Thousands of people took to the streets in towns and cities across Bulgaria on July 31 to protest against a knife attack on a young woman and the poor handling of the case by a local court in Stara Zagora.
The events of July 31 were the latest protests in the Southeast Europe region sparked by violent attacks on women, following protests in several countries in the Western Balkans in recent years urging the authorities to do more to tackle violence against women and femicides.
As well as challenging cultural norms that fail to take violence against women sufficiently seriously, there has also been strong criticism from protesters against official corruption and the inadequacies of the local justice systems.
The incident that sparked widespread anger in Bulgaria occurred on June 26, when a 26-year-old man named Georgi Georgiev allegedly assaulted 18-year-old Debora Mihaylova with a knife, inflicting multiple wounds that were severe enough to require over 400 stitches.
Georgiev was taken into custody but released on July 5 when the Stara Zagora court controversially dismissed Mihaylova’s injuries as only minor. He was then detained again on July 30 and charged with making a death threat to the same woman by text message. Georgiev has denied the accusations against him.
On July 31, protests in support of the 18-year-old were held in front of the courthouses in Sofia, Stara Zagora and dozens of other towns and cities across the country. The demonstration in Sofia was organised by Feminist Mobilisations with the slogan "We will not be silent. Stop the genocide against women!". It drew thousands of people outraged by both the attack and by the court’s decision.
The organisers had a list of demands including tougher penalties for such crimes and an end to what they called "heartless" justice. They also called for changes to the law to treat an intimate partner on an equal footing with a spouse so that the victims can be protected under the Domestic Violence Protection Act.
Demonstrations across the Balkans
The protests in Bulgaria follow similar demonstrations in countries including Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia.
The murder of another 18-year-old, Marigona Osmani, in August 2021 sparked protests in Kosovo.
Osmani was found outside a hospital in Ferizaj with multiple injuries that later claimed her life. Her husband and another man were caught on security cameras leaving her in front of the hospital; both men had extensive criminal records.
As well as shocking crime, the police's perceived failure to prevent the tragedy despite the perpetrators’ past records led to protests.
But the violence continued. Another murder, the killing of pregnant Hamide Magashi sparked a further protest in November 2022 when demonstrators called for an end to femicides and for women’s treatment by men to be declared a national emergency. Again, the protesters criticised the lack of action by the state to prevent such crimes. Magashi, who was killed in front of the hospital where she planned to give birth, was the second woman murdered in the small country within a week.
In neighbouring Albania, protesters gathered outside the Ministry of Justice in March 2023 after a man with a history of rape, domestic violence and femicide killed three more people. Outraged protesters asked why the murderer had been released to kill again, and questioned the judges' integrity and accused them of corruption and negligence in their duty.
Human rights and civil society groups organised marches in the cities of Vlora, Shkodra and Tirana, demanding accountability from the relevant institutions for failing to protect victims of gender-based violence.
There were more protests in 19 cities across Bosnia in autumn 2022, after a woman was strangled in the city of Bihac. Their demands included introducing a legal definition of femicide as a criminal offence, implementing the Istanbul Convention to combat violence against women and harsher and more consistent sentences for perpetrators.
Also in autumn 2022, protests were sparked in Serbia by a pro-government tabloid's interview with an unrepentant serial rapist.
The protesters demanded comprehensive changes to Serbia's social and institutional systems. They called for a legal registry of rapists and abusers, removal of the offensive interview from all platforms, and an end to public funding of unethical tabloids. Additionally, they call for media adherence to guidelines on responsible reporting of violence against women.
The protests preceded the larger demonstrations that started in May 2023 following two mass shootings within days of each other.
Just like in the earlier women’s protests, the anti-violence demonstrations of 2023 sought to call the authorities and state media to account for allowing a culture of violence to flourish in the country.
Tackling gender-based violence
Tackling gender-based violence is broadly perceived in the region as a step that needs to be taken as states advance towards EU accession, along with other reforms.
However, while there has been some progress, this has been patchy. There has, for example, been strong resistance to adoption of the Istanbul Convention on preventing violence against women.
“In recent years, Western Balkan countries have made considerable progress in adapting legislative measures against DV [domestic violence] and some other aspects of GBV [gender based violence], changes catalysed by the initiatives and efforts of women's rights CSOs,” said women's rights organisation the Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation in a November 2022 report.
However, it added, “Despite any level of progress or legislative amendments, DV and GBV law enforcement and implementation remains a concern … law enforcement continues to not be victim/survivor-centred, contrary to the Istanbul Convention requirements, and no significant progress can be noticed since the last report.”
The foundation also points out that the “political instability in the Western Balkans may have negative impacts on women's participation in decision-making, and women's rights continue to be classified as a “lower priority”.” It cites a warning from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Right that “with political instability often comes the exacerbation of pre-existing patterns of gender-based discrimination.”