Restarting action against gender-based violence online in Bulgaria

Representatives of Bulgarian civil society and government institutions met on January 28, 2020 to  restore cooperation against gender-based violence online. This happened at an expert workshop held by BlueLink and Bulgaria’s National Council on Equality between Women and Men.

Gathering together for a sober analysis of the situation and future steps was essential for the participants, since the heavy blow dealt on gender rights’ support work in Bulgaria in 2019. Back then the country’s Constitutional Court ruled controversially that certain definitions of  the Istanbul Convention (IC) contradict the spirit of Bulgaria’s Constitution. As a result Bulgaria refused to ratify the IC, which is the Council of Europe’s landmark instrument for preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.

The court’s ruling was preceeded by an intensive anti-gender campaing carried out by a broad scope of Bulgarian public and political actors, including almost all religious denominations, nationalistic parties, and conservative family movements. Upheld by mainstream media, the campaign focused on compromising the term ‘gender’ and derailing any activity which refers to it - using manipulation techniques used before in Russia, Hungary and some Latin American countries.

In January some 20 experts and gender rights advocates gathered in Sofia’s House of Europe for a sometimes heated exchange of experience and analysis. They told each other how their work had changed, discussed difficulties and contemplated opportunities for countering gender-based violence on the Internet. The fresh outcomes from an assessment recently completed by BlueLink’s team served as a basis for their discussion.

The report was part of a project revealingly entitled  "After the Storm”, seeking for ways to restore policy dialogue and supportive discourse against GBV online in Bulgaria, implemented by BlueLink. The project was funded by the Feminist Internet Research Network (FIRN) of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC). Its prime purpose is to support state institutions and NGOs countering gender based violence onlin  in recovering from the heavy blow and identifying suitable communication tone and methods for effective action.

Both sides experience serious difficulties, the meeting confirmed. At the operational expert level, state institutions engaged in combating online gender-based violence are trapped in the political impasse around ‘gender’. What is most problematic is the lack of clear legal definition of gender-based violence, experts working on the topic confirmed.

BlueLink’s study confirmed that implementation of effective policies against gender-based violence in Bulgaria is hampered by polarized public opinion and tensions following the failed ratification of the IC, the Constitutional Court’s  judgment, and the aggressive political crescendo around the issue.

Recommendations made for the future included: reconstructing a supportive discourse on tackling online gender-based violence; interaction and partnership between state, municipal and non-governmental institutions; fine-tuning legislation to address legal deficiencies to prevent the pursuit of gender-based violence, including on the Internet; improving technological aspects of security in the context of gender-based violence on the Internet; and increasing the effectiveness of the moderation and self-regulation of online media and social networks.

Another important thing

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This work forms part of the APC “Feminist Internet Research Network” project, supported by
the International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, Canada. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of IDRC or its Board of Governors.