On the 9th of June 2017, The Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies organized a workshop entitled “Violence Against Women and Children in Tunisia’’. The guests, including civil society representatives, members of parliament and political activists gathered to discuss the issues of a gender-based violence bill, recently introduced to the Tunisian parliament for ratification.
Dr. Rafik Abdssalam, head of the institute, inaugurated the workshop by highlighting the importance of the proposed legislation, he also alluded to the controversy occurring in and out of the halls of Parliament. Violence is turning into a serious social concern in Tunisia; and despite the fact that Tunisian women realized a deferential degree of freedom and legislative achievement since the independence, there are still many judicial gaps in need of painstaking analysis. Violence against women is an immoral social behavior by which women are forced into subordinate positions compared with men. Some forms of this violence such as rape, sexual harassment and sexual slavery have been formerly condoned and even perpetrated by the state.
Mrs. Ibtihel Abdellatif: Chairperson of the Truth and Dignity Commission
The philosophy of democratic transition relies on equality between both genders. However, recent statistics show that gender-based violence remains persistent in Tunisia, and when it comes to penal law, Tunisia is still far behind developed countries. For instance, harassment has a vague definition in our Criminal Law and fails to acknowledge that forcefully removing a woman’s veil should be considered as sexual harassment.
When we began our work at the Truth and Dignity Commission we noticed that only 5% of the victims submitted their files lest their secrets be revealed, hence the committee agreed that all victims should only be met by female representatives. Sexual violations were administered under pseudonyms and registered as encrypted data. An immediate care unit composed of psychotherapists, medical specialists and sociologists was established to pay attention to the victims and support them.
Women burst into tears the moment they had submitted their files. The anonymized victims testified at designated public hearings organized by the Truth and Dignity Commission, in an effort unique to the Arab world, seeking to salve the wounds from decades of dictatorship. The incidence of forced divorce during Ben Ali’s tyrannical period dismayed some of the world’s experts on transitional justice; women were forced to endure unbearable conditions. The committee received 16,000 submissions, 4000 of them had dedicated public hearings. We recorded 87 cases where the police ordered women to divorce their imprisoned husbands, and 48 cases where the women were forced into exile, 1070 of them undertook administrative control and 1486 were prevented from obtaining jobs. Publication 108 did not only prevent veils, it had other repercussions such as the denial of natural rights. Oppression had reached the point of killing many of the regime’s political oppositions, and the atrocities of the former regime were beyond traumatizing. One of the victims was deflowered and molested by a doctor using a sharp tool. More distressing stories followed; the most disturbing, was that of a girl who had been the subject of recurrent group rapes, almost leading her to insanity. Women underwent nerve-wracking interrogations, some were imprisoned. Consequently, they were seen as a stigma by their entourage and the fact that some of them tried to escape the oppression by attempting suicide just rubs salt in the wound …
Tunisia has some of the highest violence against women records in the region; regrettably, the prime abuser has been the state itself. Moreover, a high rate of violence against children has been recorded, which was indicated by the 300 children who had dropped out from school before their seventh year of basic education. Tunisian society appears to be traumatized and needs time—and earnestness from the state—in order to rehabilitate.
Mrs Meherzia Labidi: Member of Parilament
The Violence Against Women Law started off as a legislative initiative during the time of Mehdi Jomaa‘s technocratic government in 2014, when it was rejected. However, it was then revised towards the end of Habib Essid’s governmental period. Creating the foundation for change in the way we classify women in Tunisian society goes back to the period of the Constitutional Council. Furthermore, article 46 of the post-revolutionary Constitution states “the government is obligated to take all necessary measures to protect women from violence”, therefore it is a constitutional right…
Since 2008, Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations led many campaigns urging for the reform of women’s civil rights around the world. The issue of devaluing women has been prominent in many international conferences since the mid-nineties. It is time that countries of the Arab Maghreb also made a commitment to certain fundamental gender-based law alterations.
There are still some points that need revision regarding the legal definition of the term victim within the law. For instance, the woman and the child are often associated as the victim. According to the law ''rape is an intended assault by a man on a woman'', Yet rape exceeds the traditional explanation of a man violating a woman. We are nowadays dealing with cases such as statutory, marital and male rape, especially among children (child rape). The law is also concerned with victim protection rights, such as providing the appropriate care for victims who have been subjected to domestic violence and harassment, including the right to be treated with dignity and compassion; the right to protection from intimidation and further harm and the right to emergency accommodation in domestic violence shelters. In most cases, the punishment will be increased for criminal violations of children and women.
Yamina Zoghlami: Member of the Women and Childcare Parliamentary Committee
Despite the recent legislative accomplishments, Tunisian women are still being victimized. The law is applicable but domestic violence is still rising. Both forced divorce and forced marriage have to be criminalized. In the recent court trial of a 16-year-old girl from the city of Kef in the North-West of Tunisia, the judge declared that the rapist should marry the victim. Subsequently, there was a legislative bill calling to eliminate part of the 227 reiterated Act. Two studies have been conducted, the first was by the “Organization of Tunisian Women” and the second by the “Organization of Democratic Women”. Both studies stressed on prohibiting the offender from any exemption of judicial proceedings. They also called to omit the possibility of culprit to victim marriage. Statistics show that such matrimonies will fail since they are not intended to build successful conjugal relations; instead, they protect the interest of the felon. I cannot apprehend how it can be acceptable to unite the rapist and his victim together under the same roof...
The definition of the “State of vulnerability” in act 3 is a legislative farce. This act defines “the state of vulnerability” as “the state when the woman is violated”. Here the woman should have the right to determine “the state of vulnerability” and not the judge, hence she should stand for both, the defendant and the judge.
In conclusion, the debate between guests revolved around the efficacy of current legislations in controlling violence. They had the opportunity to reflect upon protecting the rights of discriminated-against women. Nevertheless, up to the present day, even prospering democratic governments haven’t been able to completely eradicate violence from their territories. For instance, it is estimated that every 3 minutes there is a victim of violence in France.