Vagina Matters: how a Bulgarian sex ed book triggered national outrage

25 November 2020

Svetla Baeva is used to stirring up controversy in her native Bulgaria. As campaign director at Fine Acts, a global creative studio for social impact, the activist uses art to champion free speech and minority rights. But Fine Acts’ latest project — the first illustrated, Bulgarian-language sex-education book for girls — has stirred particular outrage.

Co-authored by Baeva, Raya Raeva, and sister-illustrators Borislava and Mihaela Karadjova, Vagina Matters (also known by its Bulgarian title, V Like Vagina) has inspired online attacks, media uproar, and Bulgarian Deputy Prime Minister Krasimir Karakachanov, the leader of nationalist party VMRO, to threaten a criminal case.

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For Baeva, the reasoning behind the outrage is simple. “There is a serious global backlash against women’s rights at the moment, including sexual and reproductive rights,” she says. “This trend has not bypassed Bulgaria.”

The team were motivated to write the book by their own childhood experiences of growing up without adequate sex ed — but also by statistics that showed only 10 per cent of Bulgarian schools currently teach such classes. “By writing this book, we wanted to encourage a positive culture of curiosity and openness around sexual health,” says Baeva.

The book is buoyed by clever, colourful design, and engaging illustrations. “I wanted it to look friendly and appealing,” says co-illustrator Mihaela. In one picture, a girl prances across the page wearing a “I love my vagina” t-shirt. In another, girls of various shapes and sizes are shown exercising. On the topic of menstruation, hands are shown holding different menstrual devices: tampons, pads, and menstrual cups. One of the more challenging illustrations depicted masturbation, says Mihaela: “we wanted it to be shown as it is, but at the same time, trying not to show too much”. After much debate, they decided to show characters whose “expressions show love and the glow [that comes] from accepting their bodies.”

Beyond the soft pastel illustrations, the book has an important role to play. Bulgaria, along with Romania, have the highest rates of teen pregnancy and motherhood in the European Union. Bulgaria also has one of the highest rates of STDs, despite having cheap and available contraception. Projects like Vagina Matters hopes to lower those rates.

Yet it has landed in a maelstrom of controversy. One of the loudest critics is Kristiyan Szkwarek, a former MEP candidate for Bulgaria’s VRMO party. In a Facebook post which garnered some 1,800 comments, he called the book “progressive propaganda”. Many followers agreed, with one writing: “Satan Soros wants to make your children gay, but in Bulgaria, his deviant anti-Christian ideology won’t succeed!”

The greatest backlash has not been triggered by the book’s biological aspects, or even issues such as masturbation. Instead, many are incensed by the book’s coverage of domestic abuse, and acceptance of LGBTQ+ people. Szkwarek criticised the book’s mention of LGBTQ+ rights, feminism, and multicultural artwork, as “over the top progressive propaganda.”

The greatest backlash has not been triggered by the book’s biological aspects, or even issues such as masturbation. Instead, many are incensed by the book’s coverage of domestic abuse, and acceptance of LGBTQ+ people

One passage highlighted by opponents reads: “Menstruation is a biological function, but it’s not necessarily something exclusively ‘female’”. The authors go on to explain how, in addition to women, trans men, intersex people, and non-binary people may menstruate.

According to the likes of Szkwarek: “there are no men who menstruate; there are no conditions upon which certain biological facts can be twisted and turned to serve a political agenda.”

But Baeva and the team were intent on including information on feminism, gender identity, gender-based violence, and LGBTQ+ acceptance, despite knowing they would likely be criticised for doing so.

“Bullying of LGBTQ+ persons in schools adds a whole new level of pain, stress, and misunderstanding to the already difficult years of growing up as a teen,” Baeva and Raeva say. “We couldn’t ignore the specific experiences and problems faced by the LGBTQ+ community. With Vagina Matters, we want to tell all girls (and boys), regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity, that whoever you like and love is completely okay, because love and the right to express it are among the most important factors for a full and happy life.” They believe that the initial criticism came from “a small, very loud, far-right political formation that hoped to gain from politicising the subject.”

Baeva and Raeva have since appeared on national radio and television to defend the book, which has many supporters. For the team, what really stands at the heart of the book is not sex or puberty, but empowerment and acceptance.

“It’s empowerment through knowledge of your body and desires, and the language to express your needs and boundaries,” she says. “In this sense, we included feminism as a way to understand our experiences not merely as stand alone ones, but more often than not shared by many girls and women. Whether it’s related to the struggles of self-acceptance or gender-based violence, we talk about feminism because it’s important to see the context of our experiences, to know that we are not alone and that we have the power to bring about change when we act collectively and in solidarity.”

Vagina Matters is available for free download online in Bulgarian and will be published in the UK this month. It is an open book, created with the idea to make it available for publishing in different languages and contexts.

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