Tunisia has a dubious record in protecting its victims of sexual violence. From the families who still see rape as a source of social stigma, to a legal system that appears to regard cases of sexual abuse with a disregard that borders upon the callous.
In July, figures from the Tunisian Ministry of Women, Family and Children showed child abuse cases to have tripled over the last three years, as a legal disregard for the rights of the child combines with familial codes of omerta to perpetuate a system that as often as not blames victims for the abuse carried out against them.
According to a report issued last year by the NGO Amnesty International, the Tunisian legal system is notably inadequate in the way that it deals with victims of sexual abuse. Under the present legal system, those accused of rape can escape punishment if they agree to marry their victim.
Disregarded by the law, fearful of the stigmatization they and their families risk should they speak out, rape victims often choose to stay silent. Marwa (her name changed to keep her privacy) from Tunis told Tunisia Live her story.
Marwa is 30 now and married. However, when she was 13, she was repeatedly harassed, beaten and raped by her maternal uncle. He had come to live with her family. Their house was small, and didn’t have many rooms, so her uncle used to sleep with Marwa and her sister in the same room. Not long afterwards, he started to touch her sexually . “I was too young. I didn’t understand what was going on. When I woke up he told me ‘Don’t be afraid, don’t shout, stay still.’ He wasn’t a stranger. He was one of the family and I was confused,” Marwa told Tunisia Live. Sometimes he’d also hit her, forcing her to stay silent. She lost her virginity to him. When she discovered blood on her clothes after he had violated her, she thought it may be from menstruation and was confused. “My mom didn’t teach us anything. We didn’t know anything about virginity.” She decided not to tell anyone about what happened with her uncle, as she was afraid she would be blamed and, worse, her father might react badly. “My dad is hard and if I told him about this he would have beheaded my mom, or at the very least divorce her. Why? Because my uncle is her brother. And if he did that, he’d go to prison and my siblings and I would become homeless. The girls would have a bad reputation and wouldn’t be able to marry. These were the only issues I was concerned about.”
For years, the uncle sexually abused Marwa. When she turned 15, Marwa began to understand the implications of what was happening to her and started to avoid her Uncle. “But he still kept ‘throwing’ his hands at me whenever I got near him. Whenever I asked him to stop he said that I should keep silent or else he’d expose me. He’d tell my family that I’m a bad girl, that I’m doing shameful things and that I’ll bring dishonor to the family with my acts,” so she chose to keep the secret for fear of how it might impact upon those she loved.
Academically, she prospered. Marwa received the top grades for her class and was the most successful among her siblings. After graduating from school, Marwa continued her studies and became a lawyer:“I thought about becoming a lawyer or a judge in order to get my rights back with my own hands.” Later she married, which, after having lost her virginity, she had always considered unlikely. Many Tunisian men refuse to marry a woman who is not a virgin, even in the case of rape, and women value their virginity highly. “They say that even if you were the president of the republic, if you don’t have that thing [the hymen] you wouldn’t be considered a woman. They’d say ‘How are you a woman? You didn’t take care of yourself,’ as if it were the victim’s fault.”
After she got married, Marwa told her husband about her story. He was understanding and chose to support her. He urged her to talk to her family, to her siblings and mother, and try to file a legal case. However, despite the trauma Marwa had suffered, her family were less than sympathetic. “My sister told me ‘Why did you get married? You’ve wronged that innocent man instead of just keeping it to yourself.’ My mom also told me something similar ‘My daughter why? Why did you decide to talk now after all of these years? If you’re going to talk I’ll get divorced and I’ll be begging in the streets. Your uncles would also hear about it and everything will be upside down.’” Her brother, she adds, had the worst reaction of all. When her husband went to talk with him about confronting the uncle, he insulted her and accused her of lying. Now that she had left the family home, he said, she was seeking to destroy it. “He told my husband ‘She [Marwa] wants our dad to divorce our mom or behead her. My mom is the most precious thing to me, and if my sister would do anything that would ruin our home after she left it, I would behead her. Just as she kept silent for all of these years, she has to carry on. You married her, you deal with her.’”
Rejected by her family, Marwa sought support from the wider community of lawyers and NGOs who deal with cases such as her, only to find that the 10 year statute of limitations on cases such as hers had elapsed. Her best hope, she was told, was to launch a civil prosecution.
Lawyer, co-founder and ex-president of Association Tunisienne des Femmes Démocrates, Bochra Belhaj Hmida said that cases such as Marwa’s were not unusual. Belhaj Hmida told Tunisia Live how she recalled one occasion when a Court secretary berated a Mother for bringing charges on her daughter’s behalf in an incest case, saying,“Aren’t you ashamed of exposing yourself and your daughter?”
Belhaj Hmida said that even discussing sex between relatives remained a societal taboo, not only in Tunisia but throughout the world. Official figures on cases of sexual relations within families never represented the reality. In Tunisia, the mere presence of the victim is often seen as a source of shame and dishonor for the family, fueling the difficulty in how families react. Belhaj Hmida said: “The family sees it as something that would destroy it. I’ve met a mother who almost saw her husband with their daughter, but refused to acknowledge it. The evidence was there but she still denied it.” She adds that the case of Marwa also shows how hard it is for children to go through such experiences alone. “A child can’t do anything if there are no adults involved, especially in cases involving incest. Children have the sense of guilt and the fear of consequences.”
The charges should not be dropped after 10 years, adds Belhaj Hmida; “The violence against women law that we’ve been working on since 2007 changes the terms, so the ten year limit would only apply from the point a child reaches adulthood.”
Prior to working as a journalist, Inel worked as a computer programmer. Inel is fluent in English, French, and Arabic. He writes mainly about freedoms, liberties, and minorities' rights in post revolution Tunisia. He currently blogs about films in French and writes metal reviews.