Coronavirus reveals Tunisia's revolutionary gains for women only exist on paper

Coronavirus reveals Tunisia's revolutionary gains for women only exist on paper
Comment: Much of Tunisia's crucial legislation designed to protect women is yet to take effect, leaving women more vulnerable than ever, write Sarah Yerkes and Maro Youssef.
7 min read
There were 40 reported acts of violence in just one week of March [Getty]

While Tunisia has fared relatively well during the Covid-19 pandemic with 49 deaths and 1,093 cases, one overlooked consequence is the increase in incidents of gender-based violence (GBV).

GBV cases have spiked globally, and in Tunisia, the Covid-19 pandemic saw a five-fold increase in reported incidents of GBV in three months. Tunisia is committed to gender equality and passed remarkable legislation combating GBV in 2017. But with much of the 2017 law yet to be implemented, Tunisian women today are particularly vulnerable, making it difficult for victims to find justice.

While the pandemic has serious health and economic consequences for the population at large, failing to adequately address GBV could lead Tunisia into further instability.

Following the 2010-2011 revolution, women saw many of their rights enshrined in legislation due in part to the work of the hundreds of new women's civil society organisations. While there was some pushback on women's rights from certain sectors of society, the transitional government expressed a clear commitment to women's empowerment.

Nevertheless, nearly a decade after the revolution, much of the crucial legislation designed to protect women exists on paper alone - with significant work remaining to implement the laws.      

Gender-Based Violence: A national pandemic

GBV is a global pandemic, and Tunisia is no exception. GBV in Tunisia affected at least 47 percent of women ages 18-64 prior to the revolution. Tunisian feminist pioneers from the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD) and the Association of Tunisian Women for Research and Development (AFTURD) mobilised around violence against women as early as the 1980s.

They conducted studies, signed petitions, formed coalitions, and set up hotlines and call centers in the 1990s to address the problem. But GBV cases continued to increase following the revolution. In 2012, rights activists condemned the state's inaction, after two policemen raped Meriem Ben Mohamed. In 2014, they organised an annual 16-day campaign to protest GBV and state inaction. GBV case reporting continued to increase with 70 percent of women reporting having experienced GBV in 2017.

Combating gender-based violence is a humanitarian challenge that goes hand-in-hand with fighting Covid-19

In 2017, parliament unanimously passed Organic Law No. 58, a comprehensive GBV law that protects against all types of gender-based violence - including political violence and marital rape; a revolutionary step in the Arab world. 

But cases continue to climb, due in large part to the lack of the law's implementation and or increased public awareness. For example, between 2016 and 2018, marital rape increased from 7,869 cases to 40,000 cases annually. It is no surprise that violence against women would worsen during a national lockdown, if the phenomenon was already a pandemic before Covid-19.

Gender-Based Violence and Covid-19

On March 23, the Tunisian government swiftly implemented a severe lockdown. Tunisia closed mosques, restaurants, land and air borders, and implemented a 12-hour daily curfew in response to Covid-19. While these measures were largely effective in keeping Tunisia's Covid-19 cases to a minimum, violence against women increased five-fold during the lockdown.

According to UN Women, there were 40 reported acts of violence in the span of one week in March 2020, compared to seven during the same period the previous year. Between March and May, government GBV hotlines received over 7,000 complaints, 1,425 of which occurred during the first month of the lockdown.

Read more: As family courts close, women struggle to access justice during Middle East lockdowns

ATFD's Tunis domestic violence shelter received 350 women weekly during the lockdown, a four-fold increase compared to before the lockdown. Finally, access to birth control is essential during a lockdown in a country where at least 14 percent of women experience intimate partner violence, but women lost access to birth control during Covid-19 since hospitals prioritised Covid-19 concerns.

Despite these trends, the prime minister and president have both been silent on violence against women during the pandemic. Activists vocally criticised the Tunisian government for refusing to take GBV seriously and for ignoring the UN's urge to protect women during Covid-19.

ATFD claims the Ministry of Interior and the police refuse to take women's complaints seriously, and pressure them to return home when they file a domestic violence complaint. ATFD and LET condemn the Ministry of Justice's halting prosecution and review of GBV court cases during the pandemic. Finally, feminists are critical of the Ministry of Health's inability to provide survivors with birth control or access to 24-hour shelters.

The state has taken some positive steps to address GBV challenges. In April, the Ministry of Women opened a new GBV shelter, with the assistance of the UN Population Fund. The High Judicial Council urged family judges to take all necessary measures to protect victims, guarantee their access to justice and tackle violence against women and children, as two extremely vulnerable populations during pandemics.

The way forward 

While Tunisia stands out in the region for its progress on gender equality, there is still work to be done. Donors who are supporting Tunisia's Covid-19 efforts should include financial support for the prevention and eradication of GBV as part of their aid packages. This can include financial support to local civil society groups fighting GBV, as well as technical training for the Tunisian government (parliament, police, courts) and religious leaders to support education and implementation of the GBV law.  

While many donors have shifted their focus from development to humanitarian assistance, donors should understand that combating GBV is a humanitarian challenge that goes hand-in-hand with fighting Covid-19. Thus, the international community should continue to empower impressive women's rights associations such as ATFD, AFTURD, Tounissiet, Beity, and Ligue des Electrices Tunisiennes (LET), all of whom are already known to major donors like the United States and European Union.

They should prioritise working with the Ministry of Interior to implement the 2017 GBV law by adopting gender-sensitive training on reporting abuse, following up with victims, and increasing the hiring of women within the Ministry of Interior and police force. The 2017 law requires a female present in all police stations, something the Tunisian government has failed to implement. 

Finally, Tunisian civil society actors and donors should pressure President Saied and Prime Minister Fakhfakh to take gender issues seriously. The small number of women in government at the national level sends a bad message that the gender equality Tunisians fought so hard for in the past few decades is not a priority. Specifically, the Ministry of Justice should expedite GBV cases so as to move women to safety as quickly as possible. Civil society groups like Tounissiet, can work with religious clerics on speaking out about the importance of combating GBV during Friday sermons. 

The small number of women in government at the national level sends a bad message

The uptick in GBV during the pandemic could have long lasting effects on women's rights and safety in Tunisia. Because of the Tunisian government's inability to protect women facing GBV, the country is likely to see a further deterioration of public trust of the government, particularly among women.

People who were already disappointed in the new government's gender (im)balance and lack of interest in advancing women's rights, may further withdraw support for the largely male national government as well as local officials who have failed to serve them. This could then contribute to a decrease in women's participation in public life, further exacerbating the gender divide.

It is critical for the Tunisian government to work with civil society groups and donors to address the current GBV crisis and install measures to make sure the safety of vulnerable women is a priority going forward.

GBV spikes often occur during holidays when women are forced to spend more time with their partners, and hospitals, domestic violence shelters and police stations either close early or operate at low capacity. Thus, Tunisia is likely to see further spikes in the future. Implementing reform now would both address Covid-19-related GBV issues and possibly prevent future GBV spikes. 

Sarah Yerkes is a senior fellow in Carnegie's Middle East Programme, where her research focuses on Tunisia's political, economic, and security developments as well as state-society relations in the Middle East and North Africa. Follow her on Twitter: @SarahEYerkes

Maro Youssef is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research focuses on women's rights, democracy, and social movements in the Middle East and North Africa. 
Follow her on Twitter: @Maraux

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.