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Meet Iliana Balabanova, EWL’s new President!

Meet Iliana Balabanova, EWL’s new President!

On 11 June 2023, the Board of Administration of the European Women’s Lobby elected a new President for 2023-2025. We are pleased to welcome and introduce Iliana Balabanova, President and cofounder of the Bulgarian Platform of the EWL, as our new President!

On becoming a women’s rights advocate

I was born and raised during socialist times in a small town in Southwest of Bulgaria, close to the borders with Greece and North Macedonia. So, I am very familiar with the emotions and (nationalistic) sentiments that pervade in Southeastern Europe and in the Balkan countries. I have first-hand experience with the transition to democracy and I am well aware of the problems that come with it and persist in the society years after: corruption, religious doctrines, patriarchy, populism, sexism and many others. Many countries in this region have not signed nor ratified the Istanbul Convention yet, and some have even been rejecting the proposed EU Directive on combating violence against women and domestic violence that would lead to an update of national legislation on combating violence against women and girls.

Growing up under state socialism, I was surrounded by promises of radical emancipation for women. This was a central pillar of socialist ideology, but there was a striking gap between the rhetoric of equality and the reality of life for women in socialist regimes, political parties, or social movements. Framing women primarily as workers, state socialist governments stigmatised reproductive labor and domestic work and created a quadruple burden: women had to be workers, mothers, wives, and publicly engaged in political activities. In that era “the women’s question” was treated as isolated and not part of the overall social structure that was in need of change.

In the 90s, I started my work in the first Human Rights NGO in Bulgaria, which enabled me to complete a short specialisation course in Human Rights at the Utrecht University. Entering the field of Human Rights, I was very intrigued by one particular topic – Women’s Human Rights. Soon after I started as a Project coordinator, PR officer and fundraiser in one of the first women’s rights NGO in Bulgaria. This was the time when the first consultative centers for victims of domestic violence were opening and we started the advocacy campaign to pass legislation for protection against and prevention of domestic violence.

I will never forget this time of hard work, dynamic political and economic changes, establishment of women’s movement in Bulgaria and especially the enthusiasm and dedication of all women from different generations and different professions who devoted their time to say “Domestic violence is not a private issue, it is public disgrace.”

In 2003, we created an informal coalition of women’s organizations focused on lobbying and drafting legislation for prevention and protection against domestic violence. And thanks to the work of all these women, the Bulgarian Parliament adopted the Protection Against Domestic Violence Act on 16 March 2005.

On feminism

“I have always been a feminist! I neverquestioned whether to be or not to be a feminist.

In her book “I am a feminist,” Monique Polak tells stories of courageous individuals who have made a difference in the lives of women and girls worldwide, from the suffragists to the #MeToo movement. To me, feminism means courage to change the world and to make it a better place for everyone.

“Feminism means real equality between women and men; it means world without violence against women.”

Traditionally, women occupy a subordinate role to men, both in public and private life. International institutions indicate that every third woman in the world is a victim of violence, and according to the UN, as of September 2022, women make on 26% of representatives in national parliaments in the world. There is no single country in the world or in Europe where women and girls are free from violence. One third of women in Europe have been victims of physical or sexual violence during their adult life; one in 20 women has been raped. It is a social evil!

Feminism fights to eradicate inequality and discrimination between men and women and to put an end to violence that is conditioned by gender inequality. Feminism also means peace, and the real security and peace can not be achieved without gender justice and empowerment of women.

On the state of women’s rights in Bulgaria

Let me start with some historical facts about my country. The first women’s society in Bulgaria was founded in 1857 with aims to educate women. At the end of the 1890s, women in Bulgaria got the right to study at universities, after an active movement was created that fought for this right. At that time, Sofia University did not admit women as students, and it was only thanks to this women’s action that attention was paid to this great injustice. However, it wasn’t until 1945 that female lawyers and medical doctors were allowed to practice their profession, simply because these professions were not perceived as feminine by the Bulgarian society.

In 1937, women in Bulgaria got the right to vote, but only if they were married mothers, and only in local elections. In 1938, “married, divorced or widowed” women over 21 received the right to vote in parliamentary elections. This still did not apply to unmarried women. Women in Bulgaria gained equal voting rights in 1944. With the change of political regime in 1944, a rapid historical turning point occurred. During state socialism (1944-1989), women’s movement was centralized into a unit within the Female Department of the Bulgarian Communistic Party. The “Comrade courts” were given the task of intervening in family issues and deciding how to proceed in cases of alcoholism, domestic violence, and adultery. Within the Party apparatus, the women’s question was initially silenced: even women from the older generation of the Party considered all gender inequality issues resolved with the advent of communism.

I was 20 years old when the transition to democracy started. The fall of state socialism in 1989 came as a surprising and abrupt turning point. The subsequent economic transformation affected both citizens and institutions and led to the total dissolution offormer women’s organisations. Research done in Eastern Europe and Bulgaria specifically shows that the transition to liberal democracy and market capitalism after 1989 had ambiguous effects on women in the former socialist world.

Since the collapse of the old system, many new ’right wing’ trends have gained ground. Conservative trends harmed the reproductive rights of women and questioned the legitimacy of their work outside the home. Economic crisis, a reorganisation of former social policy dispositions, minimal state interventions, and scaling down on universal and social insurance benefits all led to an increase in poverty among children and women, worsening the position of women in the labor market. However, civil and political rights were strengthened. This gain for civil society in general allowed the assertion of group interests, effectively serving the interests of women.

Nowadays, the situation has changed. Today Bulgaria is a part of the EU and NATO. Yet, Bulgaria refuses to ratify the Istanbul Convention, and the Bulgarian Constitutional Court declared the Convention unconstitutional. The Istanbul Convention is still an object of debate of epic proportions which divides the Bulgarian civil society. The right-wing organisations and political formations as well as more conservative members of the society are spreading misconceptions and fallacies around the Convention: i.e., the inclusion of the notion of the ‘third sex’ – people who do not identify as male or female, or the legalisation of same sex marriage. Bulgaria’s refusal to ratify the Istanbul Convention is a national manifestation of a transnationally circulating global anti-gender movement Such gross misrepresentations demonise organisations working to prevent and respond to domestic and other violence against women, and anyone who seeks their help. It silences discussion of such violence and,more broadly, of discrimination against women.

This also reinforces the idea that family violence is a private matter, and even acceptable. The Constitutional Court Decision brought additional effects, like termination of projects aimed to support teachers in addressing gender inequality, NGOs that work for gender equality and against VAWG has been recognised as enemies of the Bulgarian society, and the authorities at national and local level ended their partnerships with these organisations; hate and misogynistic speech against women activists and human rights defenders are a regular occurrence and brutal sexism from the highest political tribune spreads daily and is becoming the norm. The term gender has become a slur even in the Parliament, with members of the Parliament saying “Be a man, don’t be a gender.”

“Bulgarian women are paying the price for such misconceptions about women’s rights.”

The 2021 data from the Ministry of Interior shows that 2816 women and 935 children were victims of domestic violence. This means that every day 7 women and 3 children are beaten, raped and insulted by their husbands, fathers, intimate partners or other relatives. According to the survey from 2022, every 3rd young Bulgarian woman aged 18-29 has been abused by former or current partner. . There are only 13 shelters for women victims of violence, far away from the Council of Europe’s standard to have 1 shelter per 10,000 residents.

Bulgaria does not have gender quotas or any other affirmative measures that apply to the electoral system. Currently we have only 56 women out of 240 members of the National Parliament.

Data on average wages from December 2022 showed that the pay gap between men and women was 15.5%. 51% of women pensioners are at risk of poverty and social exclusion, compared to 37% of men.

There is no Ministry for Gender Equality and there is a lack of gender mainstreaming in the National Recovery and Resilience Plan,despite the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic severely affected the labour market situation for both women and men, but further aggravated preexisting disadvantages for women.

Obviously, in the absence of policies to achieve gender equality, women’s movement in Bulgaria faces serious challenges. We are facing a patriarchal model that is being revived thanks to a far-right movement that reframes the meaning of ‘feminism’. Unfortunately, this tendency is not unique for Bulgaria and it is something feminist activist need to fight against globally.

On achievements so far

There are many achievements I am proud of, both on personal and professional level. I am proud that I was one of the first women in Bulgaria to work against domestic violence, coordinating one of the first consultative centres for women victims of domestic violence in Bulgaria and lobbying together with many other women for new legislation in the area of Women’s Human Rights. I was involved in different campaigns, projects, research and analyses, and I think all of them have helped to remove at least one small stone from the patriarchal system. These initiatives have never been easy and we were always met with resistance from certain institutions or politicians, especially with the centuries-old patriarchal models.

I am proud to never have given up believing that another world, where women are free to make their own choices, is possible!”

I am proud that despite all the challenges, the Bulgarian Platform of the EWL is getting bigger and stronger, and more and more young women and girls join us! I am very proud that we are member of the largest European umbrella network that brings together over 2000 women’s organisations – European Women’s Lobby.

As a mother of a son and twin daughters, I am extremely proud that they all believe in the equality of women and men, and that I am also raising feminists!

On the vision for the future of EWL

To be the President of the biggest women’s umbrella coalition in Europe is a huge responsibility. I will devote my strength, knowledge and skills to achieve our vision of a Feminist Europe, in which all women and girls enjoy equal rights and participation in power and decision-making structures across all levels of society. Liberated from all forms of oppression and exploitation, a space where women and girls have true freedom of choice, and live lives free from sexism and all forms of violence. A Europe where women’s contribution to all aspects of social, political and cultural life is recognised, rewarded and celebrated.

We will achieve this together with all our members.

I would like to stress one important factor: our Organisation, that we love so much, is called The European Women’s Lobby. This includes all women in Europe, regardless of race, heritage, sexual orientation, standing, and/or what have you. During my mandate, I will fight to ensure that no woman is excluded from our work and discussions. As Moldovan coordination of the EWL joins our membership and the Ukrainian organisations finalise their application process, our voice will be even stronger and more united.

Alone we can do so little, but together we can do so much! Together we can make our Europe a Feminist Europe!

On upcoming priorities for the EWL

Women’s rights organizations always have to fight on many fronts to ensure we keep progressing in the right way. However, I do see some specific priorities and points of attention for coming period, namely:

  • Ensuring a collective feminist leadership;
  • Increasing the EWL’s visibility at national levels through common activities, cooperation between member organizations;
  • Increasing the EWL’s visibility at international levels by promoting the EWL as a strategic partner for cooperation with other organisations pursuing similar objectives;
  • Expanding the EWL’s membership.

Some of these priorities and activities are ongoing and I thank the former President and Executive Committee for that. Some others need a new initiative and impulse, and I hope I can count on all members, members in the Executive Committee, Board members and the Secretariat to embrace and promote them to strengthen the EWL and its position as the largest umbrella organization in the field of Women’s Human Rights and Gender Equality in Europe.

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