'Violence is a virus': Tunisia opens new women's shelter as domestic abuse surges during lockdown

'Violence is a virus': Tunisia opens new women's shelter as domestic abuse surges during lockdown
Cases of domestic violence have increased five-fold since Tunisia implemented a full-scale lockdown to combat the coronavirus.
6 min read
30 April, 2020
Violence against women has spiked following curfew and lockdown measures. [Getty]
A new refuge for women has opened following a surge in reports of domestic violence in Tunisia since the start of the Covid-19 lockdown.

The new centre, offering accommodation for female victims of domestic abuse, was set up by Tunisia's Ministry of Women, Family, Children and Elderly Affairs in April. 

With technical and financial assistance offered by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Tunisia, the centre is intended to help prevent transmission of the novel coronavirus.

The initiative was prompted by a new challenge posed by the health crisis - how to accommodate abused women in existing shelters without risking infecting those who already live there. In the time of a pandemic, these fully occupied centres are now wary of receiving new women.

Newcomers remain in quarantine in a reception centre before being transferred to the refuge. It was created as violence against women spiked as a result of curfew and lockdown measures against the virus.

Read more: Trapped in Lebanon: Fears of abuse for migrant domestic
workers amid Covid-19 lockdown

Since 23 March, when a full-scale quarantine was introduced, reported cases of violence have increased five-fold, according to Tunisian minister in charge of women's affairs Shiri Laabidi. Signs of the sharp increase came from the ministry's hotline, which operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to help victims of domestic abuse.

"The confinement has significant consequences within the family. Tensions have risen and risks of aggression against women are much higher," Laabidi told local media.

Tunisian women have also taken to social media to highlight the crisis, with one user Rima writing: "Domestic violence increased dramatically during quarantine in Tunisia. At least 446 women got violated this past month. Many women have nowhere to run away to because their families wouldn't receive them. This has no excuse! Violence is also a virus!"

The new shelter was established as both a protective and preventive measure over the spread of Covid-19. The minister of women was proactive in quickly approving the project, which also saw cooperation from civil society.

An old unused children's centre was converted into a space to initially receive elderly people in one half of the building and women in the other half. Soon, due to a higher demand for placement from abused women, the centre fully opened its premises to accommodate female victims only.

The confinement has significant consequences within the family. Tensions have risen and risks of aggression against women are much higher

Consisting of ten 14-day quarantine rooms, the newly set up space has reached full capacity. Afterwards, women are referred to one of the already existing shelters hosting victims of violence

Dr Rym Fayala, Assistant Representative at UNFPA Tunisia, explained that the organisation contributed to the centre by providing protective gear and hygiene kits such as face masks, gloves, gowns and hand sanitisers, along with some home supplies. It also assisted with technical advice on how to operate the facility.

Read more: In locked-down Lebanon, women at risk of domestic violence

"By the beginning of April we had sourced the necessary equipment, and had a discussion with the different stakeholders on how to organise services in the shelter," the deputy representative told The New Arab. "Staff were also trained by a doctor in Covid-19 prevention, hygiene and safety practices". 

The Association of Tunisian Women for Research and Development (AFTURD) deployed a small team of volunteers to take care of the women hosted at the reception centre.

Read more: Trapped with domestic abusers: How Covid-19 lockdowns are endangering vulnerable women across the Middle East

The association counts on the goodwill of five young volunteers taking shifts every day. Upon arrival, every woman is required to fill in a questionnaire to assess her health status and her temperature is taken. 

After taking a shower, she is given new clothes with hygiene and cleaning products. Strict rules of hygiene and social distancing are instructed inside the building. Meals are served separately with a dining table placed outside each room. Communal areas are disinfected every evening.  

"This foyer was created swiftly to provide an urgent service for at-risk women during the confinement period while safeguarding the health of those living in the existing women's refuges," Salwa Kennou, head of the Association of Tunisian Women for Research on Development (AFTURD), said. "It's an important investment". 

Kennou said most of the women registered at the temporary shelter are escaping abusive relationships in fear of their lives. "We received testimonies of women whose partners had threatened to slit their throats or pull out their eyes," she noted. "These are cases at high risk when victims are pushed to find safety outside their homes". 

Cases of domestic violence have increased five-fold since Tunisia implemented a full-scale lockdown to combat the coronavirus

AFTURD's president also mentioned some cases of sub-Saharan female migrants, victims of human trafficking, who are in an even more vulnerable position under the current lockdown. They have no work, their visas have expired, and their documents were previously confiscated by traffickers. 

Community activist Kennou highlighted that although female victims had entered the centre recently, they had long suffered domestic abuse. Indeed, the context of home confinement has only aggravated a general trend of violence against women. 

Read more: Coronavirus: Lebanon's LGBT+ community is locked down and unprotected

With the new facility full, there are potential plans to expand its capacity to reach out to a greater number of abused women who may urgently need a safe place to stay at this time. 

A week ago, the women's ministry stated it would consider supplying extra temporary spaces to receive more victims seeking help. 

Read more: 'No work, no money': African migrants struggle to cope
under Tunisia's coronavirus lockdown

UNFPA Tunisia reinstated its readiness to protect women and girls against abuse and facilitate their access to basic services during the coronavirus crisis. The North African country has 975 reported cases of Covid-19 and 40 deaths. 

Dr Fayala, however, said there are limitations in supporting victims of violence in the time of coronavirus. The justice system, for example, is failing to provide assistance, and she has advocated for the "quick reopening" of courts. 

She also emphasised the need for "safety nets" and "alert mechanisms" for gender violence, and for "more awareness-building" on domestic violence and violence against women at large. 

"We must make sure the law on violence against women is implemented, and there is no impunity," Fayala added. 

Although the Family Court can issue a protection order in favour of the victim, it is not functioning at present.

Furthermore, the special units in charge of violence against women typically have discretionary powers to evaluate the severity of a case and request the assistance of the prosecutor for emergency measures when they deem a case to be serious. 

The prosecutor is not usually keen on granting a restraining order against the assailant during a period of lockdown. In addition, many women victims who tried to take their complaints to police stations have reported being mistreated by police officers, who have discouraged or even refused to file their complaints. 

Further to pressure from civil society associations, the Supreme Judicial Council announced security measures this week for the family judge in cases related to violence against women and children ahead of an expected easing of the Covid-19 lockdown starting on 4 May.

It is a positive move, meaning that female victims will be able to file a protection request. 

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis. 

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec