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'Stalking, Threats, Deprived Of A Normal Life': A Bulgarian Domestic Violence Victim Speaks Out

Domestic-violence figures are estimates, since no state agency tabulates such information, underscoring what some analysts feel is the authorities' failure to take the issue seriously. (illustrative photo)
Domestic-violence figures are estimates, since no state agency tabulates such information, underscoring what some analysts feel is the authorities' failure to take the issue seriously. (illustrative photo)

Petya made the decision to leave her husband as she cowered along with their child inside their home as he rampaged outside, throwing and breaking objects in a fit of extreme rage.

Petya, not her real name, has said she was subjected to years of mental and physical harassment and abuse from her husband, including sexual abuse. She watched as he would beat and berate their child. Petya said he exploited her fears to control her. To this date, her former partner has not faced any criminal charges.

Petya, who was 38 at the time, told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service that making the decision years ago to leave was a difficult one. "I was unemployed at the time, which made the situation even worse -- being without money, housing, and with a child," she recounted recently.

It was the welfare of their child, then 3 years old, that pushed Petya to finally leave her husband, even abandoning any claim to their home and other property to expedite and facilitate the divorce procedure.

"The only difficulty in the divorce case was that I had to meet this man again," she said. But divorce did not mean an end to all the abuse. In fact, in some ways it got worse.

"After I moved out and divorced, the mental harassment became even worse. He was stalking me, trying to kidnap the child, threatening to kill me. I was always afraid -- both for my life and my loved ones. I hid, and rarely left the house," she said.

Petya is believed to be one of thousands of women subjected to domestic violence in Bulgaria. Those figures are estimates, since no state agency tabulates such information, underscoring what some analysts feel is the authorities' failure to take the issue seriously.

According to women's rights organizations in Bulgaria, 15 women have died this year from domestic violence, based on media reports. The latest such case came in September, when 30-year-old Evgenia was allegedly strangled to death by her husband, who is now facing murder charges in Sofia.

Orlin Vladimirov (in red) and his father, Plamen (back), were accused of killing the younger man's wife.
Orlin Vladimirov (in red) and his father, Plamen (back), were accused of killing the younger man's wife.

While Bulgaria has signed the Istanbul Convention, it has yet to ratify the most comprehensive international human rights treaty on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.

'Huge Trauma'

The first years of their marriage gave her no hint of what would come later, Petya said, filled as they were with happy memories. "It never occurred to me that something like this [domestic abuse] could happen to me."

However, one day, Petya sensed a change in her husband when he took her out for a drive in his new car.

"I'm afraid of driving at high speeds. He bought a new car and one day we went out just to check it out. But once I was in the car, he locked the doors and then drove away, going faster and faster. I felt helpless, panic, and numbness," Petya told RFE/RL. "Knowing my greatest fear, he took advantage of it and demonstrated his power, ignoring my pleas [to slow down]. As I cried, he did nothing."

With the divorce, Petya was barraged by multiple forms of harassment from her ex-husband, who wasn't deterred even when a court issued a restraining order. "The phone harassment, stalking, threats, all deprived me of the chance of living a normal life," said Petya, recounting one especially chilling moment when he showed up at her home and tried to force her out.

"The trauma is huge. When I talk about what happened even today, I cry and I still feel that something might provoke him and the harassment will resume," Petya added.

When she made the decision to leave her husband, Petya called a hotline for victims of domestic abuse, the first time she had found the courage to do that.

"Once I was in such a state of panic, that while I was on the hotline I gave the phone to the police officers who were standing next to me [at home] so that they could explain calmly what had happened as I wasn't able to," Petya said.

Finding Support

The hotline is administered by a team from the Animus Association, a Bulgarian NGO that provides counseling and other services.

"People need to know that there is actually someone to turn to if they think they are in a situation where they are being abused and they want to at least find out what options they have," said Atanas Kirov, who is an assistant coordinator of the NGO's National Hotline for Victims of Violence.

Petya found support as well from her parents, with whom she and her child now live.

"Suddenly, when your whole world collapses, you need to find an island, a straw to grab to pull yourself up again," Petya explained. "It really is a dark tunnel. A person can't cope with it on his or her own. You really need the support of relatives and friends."

To cope and to help others, Petya shares her experience with other victims of domestic abuse, volunteering with the Animus Association, as well as taking part in social-media groups dedicated to helping victims of domestic violence.

"Inevitably after a certain period of time, life starts to get better. In the beginning it's scary, but you can get through it. No woman deserves to be treated like that," Petya said.

"Every woman who has experienced this hell is a huge help. Women who need help should seek us out, contact us. They should not be ashamed and know it's not their fault. And that it's not endless, and that there is a way out," Petya explained. "A woman has the strength to handle anything."

Not Taken Seriously

There is no exact data on the number of victims of domestic violence in Bulgaria. According to information from the Interior Ministry, released at a press conference on November 24, the eve of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, domestic violence calls to the country's emergency 112 line average some 90 a day.

Data from the Animus Association hotline shows that of 1,852 calls since the beginning of the year, 1,280 have been for domestic violence.

That lack of hard data is a handicap, explained Cristina Fabre, team leader of the gender-based-violence program at the Vilnius-based European Institute for Gender Equality.

"We cannot tackle violence against women without data. In order to design policies that stop violence, we need to know how many victims there are, what their relationship with the perpetrator is, and whether that perpetrator has been held accountable. Collecting this data at a minimum signals a commitment to ending violence against women," Fabre told RFE/RL in e-mailed comments.

While Bulgaria has adopted a domestic-violence law, its failure to track it is a major drawback, explained Nadezhda Stoycheva, director of the Animus Association.

"Part of the problem is that Bulgarian institutions cannot call the problem 'domestic violence' by its name and distinguish it, identify it in order to deal with it," Stoycheva told RFE/RL, citing research showing that one in four women in Bulgaria is subjected to domestic violence.

Most institutions and politicians in Bulgaria don't view the issue as an urgent one, judging by their lack of action, offered Stoycheva.

She points out that proposed amendments to Bulgaria's law to protect victims of domestic violence have been drafted but not yet adopted. In addition, the country suffers from a lack of shelters.

"There is only one crisis unit with eight beds in Sofia. We manage it. Do you think that is enough for 1 million people in Sofia? And there are 12 regions in Bulgaria where there are none at all."

Societal Change

A change in attitudes across society is also needed, according to Stoycheva. "Part of Bulgarian society believes that this problem is a private matter. These people do not want change, they do not want any new laws. They are everywhere -- they work in institutions and they are in the whole society," she said.

A study by Alpha Research and Open Society from October shows that the majority of Bulgarians support equality between men and women and consider the various forms of violence against women unacceptable.

However, 15.8 percent of respondents believe that domestic violence against women is a personal problem and should be addressed at home. The survey also shows that 6 percent of respondents consider it acceptable for a man to forbid a woman from seeing some relatives and friends, and 3.6 percent said it is acceptable for a man to hit a woman.

Bulgaria is one of the six EU member states that have not ratified the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, better known as the Istanbul Convention.

In July 2018, Bulgaria's top court ruled it violated the constitution.

The center-right government of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov submitted the Istanbul Convention to parliament for ratification in January 2018 only to withdraw it a few weeks later because of an uproar over its language about gender roles.

Debate centered on its definition of "gender" as "social roles, behaviors, activities, and characteristics that a particular society considers appropriate for women and men."

Bulgarian authorities demonstrated total disregard for systematic attacks on women by rejecting the Istanbul Convention, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights group, said in April 2018.

Reported and written by Elitsa Simeonova of RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service, with contributions from Tony Wesolowsky in Prague
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    Elitsa Simeonova

    Elitsa Simeonova is a correspondent in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague. She previously was a correspondent in Sofia for RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service.

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