SOFIA, Bulgaria (WOMENSENEWS)–When doctors began compiling paperwork to release Maia from a Sofia hospital after a week’s stay this past May, the battered woman panicked over the knowledge that she had no money, nowhere to go and no idea how she would get her four children back from her abusive husband.
A concerned nurse told Maia of a women’s shelter run by local aid organization Animus Association that, in Bulgaria’s largely patriarchal society, might be her best shot at securing a better future.
“He was killing me,” said the 37-year old, who refused to give her last name out of fear for possible retribution from her husband or his family. “Always searching for harder and harder things to hit me with. I had to try and get away. But honestly, I simply didn’t know how.”
For almost 50 years, as Bulgaria lived under the omnipresent shadow of the Soviet Union, divorce and battery of spouses were statistically absolute non-entities with reported cases of both well below 5 percent consistently. Now, with the fall of the Soviet Union and Bulgaria’s independence in 1991, Bulgaria has begun to acknowledge and address the issue of domestic violence.
Bulgaria is not alone in its region either in the amount of domestic violence women there experience nor its lack of legal protection and services for victims. Like the other nations in its region, Bulgaria provides no legal redress and only a handful of organizations working to aid victims of domestic violence, abused women have few places to turn. Society’s apathy towards their plight only increases victims’ sense of desperation and loss.
“What we’re dealing with is an entirely new reality with issues coming into the public consciousness that were unheard of and absolutely not tolerated by the state during communist times,” says Sofia-based sociologist Elena Georgieva. “These ‘new’ problems created the necessity for new laws, sensitization of medical and legal professionals and the general public . . . in other words, an entire change in mindset.”
For four months after her hospitalization Maia spent her days with staff from Animus’ Rehabilitation Center for Women, Adolescents, and Children Survivors of Violence–the only such private shelter in Sofia–trying to get her life in order. Maia says she passed difficult nights curled up on a lumpy couch in one of the center’s back rooms with her meager belongings packed into a small closet provided by the shelter.
With Animus’ help, Maia acquired a part-time job cleaning houses to earn some pocket money, successfully recovered her children, underwent daily counseling and arranged to live with relatives living in Ukraine. “Without help, escape would have been impossible,” Maia says.
Overcoming Social Taboos
Despite Animus’ ability to help Maia and hundreds of other women every year, escaping domestic violence is particularly hard in Bulgaria.
As Maia soon discovered, even with the help of an established network of professional help, overcoming tenacious social taboos was almost as difficult as leaving her violent home. The police resisted filing an official complaint. Her friends questioned why she didn’t handle the issue within her family circle. Some even suggested that she might have done something to deserve the attacks.
“Lack of legislation and cultural norms prevent authorities from interfering,” says the center’s manager Ani Torozova. “Rarely does anyone outside the immediate family know there is anything wrong until the situation reaches a crisis point
. . . and even when they do it is often assumed that the woman is somehow at fault.”
Not one governmental organization compiles statistics on domestic violence, while nongovernmental and aid organizations estimate the prevalence of domestic abuse is running around 40 percent and growing.
“No doubt domestic violence is the number one issue facing Bulgarian women today,” believes Georgieva. “And officialdom has been very slow to respond.”
Activists point to social and economic reasons for the scourge, with males lashing out in increasing numbers as long-term unemployment–now hovering around 20 percent–continues to grow.
While some police officers are sympathetic to women’s plights, activists lament the lack of legal redress. Even the most determined law enforcement official can do no more than to hold an accused abuser for 24 hours and make the accused promise to change the abusive behavior. Should a woman wish to bring charges against her husband, there are simply no legal provisions for her to base a case on.
“In other words,” says Georgieva, “there remain no legal consequences.”
A multi-ministry task force set up by authorities in 2002 to examine the problem and gauge the need for legislation has so far come up with just one piece of draft legislation that would fall under civil, not criminal, law. Under the law, perpetrators would face no jail time but women could use domestic violence as a cause for divorce and to fight for equitable distribution of familial assets.
Escaping domestic violence is a quagmire that challenges women across the region with an estimated 1 in 5 women experiencing domestic abuse in Hungary, Romania and Turkey.
Hungarian authorities have drafted several pieces of legislation to specifically deal with the issue over the last five years but have yet to enact any. For now Hungarian women can only attempt to achieve redress through a 2001 amendment to the penal code that condemns domestic violence. In Romania, authorities adopted a law in 2003 to prevent and punish domestic violence but have yet to enact the regulations necessary to implement the law.
So far, domestic violence has not become an accession issue for Bulgaria and Romania, which await entry into the European Union in 2007. The European Union does not have a uniform standard for domestic violence laws. The Council of Europe is calling on the European Union to form a body to come up with one and the European Union has promised to focus on this issue for all its member countries in 2006.
Concealed on the top floor of an apartment building in downtown Sofia, the shelter’s facilities–one room for sleeping, a TV room, a consultation room, and busy overcrowded office–seem meager and grim.
But for women like Maia, the shelter is one of a handful of places they can turn for help. It opened in 2000 and can comfortably hold up to 10 people. Less than 20 organizations in Bulgaria are focused on the issue of domestic violence, but there are only two privately run shelters–including Animus–in the country. There are about a dozen state-run shelters for women and children. Most are under-staffed and low on funds. And once there, women are often encouraged to return to their husbands.
Most women make their way to the Animus shelter through the group’s 24-hour hotline, now in its fifth year of operation. Of the average 20 phone calls received daily, 15 are related to questions of domestic violence.
Torozova says that the number of phone calls and in-house clients are increasing every year. “If you look only at the numbers, you could get very upset. Incidents are increasing, but so are the numbers of women reaching out for help, and that is a positive,” says Torozova.
Animus’ cadre of more than three dozen lawyers, social workers, teachers and psychologists also conduct training seminars across the country to raise awareness. From schools to police stations to government ministries, Animus personnel seek to change the public perception of domestic violence and its consequences.
“Even though sometimes it may not feel that way, little by little things are getting better,” says Torozova, “and I’m optimistic we’re moving towards a time when women and couples will feel comfortable enough to seek out help before situations become critical and the number of victims will begin to drop.”
Juliette Terzieff is a freelance journalist currently based in Buffalo, New York who has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN International, and the London Sunday Times during time spent in the Balkans, the Middle East, and South Asia.
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