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Bulgaria: Domestic violence and spousal abuse; protection available to victims; recent government legislation and/or initiatives to combat (2003-2004)

Publisher Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada
Author Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board, Canada
Publication Date 2 March 2004
Citation / Document Symbol BGR42384.E
Reference 5
Cite as Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Bulgaria: Domestic violence and spousal abuse; protection available to victims; recent government legislation and/or initiatives to combat (2003-2004), 2 March 2004, BGR42384.E, available at: [accessed 24 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Domestic violence is recognized as a widespread problem in Bulgaria (UN 27 Feb. 2003, 1935; Country Reports 2003 25 Feb. 2004, Sec. 5). Current Bulgarian law does not criminalize domestic violence specifically (IHF 24 June 2003, 12) and draft legislation developed to protect its victims remains stalled in the Bulgarian parliament (Sofia Echo 12 Dec. 2003; ibid. 5 Dec. 2003). Although numerous NGOs working to aid women in need are active in the country (NEWW n.d.; Sofia Echo 12 Dec. 2003), state assistance to victims is limited (IHF 24 June 2003, 12).

Social Attitudes

Bulgarian society has "a deep-seated notion of gender difference" where there are traditional gender roles without a "real sense of gender inequality" (NEWR Mar. 2003a). According to Nadejda Stoicheva of the Animus Association Foundation (AAF), (the local office of the Eastern European-wide NGO La Strada) Bulgarian society denies the existence of a power imbalance between males and females as well as the prevalence of violence and abuse (ibid. Oct. 2003, 15).

Although domestic violence affects all strata of Bulgarian society (UN 27 Feb. 2003, 1932, 1935; see also IHF 24 June 2003, 12), it not considered a priority in public policy (AAF 2002, 18). The United Nations described the social environment in the country as one where the "comprehension and articulation" of domestic violence in public discourse remains at the preliminary stages of development (UN 27 Feb. 2003, 1935). A recent Bulgarian poll found that while half of the respondents believed domestic violence was a private issue and not one of public concern, 85 per cent also agreed that anti-domestic violence legislation is needed (Sofia Echo 5 Dec. 2003).

Nadejda Stoicheva argued in October 2003 that the social environment of Bulgaria imparts additional difficulties, beyond the psychological affects of trauma, on survivors of domestic violence (NEWR Oct. 2003, 15). Specifically, she highlights as significant negative influences on recovery, the lack of supportive family structures and long-term rehabilitative programs provided by the government (ibid.).

Availability of Statistics

Reliable official statistics quantifying the issue of violence against women are not available (SEELINE 13 May 2003; UN 27 Feb. 2003, 1935; Country Reports 2003 25 Feb. 2004, Sec. 5). Sofia Echo reported unofficial statistics indicating that one out of every four Bulgarian women is a victim of domestic violence (12 Dec. 2003). The newspaper notes however that the estimate is likely low because many women fail to admit to the violence and doctors are under no obligation to report suspected domestic violence to police (Sofia Echo 12 Dec. 2003). According to a survey conducted by the Bulgarian Centre for Gender Research (BCGR), 40 per cent of those polled had personally known a woman who is physically abused at home and 26 per cent knew child victims of domestic abuse (ibid. 5 Dec. 2003).

With respect to criminal cases, Genoveva Tisheva of the Bulgarian Gender Research Foundation (BGRF) noted in a 2003 update to the South East European Women's Legal Initiative (SEELINE) report on the Bulgarian Criminal Code that there were less than five case "related to domestic violence" in Sofia or Varna between 1997 and 1999 (13 May 2003). Tisheva also noted that between 2000 and 2002 only 6 out of 100 victims of domestic violence who contacted the BGRF's legal aid programme in Sofia decided to press charges (ibid.).

Current Legislation

The Bulgaria Penal Code lacks specific anti-domestic violence legislation (ibid.; SEELINE 13 May 2003). Spousal rape is a crime; however, it is one which authorities seldom prosecute (Country Reports 2003 25 Feb. 2004, Sec. 5). When confronted with cases of bodily injury, attempted murder or threats, Bulgarian law enforcement utilize extant general criminal legislation (ibid.). The UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Radhika Coomaraswamy described the legal process in cases of domestic violence as follows:

Domestic violence between spouses is treated as a general crime and is only prosecuted by the State when it results in severe bodily injury according to the specific criteria of the Penal Code. If the result is moderate or minor injury inflicted by one spouse on another, according to Article 161 of the Penal Code, the crime is prosecuted upon a complaint by the victim and it is called a "private character crime." According to the Criminal Procedure Code, victims have the right to initiate a private suit but they seldom exercise this right because they face additional difficulties; for example, they bear the entire burden of proof. Legal counsel is very expensive and because most of the victims are poor, they can rarely afford to initiate a lawsuit. The process is cumbersome and almost hopeless. An analysis of the court cases in Sofia and Plovdiv for 1996 and 1998 indicates that in 95 per cent of cases the victim subsequently withdraws the complaint (UN 27 Feb. 2003, 1927).

Draft Legislation

In 2003, draft anti-domestic violence legislation, prepared by members of the Parliamentary Committee on Legal Issues and the BGRF, was submitted to the government for consideration (NEWR Mar. 2003b; EWL Feb. 2003, 4; Sofia Echo 12 Dec. 2003). Before being submitted to parliament by members of the parliamentary ruling coalition party, National Movement Simeon II on 17 April 2003 (ibid. 5 Dec. 2003; ibid. 12 Dec. 2003), the act received the support of other NGOs and the police service (NEWR Mar. 2003b).

Article 2 of the draft Protection against Domestic Violence Act defines domestic violence as:

(1) Domestic violence shall be each act of violence which inflicts or could inflict psychological, sexual or bodily harms, pain or suffering, or the threat of committing thereof, as well as the forcible luring into sexual relations or the forcible restriction of personal freedom committed against persons, who are or have been into a family, personal or kinship relation or such who inhabit a common home.

(2) Domestic violence is a violation of human rights (Bulgaria 17 Apr. 2003).

Among its core provisions, the draft outlines a human right to protection (Art. 5) and obliges the state to provide it (Art. 6) as well as outlining possible protective measures (Art. 7) (ibid.). Furthermore, doctors are obliged to document injuries at the request of the victim (Art. 12) and the draft specifies previously unavailable mechanisms that allow civil courts to issue protection orders (Art. 13-22) (ibid.; see also EWL Feb. 2003, 4; NEWR Mar. 2003b). For more information on the specifics of the draft legislation, please consult the English translation available on the websites of the BGRF at .

The Sofia Echo quoted Iliana Stoicheva (Stoycheva) of the BGRF as stating that the "main aim of the act is to protect the victim and take [her] away from home" (Sofia Echo 12 Dec. 2003). The report went on to describe the act as providing

for the police to be able to enter a private home between 10pm and 7am, which currently they have no right to do. It would become possible, if the new Act is approved, if there is any suspicion of domestic violence. The draft legislation also stipulates that if there is evidence of domestic violence, the violator should be immediately taken out of the home by the police. According to the draft, the court procedure should be fast and unobstructed by bureaucracy, because otherwise victims are endangered again. The act also envisages social rehabilitation provided and paid by the state for violators (ibid.).

Proponents of the legislation claim that they have run into opposition from some parliamentarians (EU 20 Aug. 2003): as of December 2003, the legislation remains in its draft stages (Sofia Echo 12 Dec. 2003; ibid. 5 Dec. 2003). The Research Directorate found no reports indicating when the Bulgarian parliament intends to consider the act in 2004 among the sources consulted.

State Protection and Investigation of Complaints

In the absence of new legislation criminalizing domestic violence, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) identified the "protection of the rights of women victims of violence" as one of the most serious problems affecting the situation of Bulgarian women (IHF 24 June 2003, 12). In 2002, the IHF charged that the Bulgarian state continued to neglect its victims of violence and stated that free legal aid was a luxury administered only by NGOs (ibid.). Bulgaria currently does not issue protection or restraining orders on behalf of victims of abuse (SEELINE 13 May 2003) and it remains one of the only European states that does not have an Ombudsman institution (CSD and FES 2002, 6).

The Deputy Director of the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, Robin Phillips stated that the Bulgarian legal system presents a serious obstacle to appropriate response to domestic violence cases (CSCE and USHC 7 Sept. 2001). For the most part, victims rarely press charges against their husbands (Sofia Echo 12 Dec. 2003) and police do not intervene in issues they regard as in the "private sphere" (UN 27 Feb. 2003, 1935; Country Reports 2003 25 Feb. 2004, Sec. 5). The lack of anti-domestic violence legislation, according to Nadejda Stoicheva, "puts women and children not just at a higher risk of violence, but also in a situation of being blamed [for] it" (NEWR Oct. 2003, 15). With respect to the latter, an AAF psychotherapist noted that Bulgarian "society has a rigid attitude towards violence ... it victimises the victim" (EU 20 Aug. 2003).

According to sources dating from 2001 and 2003, the state will not prosecute minor injuries or more serious injuries when the victim and the perpetrator are related (CSCE 7 Sept. 2001; SEELINE 13 May 2003; Country Reports 2003 25 Feb. 2004, Sec. 5). As a result, according to Genoveva Tisheva, typical cases of domestic violence are not prosecuted in Bulgaria (SEELINE 13 May 2003). Country Reports 2003 stated that the government would generally only intervene if a domestic assault results in women being killed or permanently injured (25 Feb. 2004, Sec. 5). With respect to investigation and prosecution, Phillips argued in 2001 that

the courts often fail to assess proper penalties. Dozens of judges, in countries around the region, expressed reluctance to "harm" family relations by sentencing a batterer to serve jail time. ... Often, men receive only a suspended sentence or a fine. In the case of a fine, women are legally responsible for ensuring that the fine is paid because of their relationships to the perpetrators (CSCE and USHC 7 Sept. 2001).

Availability of Shelters and Protection Available from NGOs

Genoveva Tisheva of the BGRF noted in 2003 that although there are general provisions for compensation to victims of domestic violence, they are neither effective nor used by women victims (13 May 2003). Country Reports 2003 noted that even if a woman was to complain to authorities, there was no guarantee that they would intervene to assist (25 Feb. 2004, Sec. 5). Indeed, the there are no government-run women's shelters or counselling services in Bulgaria (Country Reports 2003 25 Feb. 2004, Sec. 5, Sec. 5; SEELINE 13 May 2003).

Several NGOs provide shelters across Bulgaria (Country Reports 2003 25 Feb. 2004, Sec. 5; Sofia Echo 12 Dec. 2003; AAF 2002, 3-5, 20-21), including the Nadya Centre in Sofia and ETA in Silistra (SEELINE 13 May 2003). Since September 2000, the AAF-run Rehabilitation Centre for Women, Adolescents and Children Survivors of Violence has provided professional therapy and counselling services (ibid., 10-11, 18). In 2002, the centre served 1,959 clients who were mostly victims of domestic violence (ibid. 3-5, 11). According to the AAF's 2002 Annual Report, it has provided a 24-hour help-line since the late 1990s and a 24-hour crisis-unit that responds to victims of domestic and sexual violence with emergency psychological and social support, including accommodations (ibid., 5, 8). In 2002, 791 of 1,423 persons calling the hot line and 126 of 174 persons who receiving counselling at the crisis unit were victims of domestic violence (ibid., 8-9). In addition, 105 women and 36 children obtained accommodation (ibid., 8).

The BGRF has legal aid programmes and support centres in Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna, Bourgas, Silistra and Pernik (SEELINE 13 May 2003). Social and psychological support for victims of domestic violence as also available from the aforementioned AA, BGRF, ETA and the Nadya Centre-run shelters as well as from: the Positive Personality Skills Society (Pernik), the Vita Foundation (Pernik), Vita (Dobrich); the St. Kozma and Damyan Foundation (Veliko Tarnovo); the Foundation for Care in the Community (Plovdiv) (AAF 2002, 20-21); SOS-Families at Risk (Varna); Demetra (Bourgas) and Open Door (Plevan) (SEELINE 13 May 2003). SEELINE reported that over 2,500 women sought psychological support from these support agencies in 2001 (ibid.).

As well as the aforementioned NGOs, there are a number of other groups working with issues related to women and violence in Bulgaria, including: the Centre for Women's Studies and Policies, Women's Alliance for Development, Gender Project for Bulgaria (Sofia Echo 12 Dec. 2003), Women's Health Initiative in Bulgaria, Bulgarian Association of University Women and the SOS-Families at Risk Association (NEWW n.d.).

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum. Please find below the list of additional sources consulted in researching this Information Request.


Animus Association Foundation (AAF). 2002. Animus Association Foundation Annual Report 2002. Received by e-mail.

Bulgaria. 17 April 2003. "Protection Against Domestic Violence: Draft Act." Unofficial translation by the Bulgarian Gender Research Foundation (BGRF). [Accessed 16 Feb. 2004]

Centre for the Study of Democracy (CSD), Sofia and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES), Sofia . 2002. European Standards and Ombudsman Institutions in Southeast Europe. Conference Report. Held 6-8 June 2002 in Sofia. [Accessed 12 Feb. 2004]

Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) and United States Helsinki Commission (USHC). 7 September 2001. Robin Phillips. "Briefing: Domestic Violence in the OSCE Region." [Accessed 13 Feb. 2004]

Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2003. 25 February 2004. United States Department of State, Washington, DC. [Accessed 26 Feb. 2004]

European Union (EU). 20 August 2003. EU Observer. Honor Mahony. "Bulgaria's Long Bumpy Road to EU Membership." [Accessed 13 Feb. 2004]

European Women's Lobby (EWL), Brussels. February 2003. EWL Newsflash. No. 2. "A Change for Adopting Legislation against Domestic Violence in Bulgaria." [Accessed 5 Feb. 2004]

International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF). 24 June 2003. Human Rights in the OSCE Region: The Balkans; the Caucasus; Europe; Central Asia and North America Report 2003. "Bulgaria." [Accessed 12 Feb. 2004]

Network of East-West Women (NEWW). n.d. "Useful Links: CEE/NIS by Country." [Accessed 12 Feb. 2004]

Network of European Women's Rights (NEWR), Birmingham, UK. October 2003. Nadejda Stoicheva. "Bulgarian Country Report." Report for the First NEWR Workshop on Women's Social Entitlements, Athens, 10-11 October 2003. [Accessed 12 Feb. 2004]

_____. March 2003a. NEWRletter. No. 1. Krassimira Daskalova. "Bulgaria: Women in Politics." [Accessed 12 Feb. 2004]

_____. March 2003b. Iliana Stoycheva. NEWRletter. No. 1. "A Chance for Adopting Legislation against Domestic Violence in Bulgaria." [Accessed 12 Feb. 2004]

Sofia Echo. 12 December 2003. Elena Kodinova. "Reading Room - 'Counting the Bodies.'" [Accessed 12 Feb. 2004]

_____. 5 December 2003. "Domestic Violence Legislation." [Accessed 12 Feb. 2004]

South Eastern European Women's Legal Initiative (SEELINE). 13 May 2003. Genoveva Tisheva. Criminal Code Report: Bulgaria. [Accessed 26 Feb. 2004]

United Nations (UN). 27 February 2003. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). International, Regional and National Developments In the Area of Violence against Women 1994-2003. Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, its Causes and Consequences, Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy, Submitted in Accordance With Commission on Human Rights 2002/52 Addendum 1. (E/CN.4/2003/75/Add1) [Accessed 13 Feb. 2004]

Additional Sources Consulted

Internet sites, including:

Coalition for Gender Equality, Karat, Sofia

European Women's Resource Centre (EuroWRC)

Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights

Open Society Institute, Women's Program

Open Society Institute. 2002. Monitoring the EU Accession Process: Minority Protection

Les Penelopes, Paris

SEELINE Family Law Report: Bulgaria (May 2003)

United Nations: Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) Periodic Reports (1994, 1998)

United Nations: Fourth World Conference on Women, FWCW, National Action Plan and Strategies (1995)

Women's Aid International

Women's Alliance for Development (WAD), Sofia

Women's Human Rights Resources

World Bank Gender Net

Copyright notice: This document is published with the permission of the copyright holder and producer Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB). The original version of this document may be found on the offical website of the IRB at Documents earlier than 2003 may be found only on Refworld.

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