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(Tunis) – Tunisia has officially lifted key reservations to the international women’s treaty, an important step toward realizing gender equality, Human Rights Watch said today. The Tunisian government should next ensure that all domestic laws conform to international standards and eliminate all forms of discrimination against women.

The United Nations (UN) on April 23, 2014, confirmed receipt of Tunisia’s notification to officially withdraw all of its specific reservations to the treaty known as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). These reservations had enabled Tunisia to opt out of certain provisions, including on women’s rights within the family, even though the country had ratified the treaty. Tunisia started this process in 2011, but only in recent days formally notified the UN. Tunisia is the first country in the region to remove all specific reservations to the treaty.

“Tunisia’s action recognizes that women are equal partners in marriage and in making decisions about their children,” said Rothna Begum, Middle East women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Tunisian government, by lifting major reservations to CEDAW, is proclaiming its commitment to advance women’s rights.”

However, Tunisia maintained a general declaration stating that the country “shall not take any organizational or legislative decision in conformity with the requirements of this Convention where such a decision would conflict with the provisions of Chapter I of the Tunisian Constitution.” Chapter I of the constitution states that the religion of the country is Islam. This declaration should also be withdrawn, as no country should use its own constitution as an excuse for not complying with international standards, Human Rights Watch said.

Although Tunisia has one of the most progressive personal status codes in the region, the code still contains discriminatory provisions, which the UN will now expect the government to amend.

Tunisia’s new Constitution, adopted on January 27, has strong protection for women’s rights, including article 46, which provides that “The state commits to protect women’s established rights and works to strengthen and develop those rights,” and guarantees “equality of opportunities between women and men to have access to all levels of responsibility and in all domains.” It makes Tunisia one of the few countries in the Middle East and North Africa region with a constitutional obligation to work toward gender parity in elected assemblies.

Tunisia’s transitional government on October 24, 2011 adopted decree-law no.103 lifting the reservations to articles 9, 15, 16, and 29 of CEDAW. The Tunisian government published the decree-law in the official journal of the Tunisian republic. However, following elections in October 2011, the new Tunisian government did not send the withdrawal notification to the secretary-general of the UN in his role as depository of the convention. In practice, this meant that lifting the reservations did not have legal effect. 

The United Nations General Assembly adopted the convention in 1979. It defines what constitutes discrimination against women and establishes minimum steps countries must take to end such discrimination. Some state parties have entered reservations to the treaty, to keep from having to apply certain provisions. All states in the Middle East and North Africa, except Iran, have ratified CEDAW.  All of the others in the region that have ratified the convention have reservations with the exception of Palestine which acceded without reservations.

The Tunisian reservations concerned treaty requirements to provide equality to women in family matters. These include women’s ability to pass on their nationality to their children, their rights and responsibilities in marriage and divorce, matters relating to children and guardianship, personal rights for husbands and wives with regard to family name and occupation, and affirming the same rights for both spouses in ownership of property. CEDAW provides for full equality for women in all of these matters.

Tunisian women are currently denied an equal share of an inheritance, for example. Brothers, and sometimes other male family members, such as cousins, are legally entitled to a greater share. Article 58 of the personal status code gives judges the discretion to grant custody to either the mother or the father based on the best interests of the child, but prohibits allowing a mother to have her children live with her if she has remarried. No such restriction applies to fathers.

“The personal status code still makes women second-class citizens in their families and this needs to change” Begum said. “Ending all remaining legal discrimination against women should be a top priority for Tunisia’s lawmakers.”

Tunisia is also one of a handful of members of the African Union that did not sign, let alone ratify, the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol) which sets out additional rights to CEDAW. To ensure that it continues this leadership on gender equality, Tunisia should also sign and ratify the Maputo Protocol, Human Rights Watch said.

“With the new constitution and lifting of these reservations to CEDAW, Tunisia has proven itself a leader on women’s rights in the region,” Begum said. “Now it’s time for other countries in the region to take a stand for women’s rights and remove their own reservations to the treaty.”

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