United in support of democracy and human rights in Bulgaria

“The Covid-19 crisis highlights the need for civil society to adopt a proactive mindset”- Svetlana Mihaylova, Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Bulgarian Fund for Women.

Bulgarians have an overwhelmingly low level of trust and participation in civil society organisations according to a survey by Open Society Institute in Sofia. With the support of Civitates the fragmented non-profit sector is able to unite and address the shrinking space for civil society initiatives and respond to anti-democratic and anti-human rights trends in the country.

Svetlana Mihaylova is Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Bulgarian Fund for Women, the organisation that coordinates Ravni BG, a coalition of 29 organisations from all over the country.

What was the reason for these 29 organisations to unite?
The idea for a coalition was born out of increased attacks on civil society organisations in Bulgaria in the wake of the failed ratification of the Istanbul Convention against gender-based violence in late 2018. The need for a coalition responding to these threats came naturally because people felt the need to stand united. Together we aim to strengthen civil society in Bulgaria by providing resources, building capacity and carrying out joint communication campaigns to create a positive image of the civil sector.

How do you try to influence public opinion about CSOs?
The coalition prepared a national communication campaign this spring to highlight why civil society organisations are a valuable part of society. Together the members came up with the slogan, “от нас зависи” (ot nas zavisi) which means “it depends on us”, underlining the positive influence of citizen initiatives in communities. The idea was that every organisation would adapt the message to their work and the local environment. But then the Covid-19 crisis emerged and we had to readjust all our plans. In a way, the Covid-19 crisis has shown coalition members just how far we’ve come in adopting a proactive mindset. Nobody is saying ‘we can’t do this’, instead they are thinking about how to adapt and how to make the campaign happen. Concerns about human rights restrictions in a state of emergency have only renewed the coalition’s determination to strengthen civil participation. We will carry out the campaign, which is now more necessary than ever as the information flow and human rights are restricted even more because of Covid-19.

How did you personally get involved in this work?
Until two years ago I worked as a teacher in history, social and civic studies. I have ten years of experience in the educational system and in working with civic organisations that focus on education. Before joining the Bulgarian Fund for Women, I worked on a project on domestic violence in relation to the school environment together with the fund. When the coalition was about to start, they asked me to coordinate it, which I find both very interesting and challenging to do!

What is your dream for Bulgaria?
I wish for Bulgaria that everything will be more open. We have been living with corruption for many years, without a long term strategy or vision and with a lack of clear rules. This has made living in Bulgaria very challenging. I dream of a better future for Bulgarians with more clarity in every aspect of life.

The Bulgarian Fund for Women raises funds and gives grants to local NGOs working to advance women’s and girls’ rights, eliminate gender stereotypes, gender-based violence and discrimination, achieve gender equality in all spheres of life and make a social change. The Fund supports and empowers local NGOs working on gender issues and empower girls and women by involving them in their network and making them active participants and drivers of the social change.