Tunisia Takes a Big Step to Protect Women From Abuse

 Tunisia has long been regarded as a pioneer for women’s rights in the Arab world, but the day-to-day life of many Tunisian women is still one of abuse and harassment. So when Parliament passed a measure last week outlawing violence against women, some burst into ululation and passed around bouquets of jasmine.

The new law makes it easier to prosecute domestic abuse, and it imposes penalties for sexual harassment in public spaces. It says that citizens are entitled to notify the police if they witness violence against women, and that children should be educated in schools about human rights. And it calls for both the police and judges to be trained on how to handle violence against women.

Tunisia already stood out among Islamic countries because of its legal arsenal of protections for women. Its code of personal status, adopted in 1956, allows divorce and outlaws polygamy, for example. But women’s rights associations and human rights groups say the new law is a major step forward, in part because it so broad, outlawing not just physical violence but psychological abuse and even economic discrimination.

“This is why the new law is so important, because it also takes care of the preventive side of violence against women in general, not only the reform of the criminal side,” Monia Ben Jemia, president of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, said in an interview.

Still, change may be slow to come to a culture in which many women experience domestic and public abuse daily. In 2016, the Ministry of Women, Family and Childhood reports, 60 percent of Tunisian women were victims of domestic violence. And 50 percent of women said they had experienced aggression in a public area at least once in their lives.

Another study published the same year by the Center for Research, Study, Documentation and Information on Women, a Tunisian group that works with the United Nations, found that 70 percent to 90 percent of women had been victims of sexual harassment, mostly on public transportation, from 2011 to 2015.

Picking tomatoes in Kairouan. Tunisian women say sexual harassment in public places is common. CreditFethi Belaid/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

When women speak out, it is often to little effect.

“We had too many reports over the years from victims of domestic abuse who said they were not taken seriously by the police when they filed a complaint,” Ms. Ben Jemia said. During Tunisia’s years of dictatorship, many women who were political activists or simply had ties to the opposition endured violence, including sexual assault, at the hands of the police.

Legislators drafting the new protections also joined a movement across the Middle East to do away with so-called marry-your-rapist laws, which allow men who wed their victims to escape prosecution. Although that part of the Tunisian penal code had largely fallen from use, last year a judge ordered a 13-year-girl who had been raped and become pregnant to marry her attacker. The case stirred up a national controversy and led to a push to change the law.

The New York Times

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