As high rates of violence against women continue to plague Tunisian society, the government is making an effort to join the national movement to protect women.
Representatives of the Tunisian Ministry of Women’s Affairs are partaking for the first time in a 16-day campaign to shed light on the oft-sidelined situation of abused women in Tunisia, according to Meher Swilem, the ministry’s communication officer.
The campaign, a UN Women initiative and one organized by a collection of civil society groups, began yesterday on the International Day to End Violence Against Women.
In one of the first nation-wide surveys on the subject, the state-run Tunisian National Board for Family and Population (ONFP) found that about 50% of Tunisian women still experience some form of domestic violence, including physical, psychological, sexual, and economic.
Responding in part to the survey, the ONFP inaugurated today a center for psychological assistance to support female victims of violence in the Tunis suburb of Ben Arous. It will open on December 10 as the first shelter for victims of violence, which will provide legal and psychological assistance.
Previously, women facing violence only had access to a government hotline.
“Most women who contacted us were dealing with domestic violence caused by their husbands. Now we’re opening this refuge center following the European model, which is a first in our country,” Swilem said.
Swilem said that other ministries, including the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of the Interior, are cooperating with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs to ensure the success of their events and initiatives.
But members of civil society say that, despite the ministries’ best efforts, the Tunisian penal code does not go far enough to combat violence against women.
Articles 218, 226, and 227 of the Tunisian Penal Code prohibit different types of violence against women, including domestic violence and sexual harassment. However, lawyer and feminist activist Khadija Madani said that laws like Article 218, which includes stronger punishment in cases of abuse against a woman committed by her husband, do not go far enough.
“This law is necessary, but not sufficient. It is not applied very often,” she said.
Dalinda Larguech, feminist historian and director of Tunisia-based Center of Studies, Research, and Documentation of Women (CREDIF) described the laws protecting women’s rights as “incomplete” and said that they should be rewritten or modified.
“The CREDIF staff is working on a study about violence against women in the public space. We never had the statistics before,” she added.
Swielm, Larguech, and Madani addressed another major factor in dealing with violence against women: mentality.
In addition to stricter enforcement of the law, Swilem said the movement must change mentalities and raise more awareness about violence against women.
Larguech said that many women refuse to break their silence when they suffer from abuse, in fear of being judged by the society.
Madani also criticized common attitudes towards violence against women. “Unfortunately, when a woman is abused, it makes her feel worthless and that she deserves being assaulted,” Madani said. “That mindset ruins her life, and the lives of those in her environment.”
“It’s about time we changed this sad reality,” she said.