova’s health is ongoing.

The Stara Zagora attack has also led to increased attention to other anti-violence measures. On August 10, the current cabinet, led by PM Nickolay Denkov of We Continue the Changes, will also draft reforms against police violence.

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