Svetla Baeva (’07): ‘It’s up to us to put forward the vision of an inclusive and just society’

Svetla Baeva ('07) is the Campaigns Director at Fine Acts, a global platform for socially engaged creative solutions. She has an academic background in communications and political science from the American University in Bulgaria and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and has devoted the last eight years to championing issues concerning women's, LGBTI, refugee, minority and children's rights at a number of non-profits. She is a 2018 Fulbright Scholar, and as part of the program, she joined in the U.S. to explore effective practices in digital campaigning and people mobilization.

Together with Raya Raeva, acting Campaigns Director at the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, Svetla created Vagina Matters, the first-ever illustrated book on sexual health in Bulgaria. We talked to Svetla about the importance of an open sex-ed conversation, the link between art and activism and her academic and career path that led her to become a human rights activist.

Why do we need the book Vagina Matters in Bulgaria? What change do you hope it would bring?

The female body, menstruation and sex continue to be taboo topics in many countries, including Bulgaria, which makes it extremely difficult to have open conversations about sexual health issues that affect our physical, mental and social well-being.

While both girls and boys receive poor sexual health education (only 10% of schools in Bulgaria have dedicated classes according to a statement by the Bulgarian Ombudsman), we’ve found that girls are disproportionately affected. Bulgaria, along with Romania, has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in the EU ( WHO, UNDP).

To break down the taboo, we created Vagina Matters, the first-ever Bulgarian illustrated book on sexual health for girls. The book responds to the existing gap in sexual health education in Bulgaria. It creates engaging and accessible information for girls. It’s essentially a pocket guidebook with the answers to all the burning questions that girls might have about their bodies, menstruation, sex and more. Vagina Matters encourages a culture of curiosity and openness around these issues, so crucial to growing up and understanding ourselves.

We just completed a successful Indiegogo campaign to cover the costs to publish and distribute the book for free online and offline through local partnerships in Bulgaria. If we fundraise above our goal, we will also be able to translate the book into English and open it up for translations in other languages. We hope the book will serve as a wake-up call for improving government policies on this issue.

What are the most important issues discussed in the book?

Vagina Matters covers a wide range of issues, including the female body, menstruation and sex.

We continue to teach children about the basic don’ts in sexual health but shy away from giving them the full knowledge of their bodies. In this way, we negate them the power of control over their experiences and the confidence to speak aptly about health situations or how they’re feeling whether with partners or in the gynecologist's office.

The book is based on compassionate and comprehensive sexual health education, where girls not only learn about unwanted pregnancies and STI’s but really get to know their body and how it functions in a positive way.

But it’s not only about the facts. It also explores our relationships, including the one with our body, and touches upon issues such as stereotypes, equality and violence.

How was the idea for the project first born? Who are the people behind it?

Vagina Matters is a project by Fine Acts, a global platform for socially engaged creative solutions. The idea for the book materialized nearly two years ago. It finally sprang to life last year when Raya Raeva, the acting Campaigns Director at the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, and I, the authors of the book, began our extensive research and reached out to sex-ed and medical professionals. Remembering how unprepared we were ourselves and how much we had to learn on our own, we were struck by the troubling statistics regarding the high number of unwanted pregnancies and the early age for first-time sexual intercourse.

We wanted to create a book written by women for women to pass on all the knowledge that we’ve learned through our work and trial and error in an engaging way. We’re both human rights activists and we’ve been championing women’s rights for years and have worked on a number of campaigns and initiatives in the field.

To make Vagina Matters appealing and engaging, we partnered with two talented illustrators Borislava Karadjova (with artistic name Borislava Willnevermadeit) and Mihaela Karadjova (with artistic name STALKERSINCE 1993), who have embarked on this journey to illustrate our educational book filled with myth-busting, practical advice.

Projects are always teamwork and there is an endless list of people who have contributed to Vagina Matters. Not to mention the nearly 200 people who supported the Indiegogo campaign from Bulgaria and beyond.

What are some of the other projects you have worked on as a campaign director at Fine Acts? What would you say is the role of art in activism?

Artists and creatives have always been powerful interpreters of complex issues. Art is one of the best ways to challenge social injustices, as it can be transcending, connecting people to issues on a deeper, emotional level. It can communicate issues in novel and unexpected ways so important messages can rise above the noise, and inspire action.

As Campaigns Director at Fine Acts, I’ve had the opportunity to work on an exciting range of projects over the years.

●      This July we launched an art action, part of the Inside Out initiative by French artist JR, together with a Roma community in Sofia that was forcibly evicted. In 2017, their houses on Gradinite Street in the Orlandovtsi neighborhood were destroyed, automatically making at least 50 people, 30 of them children, homeless. The people were given only a week’s notice. Some were given tents by church representatives, while others created makeshift shelters comprised of debris from their destroyed homes. Through the art action, the community reclaimed their demolished neighborhood in an attempt to shine a light on forced evictions that disproportionately affect Roma families across Bulgaria.

●      Besides working on social-engaged art and campaigns, I also helped launch two unique formats called ACT Labs and Fine Acts Sprints, through which we inspire the creative and tech communities to become active supporters of the human rights movement. Labs explores the intersection of human rights, art and technology to develop a range of solutions - from immersive art pieces to apps with a strong art component. While Sprints appeals to visual artists to work on specific human rights issues, which feeds into, a free vault of curated graphics social justice issues that changemakers anywhere can use or adapt for non-commercial purposes.

Tell us a bit about your career path: what was your first destination after AUBG and what has happened since then?

After my undergraduate degree at AUBG, which combined a double major in communications/journalism and political science, I was torn between going into communications/design and working on social justice issues. But I decided to deepen my knowledge and continued studying political science and international relations at Sapienza University, Rome and then Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. When I returned to Bulgaria, I was lucky to have found a place to combine my two interests at the leading human rights organization in the country, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, as a researcher and communications officer. I eventually ended up as the Campaigns and Communications Director.

On my first day at work, I visited three social care homes for people with intellectual disabilities near Burgas, who were living in dire conditions, nothing resembling a home. I saw a glimpse of a Bulgaria that’s often hidden, overflowing with untold stories, sometimes purposely suppressed, sometimes a result of a deep disinterest and neglect. Ever since then, my work has been to tell those stories in a compelling way. I’ve worked on issues from children’s and refugee rights to women’s and LGBTI rights. Over the years, I experimented in how to tell those stories by using different approaches and tactics from theatre to public art stunts. I’ve been involved with Fine Acts for three years now, and last year I joined the team full-time to explore my interests at the intersection of art, human rights activism and technology.  

In what ways have your AUBG education, experience, professors and friendships had an impact on your career and who you are today? Are you still in touch and collaborating with other AUBG graduates?

AUBG gave me a sound foundation that I keep coming back to and when I compare it to the many universities that I’ve been to, I know that I’ve had a great start. The friendships I made then are even more important to me today and have only gotten stronger. I stay in touch with many AUBG graduates. It is a great network for advice and collaboration, which is a source for the perspective that I sometimes crave.

What advice would you give to recent graduates on how to bring sustainable positive change in their communities and the world?

Bringing sustainable positive change is about caring about your surroundings, which may impact you directly or indirectly. As Maya Angelou, a favorite author of mine once said: “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” Like a new prickly, woolen sweater, change can be uncomfortable and it is always preceded by naming and vocalizing the problem. And like in any really bad time travel movie, there’s that moment when you realize that only you can impact the future. It’s up to us to set the terms and put forward the vision of an inclusive and just society.

Interview by Dimana Doneva

We are Social