Bulgaria won’t give domestic violence the attention it deserves, says campaigner Maria Tchomarova

Every day brings more sordid revelations about the antics of certain male celebrities. Such stories are grist to the mill of salacious tabloids who acknowledge the horror while licking their lips. Tawdriness in tinsel town is eminently newsworthy, after all.

Domestic violence, by contrast, is not really flagged anywhere. It’s all so anonymous. And it has an even lower profile in Bulgaria although it’s believed to be closely linked to major problems such as sex trafficking, school bullying and even carnage on the roads.

Maria Tchomarova co-directs Animus

Maria Tchomarova, a psychoanalyst, co-directs the Animus Association Foundation from its head office in Sofia’s Ekzarh Yossif Street. The 120-strong organisation, which highlights the problem of domestic violence and supports those affected, is one of the country’s biggest in terms of its therapeutic and counselling outreach.* But Animus does not lay claim to a magical solution to an endemic problem. Bulgaria, according to Tchomarova, is very much a patriarchal society. Hence domestic violence and abuse is very much verboten territory. So much so that when she and several other female activists founded the organisation 23 years ago they were branded as “a few crazy witches who hate men”. Now, perhaps in a bid to take the sting out of the criticism, they have embraced the witch as their logo!

Anywhere else, Animus’s platform of helping women victims of domestic abuse would seem eminently reasonable. Bulgaria, however, is one of the few European countries not to have ratified the Istanbul Convention. Hence domestic violence is not a government issue as such and certainly not prioritised. In addition, almost by definition, it’s difficult to police since it’s all behind closed doors with no official figures to expose it.

Animus is pressing for a major change in society: more education, understanding and open debate. Prevention is better than cure. To help with the fallout, it runs a crisis centre for victims, including spaces for some unaccompanied children, and offers counselling to victims. It also operates a crisis centre and a 24-hour helpline for children in need, the latter run similarly to Childline in the UK. Yet such is the pressure – there are only eight full-time beds in the Sofia crisis centre in a city of almost two million people – that women and children can only stay a few weeks.

The state can help battered women by granting them a protective order and, in some cases, evicting their husband or partner from the house. Animus, however, tries to empower victims to regain control of their lives. Children, for example, can be helped to return to nursery or kindergarten if they have not been attending regularly.

Animus can also offer counselling – sometimes for free – but the courts cannot impose mandatory sessions, even for the worst offenders , because the state does not fund them. In other ways, too, Bulgaria lags behind. The National Health Service in the UK can refer people for psychoanalysis but not here.

Tchomarova believes that drink and drug addiction do not play a major role in domestic abuse. Rather more it’s a case of a national tolerance for violence, exacerbated by ingrained cultural problems.

“Bulgaria is still debating whether it’s acceptable to give women a slap,” she says. “Perhaps the abusers grew up in rural areas or they were raised in this environment. These men belong to the category that is more liable to change if there’s someone to teach them that it’s not okay to beat up children. Or if women say they will leave them. The other category are those with personality disorders who cannot control themselves. They may be apologetic after a violent episode but then they just repeat it. As a society we don’t acknowledge that violence causes social problems.”

Much of Animus’s work is funded by private donors although the municipality does contribute towards night duties and one daytime social worker  located in the crisis centre. Yet money, according to Tchomarova, is not the whole answer. “Some people, especially in the Roma community, are illiterate. You can’t offer social benefits to those unable to make proper use of it. You have to encourage people to grow, become independent, and get over traumatic experiences.”

Bulgaria, at least at street level, seems like a remarkably safe country compared to the West. Parents, for example, are less concerned about leaving their children to play unsupervised. Perhaps that is because, according to Tchomarova, most sexual abuse towards children comes from family and friends. In terms of abuse, the old pattern, and one wearisomely familiar to psychologists and psychiatrists, is still intact. “Most abusers have been abused themselves,” she says. “Why do some survivors go the other way while some people become abusers? It depends on one’s own personal experiences, and internal resources. For some it’s devastating; others manage to grow and develop regardless of this. For the abused to become an abuser is, of course, not a conscious choice but a sad, subconscious choice.”

Animus distributes many materials that counsel children and families on how to deal with bullying and abuse

Animus is particularly concerned with the plight of abused children, some of whom, tragically, end up as victims of sexual trafficking. (And Bulgaria still has a high share of children in institutions.) “Almost all those trafficked or exploited were victims of domestic violence before they ran away,” says Tchomarova. “Victims develop a tolerance towards abuse because of their low self-esteem.”

She believes a big change in attitudes in Bulgaria is needed. “We need to be honest with ourselves and admit that some things here are just not acceptable. It’s not okay to insult your children. In Bulgaria some people say ‘beat up a child so you don’t have to beat up a big boy’.  It’s wrong to do that but some parents feel frustrated and helpless and just don’t know what to do.”

Men, says Tchomarova, are still the main abusers, but she sees subtle signs of latent aggression in some of the women she counsels.

“We sometimes see that women can be aggressive without being physically aggressive as such. We have to understand why some couples think it’s necessary to insult each other. Most people who come here are women – they suffer and they crave change – but men come too if they really love their wives and don’t want to lose their family. The Bulgarian courts, in practice, don’t send men to get help. Our work is not supported by the government and doctors just give instructions but little else.”

Another important plank of Animus’s work concerns bullying in schools. It’s a universal problem, worsened by the abuse on social media. But, Tchomarova believes, it’s worse than in the West because Bulgarian teachers simply aren’t trained to listen to children; rather, they just talk at them.

“We import a good programme called Zippy’s Friends from the UK – where prevention of bullying is better. Sadly, Bulgarian schools usually respond inadequately. Schools will not report a child to social services if he’s isn’t well. There’s no coordination and they usually deal with difficult children by expelling them. They are moved from class to class, or from school to school. There’s also little communication between parents and teachers.” Yet, in other ways, Tchomarova believes that bullies are all the same worldwide. “Anger and depression are both sides of the same coin. The most horrible bullies are usually fragile inside. They grow into outsiders in adulthood because people simply don’t like them.”

Hopefully, these and other issues will become more widely discussed in Bulgaria. Animus clearly does a lot of good work so perhaps the concept of witchcraft needs to be redefined!

*More information about Animus’s numerous initiatives can be found on its website. http://animusassociation.org/en/