In spite of having a strong reputation for being one of the most progressive Arab countries regarding the status of women, Tunisia still has a long way to go when it comes to laws regarding violence against women, expressed Bochra Haj Hmida, a Tunisian lawyer and activist.
Women’s legal protection against violence in North Africa has been a topic of much debate recently following the events in Morocco, where 16-year-old Amina Filali was driven to commit suicide after her family forced her to marry her rapist, sparking an online campaign of indignation dubbed “RIP Amina.”
In fact, Tunisian law, like its Moroccan counterpart, provides the male assailant involved in “statutory rape” against a female minor with the opportunity to escape legal proceedings if he marries his victim. Tunisian law distinguishes statutory rape from forcible rape based on the absence of force or threat. Statutory rape is considered an intimidation as minors are considered legally lacking the capacity of giving consent to the act.
Before last October’s Constituent Assembly election, Amnesty International drafted a 10 point “manifesto” to urge political forces to pay more respect and attention to human rights while drafting the country’s constitution. Amnesty tried to present their manifesto to Tunisian political parties and convince them to sign it. “Out of more than 100 political parties, only 32 parties signed the manifesto without any reservation,” stated Sondes Garbouj, president of Amnesty International Tunisia.
“The ninth recommendation which evoked violence against women was among the reservations staged by some political parties,” she explained.
The recommendation stated: “There must be a law on violence against women, including domestic violence and marital rape. Provisions for dropping proceedings or penalties where an assaulted spouse withdraws her complaint, or where the assailant marries the victim in rape or kidnapping cases, must be repealed.” Amnesty is mainly referring to three articles of the Tunisian Penal Code.
Article 218, which deals with acts involving domestic violence, states that once the victim decides to drop the complaint, the assailant is not pursued anymore. “Several factors are to be taken into account when considering such cases as the priority is to protect the unity of the family. Withdrawing the case can save a family from worst case scenario which is divorce,” commented Kalthoum Kennou, a Tunisian judge.
Another controversial law is Article 227. This article states that in case of statutory rape involving a minor female between the age of 13 and 20, legal proceedings against the assailant may be dropped if the victim agrees to marry him. Haj Hmida said that although the marriage cannot happen without the consent of the victim, girls generally face familial and social pressure to marry her assailant in order “to protect the honor of the family.”
According to the Tunisian penal code, not only rapists are offered a chance to escape from legal proceedings: kidnappers of females may also escape legal proceedings if their victims consent to marry them.
Haj Hmida stated that a coalition of women’s organizations was formed to lobby for more protection for women against in Tunisia’s new constitution.