EU Watch

Bulgarian Rights Groups Condemn Rejection of the Istanbul Convention

In a decision being called the "worst in its history," the Bulgarian Constitutional Court dealt a heavy blow to women's rights by ruling the Istanbul Convention unconstitutional.

by Bulgarian Helsinki Committee
"Respect Women", Bulgarians protesting against the Constitutional Court's decision. Photo Credit: Emil Metodiev

More than 30 prominent NGOs and individuals working in the fields of human rights, children’s rights, women’s rights and LGBTI rights have condemned the much-awaited decision by the Bulgarian Constitutional Court, issued on 27 July, which found that the Council of Europe’s Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, known as the Istanbul Convention, is inconsistent with the Bulgarian Constitution.

These groups have already declared the ruling to be the court’s “worst decision” to date.

Defining gender

The 8-to-4 ruling is a serious blow to human rights in Bulgaria and the integrity of the Bulgarian judiciary. The Constitutional Court claimed that the term “gender,” used in the Istanbul Convention, is misleading and introduces a concept that is incompatible with the constitution’s understanding of "sex." The court reaffirmed the view that “sex” is a binary concept, with two rigidly fixed options: male or female.

It disapproved of the convention’s definition of “gender” as socially constructed roles, behaviors, and activities, stating that it would blur the line between the two biological sexes.

In this way, the court shockingly declared that “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, understands social roles as deriving from the biological sex, stating that the notions of “mother,” “giving birth,” and “midwifery” are inherently female roles. It essentially propagates the same gender stereotypes that the Istanbul Convention is set to tackle.

The court claimed that the Istanbul Convention introduces a hidden "gender ideology" that teaches people they can choose their identity in contradiction to their biological sex. The phrase has been used by conservative politicians and activists across Europe to redefine reforms that would benefit women and LGBTI people as the “imposition” of a system of beliefs that threatens the traditional family and corrupts society.


The decision goes as far as to deny, though not directly, the right to protection and recognition of the identity of transgender and intersex people. It states that the Istanbul Convention would require the introduction of a procedure for changing legal documents of transgender people, which the Convention in reality does not do.

“The Court’s decision humiliated the Bulgarian institutions and Bulgaria as a member of the EU family, which is based on the respect for human rights. Most of all it humiliated women in Bulgaria. It is humiliating for the next generation of Bulgarian children, who will continue to grow in a country where violence is tolerated,” declares the statement from Bulgarian NGOs.

Around a hundred citizens rallied together on the evening of the decision to demand a commitment from the incumbent government to tackle gender-based violence in the country. Despite statistics that every other week a woman is killed, in most cases by a former or current partner or relative (93%), there has been close to no societal mobilization on the issue.

The process of ratification of the Istanbul Convention by the member states of the Council of Europe was accompanied by a careful review of its constitutionality by each one of them. So far, no national judicial authority in a member state has uncovered problems and internal contradictions that the Bulgarian Constitutional Court found. It is currently ratified by 32 states, including all other Balkan countries.

Far-right opposition

The decision comes after the parliament asked the Constitutional Court for an opinion on the constitutionality of the convention, following a national outcry over the language of gender roles, which resulted in the withdrawal of the treaty.

The Istanbul Convention was fanatically opposed by the far-right group in the ruling coalition, the “United Patriots,” surprisingly alongside the Bulgarian Socialist Party (member of the Party of European Socialists), leader of the parliamentary opposition.

Full NGO statement available in English and Bulgarian.

Full decision by the Constitutional Court available here (in Bulgarian).

Information on gender-based violence in Bulgaria:

  • According to the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee’s latest report every two weeks a woman is killed in Bulgaria. In 93% of the cases the perpetrator is a current or former partner or a relative.
  • The current legislative framework does not criminalize domestic violence. It also does not criminalize forced marriages, cohabitation or female circumcision and sterilization. There is also no explicit criminalization of psychological abuse and stalking.
  • There is a lack of efficient services for victims of violence. In 2017, the courts issued nearly 2,500 restraining orders for victims of domestic violence. However, Bulgaria has only five crisis centers and can accommodate only 2% of those in need.


  • Annual Report (2018) by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee on the human rights situation in Bulgaria (see Chapter on Women’s Rights)
  • EU Fundamental Rights Agency study on violence against women (2014)
  • Gender Equality Index Report (2017)
  • Report (2018) by the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development revealing a comprehensive strategy mobilizing European societies against human rights on sexuality and reproduction
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