Sexual Education: the Cure against the Pandemic of Domestic Violence


    As the world struggles with handling the coronavirus outbrake, Katerina Vasileva, student in the High School of Mathematics and Science “Acad. Sergey Korolyov” examines another pandemic which the society has been experiencing for ages – domestic and sexual violence. Is comprehensive sexual education the key to solving this problem?


    “For the first time I felt loved and wanted – just the way I was. But he soon became obsessive and pressured me into starting a family right away. My friends kept warning me about him but I told them that they did not know him well enough. Then I got pregnant and we got married, we moved in together and… that is when the “fairytale” began.”


    This is the beginning of a story – just like any other, except a really frightening one. The story of Diana*, who stayed in a nightmare because of family and love despite being threatened and intimidated. Despite being followed by her own husband and forced to choose between him and her friends. Despite being called “fat” and “worthless” over and over again, always insulted and undermined. “I was constantly scared of his reaction, I kept wondering if he would hit me in his anger. He never did however, maybe I left on time…”


    She did leave on time and thus has been able to move on from this experience and rebuild her life. However, a lot of people all over the world do not have the opportunity to move on – they are still trapped in their own silent nightmares of domestic and sexual violence, unable to reach out and find help, to break the chains of abuse and to regain their freedom. It is estimated that one in three women experiences physical or sexual violence throughout her life, mostly caused by a partner or relative. A startling amount of these cases conclude with a far-from-happy ending.


    “I know I was lucky to get away so easily”, Diana says. “I know how many of these “happy family” stories there are out there, and I know how horrifying some of their endings are.”


    She is right. In 2019, domestic violence took the lives of 25 women in Bulgaria.


    Society has been experiencing the epidemic of domestic and sexual abuse for ages. This is a matter of both physical and mental health. Our basic rights – such as the sanctity of our life and body – must be respected at all times. Sexual and domestic violence deprive their victims of these rights and thus prevent them from leading a healthy and happy life – both physically and mentally.


    Considering any kind of violence as a crucial matter of health provokes the reexamination of the increasing problem of domestic and sexual abuse in the light of the coronavirus pandemic. Since the outbreak of the pandemic people’s r physical health suddenly became even more important as the number of people infected with the virus kept rising – we started wearing masks and began to pay more attention to disinfection and immunity. But the nightmare of the families infected with the virus of domestic violence did not suddenly disappear. The intimidation, the insults, the beatings – they do not cease to exist during the lockdown. In fact, the rates of violence are even rising due to the pandemic as most families have no other choice apart from spending all of their time together at home.


    Diana’s story portrays the typical day-in-life of a significant number of families behind locked doors both in our country and around the world – especially over the course of the last month. What is more, because of COVID-19 domestic violence has found a favorable atmosphere in even more houses and thus is now spreading quite similarly to the virus.


    Surge of domestic violence during lockdowns


    Since the announcement of the state of emergency in Bulgaria onMarch 13 six people have already lost their lives because of domestic violence?** Furthermore, the calls made to the Bulgarian National Helpline for Children (operated by the Animus Association) have increased by 730 in March and the reported cases of domestic violence amongst them are 80 in total – the highest number in the history of the helpline.


    Teodora Petrova from Bulgarian Fund for Women – an organization that funds local NGOs devoted to advance the rights of women and girls – believes that the problem of domestic and sexual violence is currently increasing due to the fact that violent behavior is escalating even in households in which it has been oppressed up to this moment. Families are forced to live in isolation, helpless and desperate because of the discouraging news, the uncontrollable financial and economical situation and the overwhelming panic. All these factors lead to deteriorating relationships at home, especially when the whole extended family is involved.


    This increasing problem of domestic and sexual violence during the pandemic has already been acknowledged in other countries such as France, where the state recently announced free hotel rooms for victims as well as new centers for consultations across the country – after more than a 30% increase in the reported cases of domestic violence, amongst which there are two murders. Similarly, in Spain victims of such abuse are able to seek help in pharmacies by using a code word – for example “Mask 19”.


    “These are all perfectly timed measures”, Petrova says. “But unfortunately, here in Bulgaria we are still too far away from this kind of policies.”


    She explained that as the Bulgarian society is still quite patriarchal, victims of domestic or sexual violence are hesitant to share their experiences and reach out for help People around them – for example their neighbors – rarely report when they hear a fight or a beating next-door – a small thing that could actually save lives.


    “There is no sensibility in our society when it comes to this problem”, the activist confirms.


    Ineffective legal instruments and public policies


    The public outrage that lead to the rejection of key legal documents such as the Istanbul Convention against Gender-Based Violence, the National Strategy for the Child and the Law of Social Services has come to confirm Petrova’s concerns.


    The Bulgarian authorities have been called upon revising, accepting and effectively executing all three of these documents yet again by Dunja Mijatović – the current Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights – in her latest report about our the country.


    Throughout her examination of the problem with domestic violence in Bulgaria, she points out a significant number of flaws in our current system. For example, Bulgaria still has no efficient mechanism for systematical collection of data regarding sexual and domestic abuse, as he only available statistics are maintained solely by NGOs and not the Ministry of Interior.


    Furthermore, the Bulgarian Criminal Code also has a number of imperfections regarding domestic violence such as the lack of explicit criminalization of marital rape as well as the fact that the Code defines an act of domestic violence as a crime only if it has been preceded by “systematic” physical, sexual or psychological abuse, the Council of Europe has warned.


    According to Teodora Petrova, the ultimate reason why Bulgaria continuously fails to fix these problems and to implement efficient policies against sexual and domestic abuse are the existingdeep-rooted stereotypes about the gender roles in the society.


    “We still believe that there is men’s and women’s business, that a boy should not wear pink and a woman should not be an astronaut”, she says. “In order to destroy these stereotypes, we need to constantly improve and develop ourselves as individuals and as a society as well as to be completely open to the world around us.”


    Comprehensive sexual edication: the key to fighting domestic abuse?


    There are plenty of different ways to prevent sexual and domestic violence, but experts have estimated that it all begins with the comprehensive education about sexuality. It is supposed not only to teach young people about the physical aspects of sex, STDs and contraception, but also about respect, consent, relationships, gender roles and human rights – and how learning about all those things could help young people prevent or react adequately in cases of domestic or sexual abuse.


    “There surely is a link between sexual education and domestic and sexual violence”, Teodora Petrova from BFW says.


    “Well-educated people are able to protect their interests by means excluding violent behavior. They are confident and sure of themselves and thus they do not need to use physical strength in order to feel powerful.”


    She believes that sexual education should be included in the curriculums of younger children as well, as they have to be aware of the sanctity of their body and know what is allowed and what is illegal.


    Such education should teach children that they should not be ashamed of themselves and, in case of abuse or any other form of violation of their rights, they should reach out and talk to someone they trust about the problem. Effectively learning about their rights and relationships would also allow children from a very young age to make conscious life choices as this would especially benefit young people from minority groups such as the Roma people. Through sexual education, young Roma girls will know that there are different perspectives ahead of them and they are not obliged to settle down and become mothers at the age of 14.


    “There has to be a better life for everyone facing those kinds of problems. We have to know not only how to protect ourselves from STDs and unwanted pregnancies, but also from any kind of violence and abuse”, adds Teodora.


    Currently, sex is still a taboo topic in most Bulgarian classrooms. According to a 2018 report about comprehensive sexuality education in Europe and Central Asia (executed by IPPF and BZgA), the topic of sexual education appears to be stuck in the political process of being introduced into schools as it is unclear whether it will soon be worked out in practice and in conformity with all standards. Due to the lack of a stable formalized system of sexual education young people have no other choice but to rely solely (90%) on the Internet and social media for information regarding this topic.


    This leads to distorted perceptions of sexual and domestic violence, vague knowledge about human rights and boundaries as well as strengthening stereotypes about gender roles.Moreover, young people actually would like schools and teachers to become a more reliable source of information (40%) as they currently gain only 25% of their knowledge about sexually related topics in the classroom – in contrast to students in the Netherlands, 93% of whom indicate schools as their main source of information in this field.


    Organizations such as the Bulgarian Red Cross strive to solve this problem throughout trainings of volunteers on the topic of effective prevention of hazardous sexual behavior amongst young people (or HIV/AIDS prevention).


    Alexander, a young volunteer from the Bulgarian Youth Red Cross, has been trained to teach his peers – students in school or university – about the different STDs, means of contraception, prevention and medical treatment. He and his fellow volunteers have already organized a lecture on the topic in front of students from the American University in Bulgaria.


    “The students showed great interest in our presentation and were particularly active during the discussion”, Alexander says, which means that young people welcome sexual education with a good reception and an open mind.


    However, the work of BYRC in the field of sexual education covers mostly the physical aspects of the topic – STDs and contraception, whereas concepts like consent, respect and societal gender roles remain undiscussed.


    “It is quite more difficult to talk about the psychological aspects of the topic in the classroom”, says Alexander when asked about the problems of sexual and domestic violence. According to him, a good idea in order to tackle this problem amongst the students is to launch a school club dedicated to this kind of sexual education.


    “This is still a taboo topic after all. But in the end everyone should know how to protect themselves in such situations and should be able to reach out and talk about the problem at least with their loved ones.”, Alexander says.


    Unfortunately, implementing innovative sexual education policies amongst young people in Bulgaria has been largely left in the hands on non-governmental organizations, which often face social backlash against their efforts.


    In February,the Ministry of Education shortly banned a sexual education program aimed at children aged 9 to 11 years, designed and implemented byt and designed by the P.U.L.S.E.foundation in the town of Pernik. The program, aimed at preventing sexual violence and child exploitation, was taken down after a family complained that it was innapropriate.


    The global implementation of sexual education programs amongst young people has shown that educating children on the topic ultimately results in prevention of HIV and STDs, prevention of unwanted pregnancies, increased use of condoms and contraception as well as actual delay of the initiation of sexual intercourse. In Finland, for example, sexual education is a part of the national core curriculum; it is a mandatory subject, always comprehensive in character and – what is more – every single teacher is trained in sexual education as a part of their university training program. As a result, in Finland the births per 1000 women aged 15-19 years old are only 6 (according to UN data from 2016), whereas in Bulgaria they are 37.


    “We know that a lot of things in our present are rooted in our past”, says Diana.


    “If people are unable to receive any help with problems in their childhood, they are at risk of becoming monsters in the future. That is the reason I wish there were more classes on sexual education at school so that children can be prepared and well-educated on the topic. There should not be any taboo topics between us and our children anymore”, she adds.


    That is what I try to teach my daughter: that she should not let anyone oppress her, insult her or make her feel horrible whilst disguising it as some kind of made up love.”


    *The name has been changed due to confidentiality reasons.


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