Last month, the Bulgarian Constitutional Court rejected the Istanbul Convention, a treaty intended to prevent violence against women –from marital rape to female genital mutilation–, as unconstitutional. The July 27 ruling likely kills any chance the treaty will be ratified by the Bulgarian parliament.
In an eight-to-four decision, the twelve-member court ruled that the convention’s definition of “gender” as a social construct “relativizes the borderline between the two sexes – male and female as biologically determined. If society loses the ability to distinguish between a woman and a man, combating violence against women would only be a formal but unenforceable commitment.” The Bulgarian Constitution, the court ruled, approaches gender and gender roles as deriving from biological sex, stating that the notions of “mother,” “giving birth,” and “midwifery” are all inherently female roles.
The court added that “the lack of a common understanding of the concept of gender is illustrated by the active social and political discussion ‘for’ and ‘against’ the gender ideology that has been ongoing in dozens of countries around the world for two decades.”
The ruling comes after months of intense debate about the merits of the Council of Europe’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, which is the treaty’s full name. At the beginning of 2018, the ruling political coalition in Bulgaria hoped to ratify the Istanbul Convention but received public backlash that almost led to the coalition’s downfall. An unholy alliance of conservative “family values” groups, opportunistic political parties, and religious leaders teamed up against the treaty, which they argue is an effort by Europe to impose its“gender ideology” on Bulgaria. According to these groups, the Istanbul Convention is a social engineering project that undermines traditional marriage and indoctrinates boys and girls with particular views on gender.
Following the backlash, Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s government withdrew its request for parliament to approve the convention and MPs of his ruling GERB party petitioned the Constitutional Court for an opinion about the Istanbul Convention’s constitutionality.
The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, the country’s most prominent human rights organization, called the court ruling “the worst human rights decision in the court’s history, and by a large measure.” Critics have pointed out that each of the Council of Europe’s member states, including Bulgaria, conducted a careful review of the constitutionality of the convention before ratifying it. No other member state’s judiciary has struck down the convention as unconstitutional. So far, the treaty has been ratified by thirty-two member states, including all those in South Eastern Europe.
Several scholars have pointed out the flaws in the Constitutional Court’s majority opinion. The dissenting judges, for example suggested in their dissenting opinion that there may be non-legal factors that motivated the decision, including political campaigns, demonstrations, and opposition to the treaty from the Orthodox Church and other conservative groups.
According to the Gender Equality Index 2017, Bulgaria ranks worst in Europe when it comes to violence against women. Because of the court’s ruling, Bulgarian women and girls will continue to be deprived of protections they urgently need.