The Bulgarian Community for Liberal Democracy (BOLD) is an association of citizens that aims to increase public support for democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms, and to help consolidate liberal democracy in Bulgaria. With this position BOLD participates in the formation of public attitudes and public policies in the field of family and policies regarding the family and children.
Recently, a discourse on the family and family values has developed in our country that has been dominated by cultural conservatism. It is a part of a global campaign against liberal-democratic ideas, including human rights and gender equality. In many countries, like Bulgaria, this campaign is currently being waged by strong civic movements under the banner of defending “family values”. Their ideas are inscribed in recent emerging new right-wing traditionalist ideologies.
In Bulgaria, the range of participants in these movements is complex. At one end stand conscious supporters of anti-liberal ideologies such as the Russian Orthodox-Eurasian Conservatism of the Izborsk Club and some American religious-conservative movements, while at the other one finds ordinary people, especially parents who have been manipulated into believing that children’s rights and women’s rights run counter to “family values”. In the platforms of these movements, the rights of the child and the woman are either rejected, as allegedly foreign-imposed, subversive liberal fabrications, or recognized in theory, but as inferior to the rights and values of the family. Relying on the atavistic fear of every parent of losing their children, unfounded rumors have spread in our country that the social services system threatens to take children away from their parents, and that the biggest threat comes from non-governmental organizations driven by foreign interests. In October 2019, we witnessed the paroxysm of parents in many settlements of Sliven and Yambol regions withdrawing their children from school, for fear they might be taken away by the social workers.
In all cases of sharp attack on women’s and children’s rights and on democratic civil society organizations over the past decade, the GERB government and its partners have remained silent, while bending backwards to meet the demands of ultra-conservative movements. The main opposition party, the BSP, most often supported GERB’s actions, and in many cases took even more retrograde positions. Thus, back in 2012, a draft Law on the Child aimed at full application of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in Bulgarian legislation was withdrawn under pressure. For years, work on a new law on juvenile justice has been suspended; it was meant to replace the current anachronistic law on combating juvenile anti-social behavior that has been in force since 1958 and is completely contrary to basic international standards. In 2018, the government’s behavior led to the rejection of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention), and in 2019 the National Child Strategy was rejected. In December 2019, the entry into force of the Social Services Act was postponed, under strong pressure from ultra-conservative civic associations. The legitimacy and role of non-profit civil society organizations in the protection of human rights have been under attack, and there have been calls for NGOs to be banned from providing social services.
In this context, BOLD states its support for a set of principles on which family law and policies in a democratic society should be based.
Basic principles on the family in a democratic society
1. The family is the basic structural unit of society and an environment in which human rights, including the rights of the child, are realized.
2. The family exists in diverse, historically changing forms and has a variety of functions. The family may consist of married couples with or without children; couples in actual cohabitation and their children; single parents and their children; families headed by or including grandparents; older children caring for younger siblings; registered partnerships with or without children; same-sex partners and their children, etc.
3. According to the Constitution, the state must apply a secular approach to the regulation of public relations, including in matters of family policy. It must recognize, respect and support the diversity of family forms in today’s social reality and the right of people to live in families they wish to create. The state must firmly oppose the attempts of conservative organizations to impose a mandatory understanding of the family as a “traditional family” that in some way stands above the rights of the child or the women’s rights.
4. A good family is one that is a positive factor for the respect and realization of human rights. The state is obliged to ensure the protection of the rights of all family members, including when they are violated by family members themselves.
5. Family members, including children, have equal rights regardless of their gender, ethnicity or religion, disability, sexual orientation, age, or other grounds on which the law protects against discrimination.
6. Children have a number of special rights recognized in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Constitution of the Republic of Bulgaria and the Bulgarian Child Protection Act. Any rejection of the principle that the child is a subject of rights is in deep conflict with the fundamental principles of human rights. The law must also take into account the dynamically developing capacity of children and young people to make decisions that affect them. Child participation, in a way appropriate for the child’s age and maturity, is a basic principle of modern child policies.
7. Domestic violence in any form – physical, sexual, mental or emotional – must not be allowed or tolerated. In addition to being a violation of human rights, violence is one of the most serious factors in the destruction of the family. Protecting the family requires the prevention of violence. Violence seriously damages a child’s development. The state must guarantee the right to freedom from all forms of domestic violence and have effective mechanisms in place both for the prevention of domestic violence and for addressing it when it occurs. Education on issues related to freedom from violence should be part of compulsory curricula.
8. Laws and policies regulating the family and providing family support cannot violate anyone’s sexual and reproductive rights, including the right of women to decide the number and spacing of their children, as enshrined in the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Forced sterilization and forced pregnancy are crimes. Sexual and reproductive education should be compulsory in school curricula and should be age-appropriate.
9. For the full and harmonious development of their personality, the child must grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding. This is one of the reasons why the state needs to build a comprehensive system of family support.
10. Parents have the right to raise their children as they see fit, but without violating their rights and dignity. They should have access to state support in the exercise of their parental function when they need it.
11. Removing a child from their family and placing them in alternative care is a last resort that can only be done when all other actions to support the family have been exhausted, and for as short a time as possible. The efforts of the protection system should focus on the reintegration of the child into their native family, except when this would be against the interests of the child. Within the system of alternative care, placement should be based on the principle of the best interests of the child, and the latter is understood as creating an environment that is as close as possible to that of a family.
Comments on the principles
The traditional family and modern society. Numerous civic movements and organizations have recently glorified the merits of the “traditional Bulgarian family.” For example, the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church expressed a widely shared ultra-conservative view when it stated, “For a number of years, we have seen Christian values replaced by legally enshrined ideas that not a part of the Bulgarian national psychology and tradition, and are in conflict with the foundations of our Orthodox faith.” But in reality, this is a call to deny and replace the democratic values reflected in the Constitution by virtue of the political choice made 30 years ago by the Bulgarian people – the choice for a secular state with a liberal-democratic political system. What are these “Christian values” of the traditional family? On one hand, the Christian values of charity, love, and care for one’s fellow human beings, like the values of many other religions, are compatible with democratic values. On the other hand, however, the traditional Bulgarian family has been patriarchal for centuries, placing women in a subordinate position to men, where the woman had to know her place as a housewife and mother. And the child was entirely at the mercy of the father who could do whatever he wanted – apply severe corporal punishment, send them away as an apprentice from an early age, stop them from school, and if the child was a girl, marry her against her will at an immature age and disallow the pursuit of an education or a profession. It has taken a lot of time and the struggle of many generations to reach a stage of affirmation of equality between women and men, as well as the recognition of the child’s right to be a holder of civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights. Traditionalists want to take us back to the supposedly good old days of the Bulgarian tradition, but in effect they take us back to pre-modern patriarchal morals degrading human dignity.
If this is the “traditional family”, we reject it. A happy family consists of equal members, and the rights of each of them are respected and protected, including the rights of the child. There may be specific family roles that each family determines, but with the exception of childbirth and breastfeeding, there is no other family life activity in which men and women cannot freely choose their roles. Dad can change diapers. Mum can repair the damaged boiler. And the child is not the property of its parents and has its inalienable rights: it cannot be abused, forcibly married, suspended from school or forced to work to the detriment of its health and full development. In the 20th century, modern states introduced mechanisms to protect against such violations of children’s rights.
The conservative-traditionalist approach does not really work for the preservation and prosperity of the family. Violence in all its forms, and the authoritarian upbringing of children based on punishment, coercion and guilt, lead to the destruction of families, while healthy and resilient families are built on love, mutual respect and respect for the freedom of everyone in the family.
According to sociological research, traditional attitudes towards the family, the role of women and the upbringing of children prevail in Bulgarian society today. Family policies have so far failed to significantly influence these attitudes. Nor did they have a deterrent effect on the demographic collapse. The criteria for the success of family support policies include higher birth rates and fewer broken families, but this requires looking forward to the future, rather than trying to resurrect some fiction of the so-called “traditional family”. At the same time, a large number of children are raised in families of unmarried partners – which in no way makes these families inferior in raising children.
Equality: In today’s Bulgaria, the understanding of human rights, especially what “equal rights” means and what “discrimination” is, is extremely weak and very far from the international standards. More work is needed on the part of the state with the help of experts and professional human rights organizations in order to create a better understanding of equal rights. For example, many people do not understand how children have equal rights with their parents: shouldn’t a child’s right to freedom of expression be commensurate with its age and degree of maturity? Such a misunderstanding comes from a very outdated notion of equal rights as identical rights. But in the conceptual framework of all modern legislation as well as jurisprudence of international tribunals, the understanding of equality of rights follows the classical Aristotelian principle: equality required treating the likes alike and the different differently (see, for example, the case of the European Court of Human Rights Tlimenos v. Greece). If the parent and the child are not in the same situation, it would be discriminatory for them to be treated identically. Accordingly, the child has no less right to express itself than its parents, and everyone who has cared for a child knows how rich a set of means of expression is possessed by even a baby who has not yet learned to speak.
One key element of continuing de facto inequality in the family is the burden of unpaid and unappreciated responsibilities related to caring for family members. Taken up primarily by women, care responsibilities can hinder their ability to participate in education, employment and other activities on an equal footing with men. Thus, women are economically and socially disadvantaged in both the family and the community, and are at a higher risk of poverty.
Protection from violence: Families can be dangerous places for children or other family members when they become victims of violence, including harmful traditional practices such as child marriage, as well as educational practices involving severe corporal punishment. This is one of the reasons why Article 19 (1) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child obliges states to take all appropriate measures to protect children from all forms of physical or mental violence, harm or abuse, including sexual abuse, and neglect.
Social services: The social services system must support the family, based on the principles set out in the Voluntary European Framework for the Quality of Social Services: better access to services, in line with the needs and demographic profile of the population; individualization of the support – availability of general and specialized services, according to individual needs; an integrated approach to delivery; efficiency – social services able to find a good solution for the person in order to overcome social exclusion, to protect their rights and to improve their quality of life; flexibility, transparency and efficiency in the use of public resources.
Deinstitutionalization: This is a process that is not limited to the closure of large resident institutions. But the Bulgarian government was content with just such a limited understanding. It closed most such institutions, creating a large number of “family-type placement centers” in their place. But as the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities explains, “Large or small, group homes are especially dangerous for children, for whom there is no better environment than the family, designed to meet their needs as they grow up. Family-type institutions are still institutions and cannot replace family care.” Work to support families to prevent the separation of children from their parents must be a key part of the deinstitutionalization process, as must be the support for children and young people leaving care and for professionals working with children and parents. The same goes for supporting families caring for elderly people with disabilities. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), ratified by Bulgaria in 2012, protects the right of all persons with disabilities to live in the community (Article 19), and with regard to children, this right is interpreted by the CRPD Committee as the right to grow up in a family (General Comment №5 (2017) on independent living and inclusion in the community, UN Doc. CRPD / C / GC / 5 (27.10.2017), paragraph 37). The state needs to create a system of community support, early childhood intervention, inclusive education and a transition to independent living that would help children with disabilities stay in their families.
Definitions: Critics of child protection legislation point out that definitions of basic concepts such as “violence”, “physical violence”, “mental violence”, “neglect”, etc. are provided in a by-law – an additional provision in the Regulations for the implementation of the Child Protection Act, which in their opinion contradicts the basic principles of the rule of law. In addition, according to them, the definitions are too broad and vague, which opens the door to abuse in deciding whether a child is at risk, leading to fears that children may be unjustifiably taken from their parents. These fears should be adequately addressed. We recommend revising the basic definitions in order to narrow and clarify the meaning of the terms, and to include the definitions themselves in the laws that are built on them.
Protection from violence: Bulgaria must ratify the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention) and ensure adequate transposition of its norms into domestic law, including the 2009 Law on Protection from Domestic Violence. Legislation and policies must protect against all forms of gender-based violence, including cyberbullying and online harassment.
Child protection and alternative care. For various reasons, still a large number of children continue to be separated from their families. Children from marginalized and vulnerable communities are at the highest risk of being separated from their families. It is strictly forbidden to take a child out of his/her family due to poverty or disability. As such removal is currently, albeit illegally, still practiced under various legitimate pretexts, child protection legislation needs to be reviewed in order to prevent this prohibition from being breached. Poor families and those of children with disabilities should receive adequate support to prevent the child’s separation from their family. A moratorium should be introduced on the construction of new “family-type placement centers” and specialized institutions. If families receive the support they need, the placement of children outside family care can be kept to a minimum. The priority for the system of social services should be the integration of children in their own families or in the families of relatives. In cases where it is either impossible or not in the best interests of the child to remain in its own family or in the family of relatives, temporary accommodation in adequately supported foster families should be resorted to. A key priority should be to close the entrance to institutional care, making every effort to keep newborns and young children with or without disabilities with their parents, or have them placed in a supported family of relatives or a foster family. It is necessary to radically redirect efforts and investment toward the development of foster care in Bulgaria, parallel to the gradual closure of all institutions – large and small, for children and adults, for people with and without disabilities.
Family support: The state must accelerate the process of building a system of social services aimed at preserving families. Early childhood development should be among the main priorities of the state, which should invest in incentive policies in this area. Research shows that early childhood development has a huge impact on the overall development of the individual and delayed development at an early age has negative consequences for the whole subsequent life. Policies in this area should focus on the provision of health care, the promotion of good nutrition and early learning, quality forms of education and care (crèches and kindergartens), and support for building parental capacity to provide positive, responsive parental care. The government should develop, and the National Assembly should adopt, a National Strategy for the Child – as per their obligation under Art. 1 (3) of the Child Protection Act – in which they should define the policies and measures to ensure compliance with the rights of the child and support for the family. Many of the necessary measures are contained in the draft of such a strategy, which was suspended in 2019, which is why we call for its revision and adoption as a matter of urgency, as well as the provision of the necessary funds for the implementation of the measures it provides.
 Opinion of St. Synod on the newly adopted Law on Social Services, November 25, 2019, https://www.bg-patriarshia.bg/m/news.php?id=306152
 World Health Organization, United Nations Children’s Fund, World Bank Group. Nurturing care for early childhood development: a framework for helping children survive and thrive to transform health and human potential. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2018. License: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO. https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/272603/9789241514064-eng.pdf