Warning: This case deals with topics that are especially grave and may cause trauma invoked by memories of past abuse. If you have experienced violence and need assistance, please refer to this list of country help lines provided by UN Women.
VK married her husband in 1995, her children were born in 1997 and 2001. She was not permitted to work, despite her experience and qualifications. Emotional and economic abuse increased when they moved to Poland for his work. VK’s husband controlled all the finances in the family, only gave VK a small amount of money for the basic needs of the family, which he specified in detail. VK was treated as a housekeeper rather than a wife and partner, she was controlled, humiliated and isolated from friends and family.
When VK’s husband started to use physical violence, VK’s parents called the police, who attended the scene and asked questions of VK and her husband. A medical report confirmed the extent of VK’s injuries, bruising on her forehead and hands, and that these injuries were consistent with the reports of assault that she made.
Eventually, once her husband stopped providing financial support for her children and herself, in an attempt to make her “behave” and “obey”, VK found work to support herself and her children. She also filed an application in the Polish courts asking for protective measures, as well as an order for financial maintenance. This received no response. The physical violence increased, including an attempt to strangle VK; and VK’s husband also used divorce and custody proceedings to threaten VK, indicating that he would take the children away from her.
VK tried to leave the family home to go to a shelter with her children, but her husband came home early, and locked her son, aged 6, in the apartment, so that only VK and her daughter, aged 10, were able to escape to the shelter. In subsequent months, VK’s husband denied her any contact with her son, even when he was hospitalised: he also moved the son to a new kindergarten. After a few months, VK found her son, and together with both children escaped back to Bulgaria to seek assistance from her family, as well as a legal solution to the situation.
VK applied for an immediate temporary protection order and this was granted by the court. However, VK’s husband opposed her application for a permanent protection order, and the court supported him, as the last act of violence had been more than one month before – the rules regarding protection orders required that an act of violence had taken place in the immediately preceding month. VK argued that it was necessary to consider her husband’s course of conduct over several years, not just to look at isolated events. The court refused her appeal.
The physical, emotional, psychological and economic abuse was reinforced by the legal process, and culminated in the end of the court proceedings:
“[T]he author and her children were left without any support and protection by the State party, while the divorce proceedings initiated by [VK’s] husband were still pending before [the court] Her husband continued to see the children. [..] He filed a complaint with the [..] public prosecutor’s office for not being allowed to enter the author’s apartment, the only safe place where she and her children could lead a normal life. He also filed a civil claim for the family property to be divided before the end of the divorce proceedings. He claimed that no Bulgarian court would grant [VK] custody of the children because of her low income, warning her that she could not afford lengthy judicial proceedings.”
VK argued that she was a victim of violations of Articles 1, 2, 5 and 16 of the CEDAW Convention, read with General Recommendation 19, as the State party had failed to provide her with effective protection against domestic violence. She described many shortcomings in Bulgaria’s law and practice relating to domestic violence, including:
- Despite the recent introduction of a law on domestic violence (in 2005) domestic violence is not considered to be a criminal matter, the courts neglect to investigate, prosecute and punish offenders;
- Judicial officers are not trained to respond to domestic violence;
- Assaults against family members are only prosecuted when a victim has been killed or permanently injured;
- The courts underestimate the importance of emotional, psychological and economic violence, and most types of physical violence, and the negative effect of domestic violence against women on their children;
- There is no law on equality between women and men, nor is there recognition of violence against women as a form of discrimination;
- the courts do not address stereotyping relating to domestic violence, failing to recognise violence and abuse of power through financial and emotional control, and considering domestic violence to be a “private matter” where both spouses were responsible and both needed to moderate their behaviour, rather than identifying male abuse of physical and economic power.
That there is a lack of clarity about the burden of proof that needs to be discharged by a woman seeking protection, so that in practice, many judges expect women to prove “beyond reasonable doubt” that they are in need of protection. VK also explained that there was a complete failure to protect her when she sought protection from the authorities, therefore leaving her exposed to increased violence from her husband. She also noted that there are insufficient domestic violence shelters – only three provided by the State, the rest are run and financed by civil society organisations – and therefore, in practice many women in need are turned away.
In its response, the State party said that the aim of the domestic violence law was “not to police the family life of spouses but rather to provide for urgent court intervention where domestic violence might be imminent” (paragraph 4.5). Furthermore, the State alleged that violence had been perpetrated by both spouses in the context of “serious family rows” and that therefore VK had not substantiated her allegations of violations of the CEDAW Convention.
During the exchange of information between the CEDAW Committee, the Bulgarian authorities and Ms VK, the CEDAW Committee asked the Bulgarian authorities to provide interim measures of protection in favour of VK and her children. There was a delay in responding. Eventually the Bulgarian authorities replied that the courts had established beyond doubt that no act of domestic violence had been committed against the author, and that if in future she was at risk that she could request protective measures. (paragraph 5.1-5.4)
In her final comments to the CEDAW Committee, the applicant VK emphasised that the burden had been placed on her to prove beyond reasonable doubt that her husband had violated her physical integrity, through providing written evidence, in order to obtain a protection order. She also noted:
“[T]he distinction made by the State party between the provocation of a row as a bilateral act and violence being unilateral in nature, as well as its definition of violence as a physical act, fails to understand the complex nature of domestic violence, especially emotional and physical violence. The narrow interpretation by the courts of domestic violence as an immediate threat to the life and health of the victim does not cover the emotional and psychological integrity of victims of domestic violence.” (paragraph 6.4)
VK also gave details of the on-going harassment by her husband after the expiry of the protection order, including threats to remove the children from her custody, and to take her son with her to Poland, thus separating the children. VK told the CEDAW Committee that “she was permanently stressed and lived in constant fear.” (paragraph 6.6)
What was the decision?
The CEDAW Committee focused its decision on this case on the Bulgarian district court’s decision not to award VK a year-long or permanent protection order, based on its appraisal that no act of violence had been perpetrated against VK or her children in the month before the application, and that therefore, there was no imminent threat to her life or health. On appeal, the regional court reasoned that the author had not shown that her husband striking at her “is not associated with disturbance of her physical integrity… neither is there any evidence.” (9.9)
The CEDAW Committee found that both courts applied an overly restrictive definition of domestic violence that was not warranted by the law and was inconsistent with CEDAW obligations.
“Both courts focused exclusively on the issue of direct and immediate threat to the life or health of the author and on her physical integrity, while neglecting her emotional and psychological suffering. Moreover, both courts unnecessarily deprived themselves of an opportunity to take cognizance of the past history of domestic violence described by the author by interpreting the purely procedural requirement in article 10 of the Law on Protection against Domestic Violence, i.e., that a request for a protection order must be submitted within one month of the date on which the act of domestic violence has occurred, to preclude consideration of past incidents having occurred prior to the relevant one-month period. The courts also applied a very high standard of proof by requiring that the act of domestic violence must be proved beyond reasonable doubt, thereby placing the burden of proof entirely on the author, and concluded that no specific act of domestic violence had been made out on the basis of the collected evidence. The Committee observes that such a standard of proof is excessively high and not in line with the Convention, nor with current anti-discrimination standards which ease the burden of proof of the victim in civil proceedings relating to domestic violence complaints.” (paragraph 9.9)
The CEDAW Committee also noted the close relationship between inequality in the family (Article 16) and gender-based violence, including stereotyping relating to marriage and family relationships, which in turn affects women’s ability to access justice. The CEDAW Committee noted that: “stereotyping affects women’s right to a fair trial and that the judiciary must be careful not to create inflexible standards based on preconceived notions of what constitutes domestic or gender-based violence.” (paragraph 9.11) The CEDAW Committee noted in this case that the courts lacked gender sensitivity in using “a preconceived notion that domestic violence is to a large extent a private matter falling within the private sphere, which, in principle, should not be subject to state control…” Furthermore, the CEDAW Committee found that the courts had “an exclusive focus on physical violence and on an immediate threat to the life or health of the victim… which reflects a stereotyped and overly narrow concept of what constitutes domestic violence.”
The CEDAW Committee found therefore that “the refusal of the [..] courts to issue a permanent protection order against the author’s husband was based on stereotyped, preconceived and thus discriminatory notions of what constitutes domestic violence.”(paragraph 9.12)
The CEDAW Committee also noted that the lack of shelter provision constitutes a violation of Articles 2(c) and 2(e) of the CEDAW Convention, and that the author VK had suffered moral and financial damage and prejudice, including fear and anguish]
The CEDAW Committee required Bulgaria to provide financial compensation, and to reform domestic law and practice in the following areas:
- Remove inflexible time-limits on the availability of protection orders, and all other undue administrative and legal burdens on women;
- Ensure that the burden of proof for securing protection orders does not discriminate against women;
- Ensure the availability of shelter places for women and their children, where necessary, supporting non-governmental organizations in providing these;
- Ensuring training for judges.
In this case, the CEDAW Committee developed the jurisprudence began in its first case AT v Hungary on non-fatal domestic violence. In VK, the CEDAW Committee recognised explicitly that all forms of violence are contrary to the convention, across a continuum of psychological, economic and physical violence.