A year ago, the Tunisian parliament passed the country’s first law that criminalizes gender-based violence. The bill, passed on July 26, 2017, received the approval of 146 out of 217 possible votes.
The Law on Eliminating Violence Against Women (N.60/2016), which formally went into effect February 1, 2018, was hailed as a landmark in the ongoing fight against violence towards women. The new legislation defines criminal offenses, reforms existing legislations and calls for new government initiatives. It represents an important step in the advancement of women’s rights in Tunisia and the Arab world, but is still far from achieving equality between the sexes.
The text is progressive in a number of aspects. First, it adopts a broad definition of violence, recognizing not only physical violence, but also economic, sexual, political, and psychological violence. It furthermore repeals Article 227 of the penal code, also known as the “marry your rapist” law. Article 227 served to reduce rapists’ prison sentences should they agree to marry their victims. The new legislation additionally grants victims of violence access to vital support services such as legal and psychological aid, as well as domestic violence shelters.
The law also criminalizes sexual harassment. Perpetrators are now subject to a maximum two-year jail sentence and a fine of 5,000 dinars, if found guilty, compared to the previous penalty of a one-year prison sentence. The penalty can be doubled if the victim is a minor or the harasser holds a position of authority over the victim.
There are presently seven women’s shelters in the country, most of which have opened since the Jasmine Revolution in December, 2010. The 2017 law has encouraged the opening of additional new centers, including one in the mining city of Gafsa. The shelters offer a number of services, such as physical protection, legal counsel, employment training, child care, and mental health and medical treatment.
Human rights groups have lauded the new legislation as tangible progress in Tunisia’s struggle for gender equality. “It is real progress… that could change lives,” stated Ahlef Belhadj from the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (AFTD). According to activists, the law comes as a result of twenty-five years of organizing and campaigning by human rights groups.
Tunisia has one of the Arab world’s most progressive stances on women’s rights. In 2014, the North African nation adopted a new constitution that ensures equality between the sexes. Article 21 declares, “All citizens, male and female, have equal rights and duties, and are equal before the law without any discrimination.” Tunisian women have the right to divorce and gain custody of their children, and polygamy was banned under the Personal Status Code adopted in 1956, the same year the country gained its independence from France.
While the 2017 law is an important milestone for women’s equality, “[T]his is only the tip of the iceberg,” Belhadj told the media outlet Arab News. “It’s not enough to pass laws, we must make sure of the conditions of their implementation.” In reality, the new law has encouraged the creation of women’s centers, but it does not provide any mechanism for funding them. Belhadj added that “the road is still long in the absence of a specific budget dedicated to enforcing the law.” Presently, all seven centers are funded by the European Union.
Gender-based violence is still prevalent in Tunisia, as in the rest of the world. According to a 2016 survey by Tunisia’s Ministry of Women, Family and Children, about half of all Tunisian women reported that they had, at one time, been victims of domestic violence. Research conducted by nongovernmental organizations suggests the number may be even higher. Meanwhile, the same percent claim that they have experienced aggression in a public place at least once.
Rape is still a culturally taboo subject in Tunisia, and victims are often dissuaded from reporting assault. Even when rape is reported, the number of cases that move to prosecution is relatively low. The Ministry of Justice found that out of 5,569 instances of domestic abuse recorded between 2016 and 2017, more than half were not prosecuted.
2017 represented an important year for the advancement of women’s rights and freedom. Later in the year, the Tunisia parliament adopted a law to allow women to marry men from any faith. Until then, if a Tunisian Muslim woman wished to marry a non-Muslim man, the groom-to-be was required first to convert to Islam and to present a certificate verifying his conversion. Men, on the other hand, were allowed to marry women belonging to any faith. Tunisia is 99 percent Muslim, though it is also home to a small minority of Jews and Christians.
Women’s rights activists point out that in addition to gender-based violence and harassment, remaining discrimination is still a major concern, particularly related to the division of inheritance among sons and daughters. The new legislation appears to be a step in the right direction towards gender equality, but there is still a long road ahead.