(Tunis) – The law on violence against women, including domestic violence, approved by the Tunisian parliament on July 26, 2017, is a landmark step for women’s rights, Human Rights Watch said today. Tunisian authorities should ensure that there is adequate funding and political will to put the law fully into effect and to eliminate discrimination against women.
Women face high rates of domestic violence in Tunisia, with at least 47 percent of women experiencing domestic violence in their lives, according to a 2010 survey from the National Family Office. However, until the passage of the Law on Eliminating Violence Against Women, there had been no specific law on domestic violence. The new law also includes provisions on harassment in public spaces and economic discrimination.
“Tunisia’s new law provides women with the measures necessary to seek protection from acts of violence by their husbands, relatives, and others,” said Amna Guellali, Tunisia office director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should now fund and support institutions to translate this law into genuine protection.”
Tunisian women’s rights organizations have campaigned for a domestic violence law for decades. Their lobbying also persuaded legislators to eliminate from the penal code a provision that allowed a rapist to escape punishment if he married his victim, striking a blow against impunity for rape.
The law includes elements that are essential to prevent violence against women, protect domestic violence survivors, and prosecute abusers.
The law defines violence against women as “any physical, moral, sexual or economic aggression against women based on discrimination between the two sexes and resulting in damage or physical, sexual, psychological or economic suffering to the woman, including threats of such aggression, pressure or deprivation of rights and freedoms, both in public and private life.” It includes the key elements of the definition of domestic violence recommended in the United Nations Handbook for Legislation on Violence against Women.
The law introduces new criminal provisions and increases penalties for various forms of violence when committed within the family. It also criminalizes sexual harassment in public spaces, and the employment of children as domestic workers, and fines employers who intentionally discriminate against women in pay.
The law includes preventive measures, such as directing the Health Ministry to create programs to train medical staff on how to detect, evaluate, and prevent violence against women and educators on requirements under Tunisian and international law for equality, non-discrimination and how to prevent and respond to violence, to help them deal with cases of violence in schools.
The law includes requirements to assist domestic violence survivors, including providing legal, medical, and mental health support. Significantly, it allows women to seek restraining orders against their abusers without filing a criminal case or divorce. The orders can, among other things, require the suspected offender to vacate the home, stay away from the victim and their children, and refrain from violence, threats, damaging property, or contacting the victim. UN Women, the UN entity for gender equality, considers such orders among the most effective legal remedies to protect women from violence.
The law calls for establishing family violence units within Tunisia’s Internal Security Forces to process domestic violence complaints, and assigning a public prosecutor in each governorate to handle such complaints. The law also provides for criminal liability for “any agent of the specialized unit who exercises pressure or any other form of coercion against a woman to force her to abandon her complaint or to change it.”
While the law requires authorities to refer women to shelters if they are in need, it provides no mechanisms for funding either governmental or nongovernmental shelters. It also does not set out provisions for the government to provide women with timely financial assistance to meet their needs or assistance in finding long-term accommodation. The law, in sum, does not stipulate how the state will fund the programs and policies it brings into being.
To further combat entrenched discrimination against women, the government should also address discriminatory provisions in the personal status law. Although Tunisia has one of the most progressive personal status laws in the region, the code still designates the man as the head of the household and denies Tunisian daughters an equal share of an inheritance with their brothers, and in some cases with other male family members.
While Tunisia’s Personal Status Code sets equal marriage conditions for both men and women, a 1973 administrative directive forbids the registration of a marriage of a Muslim woman to a non-Muslim man. It includes no such restriction on Muslim men.
“By enacting this new law, the Tunisian authorities have shown a commitment to the rights of women and are setting a standard that many others would do well to follow,” Guellali said. “But other steps are needed for full equality.”