Tatyana Kmetova is an anthropologist and an activist in different NGOs in Bulgaria since 1991. She is a founding member and Executive Director of the Center of Women’s Studies and Policies Foundation since 2003 where she acts as gender expert, researcher and trainer. Ms Kmetova is also active as an expert within different Bulgarian and European NGOs, within the Bulgarian Government, other international institutions as well as women’s and gender NGOs abroad. From 1997 to 2010 she is founder, organiser and main facilitator of the National Annual Meetings of Women’s and Gender NGOs in Bulgaria.
Ms Kmetova served as a member of a number of international organisations and expert groups: Member of the Core Group of the NATO Civil Society Advisory Panel on Women, Peace and Security (since 2016); Member of the Management Board of the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) (1 June 2010 – 31 May 2013); Member of UN Women Civil Society Advisory Group for Central and South-eastern Europe (2012-2014); Founding Member and Board Member of the International Gender Policy Network (2005 – 2010).

By Tatyana Kmetova

By many reasons March is considered by Bulgarians as a female month. March 1st is the Baba Marta (Grandma Marta) Day – one of the most highly valued customs in Bulgaria. In the Bulgarian folk tradition Grandma Marta is the sister of the other 11 months. On her day Bulgarians celebrate spring arrival, and the greeting exchanged is Happy Baba Marta! From this day throughout March, until a stork or a blossoming tree is seen, everybody especially the women and children are decorated with martenitsi – brooches, bracelets and medallions of twisted tassels from red and white threads – to be healthy, and to pass safe the change of the seasons. Grandma Marta’s temper is quite unpredictable like the weather in March – sometimes is nice, sometimes is freezing, and the sun comes out only when she smiles. There are many jokes that the same is the temper of all women. The practice, which is similar to the same in neighbouring Balkan countries, is inscribed in 2017 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/cultural-practices-associated-to-the-1st-of-march-01287). In March we also mark Mladenci (The Holy Forty) on 9th, and the Annunciation on 25th. Both days traditionally are connected with spring and women – the birth of a new Sun and children. And in this homey, cosy, festive family atmosphere, very feminine, throughout the whole month, we also mark March 8th – the Woman’s Day, as it is named in Bulgaria. Traditional and festive, on the one hand, and brisk and demanding, on the other.

It is still accepted as a “socialist holiday”, and actually even today – 30 years after the fall of communism – we still do not know have we to celebrate it, why and how. You can still hear angry reactions of women, such as: “I do not celebrate it!”, although much less than years ago, and maybe today from different reasons. We smile seductively, remembering that the day was and still is a public holiday in many countries of the former USSR. But how can we swallow the fact that Berlin has become the first region within the European Union to mark Women’s Day with a public holiday, and this year it was a day off? We are also embarrassed recently to watch the multi-thousand demonstrations on March 8th in Turkey and Spain, but besides the title of Mel Gibson’s famous film “What Women Want” nothing else comes to mind.

In late 1980-ties, before the political changes in Eastern Europe and the fall of the Berlin Wall, I read the paper of Dunja Rihtman-Augushtin, a prominent Croatian ethnologist and cultural anthropologist, of how  has March 8th died. She analysed the habits of Zagreb inhabitants and showed that this day of political activism has been domesticated, turned into an occasion for merriment, disdained both by the feminists and by the high social circles in Croatia. Maybe because at the Balkans we share the same patterns of traditional culture and the same socialist societal and historical background, I smiled while reading, remembering of a popular joke that 8 of March is celebrated as a Mother’s day – for the mothers (in Bulgaria up to nowadays), and as the day of the female co-workers – for the fathers. Today it is not the female co-workers day anymore (if you want, but are not obliged like in the past, to mark your respect towards female co-workers you can give away flowers, and normally they will be accepted). Gradually this day became a day of the flowers, which are given away to all female beloved! It is still the Mother’s day for the children of all ages. And our school system do not know how to “translate” and transfer its content to the younger generations. A couple of years ago while working on the analysis from gender perspective of books for primary school I read quite an odd explanation that “8th of March is an international holiday of all women when they unite in their joy to make the world more beautiful, … and to fight for the happiness of their men and children”.

This type of social reluctance to integrate the issues of gender equality and women’s rights in the public agenda is among the topics of long-lasting debates and articulated differences between the Western and Eastern feminisms in 1990-ies. But even in Eastern feminism there were many different feminisms and this can be seen in our region as well. So, let’s see our Bulgarian story.

According to the 2017 Eurobarometer survey on gender equality in the EU, respondents in Bulgaria are the most likely among the 28 EU Member States to stereotype based on gender. I am sure that majority of Bulgarians will be surprised and will not believe that. But the data shows that 81% of respondents agree that the most important role of woman is to take care of her home and family (1st among 28 Member States, 44% – EU Member States average); and 81% of respondents agree that the most important role of man is to earn money (1st among 28 MS, 43% – EU MS average). In the same survey the Bulgarian respondents are among those in the EU who are most confident that equality of women and men has been achieved in their country in politics (64%), at work (67%), in leadership positions in companies and other organisations (62%). The widespread notion that gender equality in the country is to great extent already achieved is based on the belief that the “women’s question/women’s issue” has been solved during the socialist period (1946-1990). It is shared not only by the general public, but also by the politicians and by the public opinion makers of all political colours. So, what are the achievements of the past and what are the challenges of the present? And how we live in “equality” today?

The communist regime after the WWII in Bulgaria shifted the economy type from a predominantly agrarian towards an industrial one, which needed the labour force of women. Since 1950ies the women’s role in Bulgaria changed remarkably, and was supported by a number of privileges for “working women and mothers”. In order to increase women’s labour participation, the state gradually introduced a number of social welfare measures aimed at assisting women to combine their labour engagements with family responsibilities – mostly concerning child-care facilities and some attempts to socialise domestic labour. This was expressed and accepted as a commitment to equality. The ideology of equality was also backed with a system of centralised wage setting which limited the level of earnings inequality during the period of central planned economy of the state socialism. Working paid work away from home became a dominant model for women. The ILO global statistical survey of women’s economic activity shows that the number of women in the economically active population in the socialist countries in Europe has grown very rapidly in 1950-1980ies, and more than 80 percent of women in Bulgaria of working age (16-54) carry out economic activity: The female labour force participation rate was 92,1% in 1965, 96% in 1975, and 86,1% in 1985. According to the Bulgarian National Statistical Institute in 1989 women consisted 49,80% of the total employed. However, in 1986 the average female worker earned about 74% as much per month as the average male worker.

The gender segregation in the workforce during the socialist period is somewhat less pronounced of Bulgaria than in other European countries as Bulgarian women have a higher involvement in traditionally male professions and fields of activity, including such as science, maths, computing and engineering (due to the equal admission quota in higher education). Post-communist liberal democracy in Eastern European countries has been criticized for not paying attention to gender at all, leaving women as losers in both public and private arenas during the transition period when many sectors of economy have been reshaped and some industries failed. Women had to cope with the hard employment situation and many turned rather to choose typical “female” occupations and professions, which looked “natural” and not “chosen by force”. Slowly the labour market absorbed women again – the female unemployment rate (of 15 years and over) is  13,2% in 2003, and only 4,7% in 2018; the female employment rate (of 15 years and over) in 2018 is 46,9%. The gender pay gap in 2017 is 12,7%, and is below the EU average; however the largest pay gap remains in female dominated sectors. Although the statistical data show the slight increase of female overrepresentation in the sectors of education, human health and social work since 1980, Bulgaria is among the countries which had the smallest share of women in the EU in female-dominated professions (between 15% and 22% in 2014). Because of the working patterns from the past, the organisation of labour, but also because of the relatively low salaries, women tend to work full-time. In 2017 in Bulgaria male worked 40,4 hours per week, while female – 39,8. The rate of female employees who work part-time is the lowest among employed women in the EU. Despite the reductions in family policies after 1989, working arrangements in post-socialist Bulgaria have been accompanied by traditionally long maternity leave arrangements (longest in the EU today).

So why than, having in mind these positive numbers and trends our ranking in terms of gender equality is not as good as we can expected? In the 2017 EIGE (European Institute of Gender Equality) Gender Equality Index, Bulgaria is ranked 16th out of 28 MS with score of 58 points, with only 8 points more than the last country in the rank, with 8,2 less that the EU average, and with 24,6 points less than the first in the rank. The comparison with the previous version of the Index from 2005  shows very slow progress, slower than in the other EU MS.

The belief that gender equality is achieved is matched with the common understanding about the traditional roles of women and men in the family and its rightness among majority of the population is not questioned. The reason for this discrepancy between the gender roles in public and private life researchers explain with the fact that “The socialist “emancipation” of women only scratched the surface of gender relations, especially within the family…” and “the post-war influx of women into the labour force, motivated by the demand for workers in the “construction” of socialism, did not seriously question the power asymmetry and division of labour within the family” (Krassimira Daskalova in: Bulgarian women’s history and the socialist myths).

Paternity leave and parental leave for both mothers and fathers are new and still unfamiliar pattern for the Bulgarian families. The authors of a recent comparative survey on fatherhood in a number East European EU MS and non-MS emphasize that in Bulgaria the public support for father involvement in childcare is less explicit. Fatherhood and fathering as a phenomenon are constructed by both women and men, other significant members of their social networks, and broader policy frameworks. Lack of public and scarce private efforts towards active fathering reinforce gender stereotypes of masculinity and avoid any kind of unpaid care work of fathers.

Recent  research shows that social attitudes engrained for ‘male’ and ‘female’ jobs  and stereotypes influence nowadays the choice of the workplace. And while women are motivated when have chosen traditionally male dominated field of work, it is hard to motivate a man to start a job that is “considered” feminine. Gender segregation in the country is also directly related to income inequality and the evaluation of jobs. The majority of female-dominated sectors and occupations are characterised by high income inequality, and these differences in pay support the thesis that in Bulgaria, female-dominated jobs are undervalued. Moreover, majority of these jobs do not offer career development. Horizontal (occupational and professional) gender segregation at the labour market in particular is almost untouched issue in the state efforts to achieve gender equality, and the state does not appear to take measures for its reduction.

The most negative trend, however, which cannot be elided, is the fact that domestic violence, and specifically violence against women is raising. The cases of intimate partner violence which leads to femicide in last couple of years are  increasing by 50% according to the data from the Ministry of Interior – 22 killed in 2016, 27 killed in 2017, in 2018 33 are killed and other 28 women get heavy injures, as a result part of them are disabled. In 2018 Bulgaria failed to ratify the so called Istanbul Convention (The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence). The opposition to Convention insisted that it  eventually would lead to a formal recognition of a third gender and same-sex marriage; that the document is ambiguous and that domestic violence can be addressed only by adequate local laws and improved law enforcement. The Constitutional Court decided that Convention promoted the non-biological definitions of gender, which are deemed unconstitutional, as humans are irrevocably defined as biologically male or biologically female, with equal standing as citizens in the Bulgarian Constitution. As a result of the huge public debate on domestic violence, now media pay more attention to these cases, and people became much sensitive, accepting them not only as private but as a big public problem.

So, at the end it is clear that as a society we lack the understanding of gender equality processes and lack of will to speak about it. It is obvious that gender stereotypes are back and even stronger than before! Why? Feminism as term was not welcomed during the socialist period, and even is less accepted nowadays, though it is clear that public speakers do not know what it exactly means. The term “gender” has no publicly accepted translation in the Bulgarian language and remain alien to the broaden public, except to a narrow group of academic or civil society researchers and activists. Since the turbulent debates about the Istanbul Convention it is transformed to an abusive and humiliating word in the dirty jokes. The gender studies university degree programme exists only in one university for a very limited number of students, and its future is under question. Researches on gender related topics are quite scarce, resulted mainly from internationally funded projects and initiatives, that’s why are written and publicized mainly in English. This diminishes the opportunities of the general public to be introduced to their observations and conclusions. Public debate on gender issues and on equality of women and men is lacking. The historical context and the existing social environment create the background of vague, unfocused, not publicised, thus publicly unknown state policy on gender equality. The state reacts retroactively to the demand of the EU on issues of equality, and has no clear idea what are the most urgent issues of gender equality in the public agenda. The sex disaggregated data in many sectors of public and private life is practically publicly unattainable, or does not exist. The equality issues are not present in the public political agendas of the political parties. Any measures for the mothers manly of young children are considered as measures for gender equality in the scope of the broaden initiatives to raise the  birth of more children.

Maybe as a society we have to pass through this conflict of civilisations – between the patriarchal patterns in our minds about the achieved equality and the European values coded in its normative and soft law.

However, women still as in the past are present in respectful numbers in competitive sectors of economy and public life traditionally dominated by men. For example, today Bulgaria has the highest proportion of female ICT specialists in the EU and also in the research sector where half of researchers are women. What is quite different in recent years in comparison to the time of “state feminism” are two phenomena: 1) the representation of women at decision-making positions, and 2) the more visible presence of women in all spheres of arts and culture.

In last 15 years women in Bulgaria get positions of duty, they did not held ever before, which slowly change the common notions on what type of public “job” is better attributed to women. In a sociological survey conducted in 2000 the majority of respondents (53,8%) claim that “gender is not important”, but preference was expressed for male deputies by a ratio of 7:11. 15 years later 74% of respondents answered that there should be more women in politics, and the share of men who agree with this is 66%. The big shift in involving more women in politics and governance is reflected not only in the numbers of women who have taken office, but also in the quality of their positions. For the whole socialist period before the political changes (1944-1989) there were less than 10 women appointed as ministers. While in last 15 years the ratio of elected women is decreasing (female representation in the parliament: 10% in 1990ies, about 28% in 2003, now about 20%), or stays at the same level (about 10% of mayors and 30% of municipal councillors), the number of appointed women in government is vastly increasing (ministers in the cabinet – 50% during the previous mandate, deputy ministers, heads of state agencies and other independent bodies), and their portfolio is changing as well. Today many women are among the most accepted political persons. The last Bulgarian Forbes selection from 2015 of the top 25 most influential women shows that women from politics and the state power constitute over half of them (14). However, these ratings do not make difference between the elected and the appointed to office. This high level of participation again is a result of particular decisions of particular men at leading positions in particular parties. The raise of number of women in party, government, or parliament positions do not lead to introducing of gender or women’s rights agenda at institutional level.

What is amazing in our cultural landscape today is the impressive number of the female writers, novelists, poets, play-writers. A number of them have revived the Club of the female writers, established in 1930, stressing the fact that the female literature achievements should be given special attention. The important issue they are raising is that the works of the female writers are missing from the school programmes. However there are still critics who use quite an odd language in describing this process claiming that they deserve attention because they work “like men”. In the history of the Bulgarian national cinema festival (Golden Rose Bulgarian Feature Film Festival) dating back to 1961, in all its presentations until today, only four women won the “Golden Rose Award”: in 1961, and than 43 years later in 2004, 2006, and 2016. There are more and more visible female theatre, film and TV directors and producers. More often in last 10 years state and private galleries organise exhibitions of female fine artists – contemporary and from earlier periods. Most impressive in this sense is the experience of the Gallery of Fine Arts in the town of Kyustendil, which organizes an annual exhibition of female fine artists for already over 30 years. The National Exhibition for female artists from all over the country “Spring Salon of Women Artists” for Contemporary Art is held for the first time this year in the town of Gabrovo, organised by the local state gallery of fine arts and the Union of the Bulgarian Artists.  And many other creative activities in music, performing arts, photography…

And what else from our Bulgarian story of gender equality… in March this year even the untried observer could noticed how many public events were connected or devoted to women; how many new initiatives and projects for women, or from women to women exploded. And this was and is energy of those who are not “organised”, but are self-organised. From the time distance we can better realise how the dreams, needs, desires and activities especially of young women are changing. In last couple of years there is a strong tendency of young professional women or students to gather and participate in different events organised by women for women to discuss issues interesting for women and to share experience and opinion. The change starts from a single story of success. Why? Because we are living today in a new, challenging world. Life is fast, dimensions close, the globe is small, and opportunities are more than ever. Young creative women are afraid of not realising their full potential. Today the question is not to be a woman but how to be a woman of today – creative, successful and happy with the achievements. That’s why they are present at the international SHEleader@digital conference, participate in competitions such as Entrepregirl for young female entrepreneurs, at She’s the One discussions, where successful women share their experience and emotions, in TEDxTalks, Breakfast Club events, etc. And in a yet modest but regular in the last couple of years rally of young women and men on March 8th in support of women’s rights and gender equality of today.

The first women’s association in Bulgaria with the goal to support girls’ education has been found in the town of Lom in 1857, thirty years before the national Liberation from the Ottoman Empire and re-establishment of the Bulgarian state.