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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2015 > February 2015 > Women’s Empowerment: The Text and the Practice

Women’s Empowerment: The Text and the Practice

Sunday 1 February 2015, by Messaoud Romdhani

Tunisia could pride itself on drafting the most advanced code of personal status in the region, forbidding polygamy, legalizing divorce, establishing equality between partners in the choice of the spouse, limiting the age of marriage…that is to say, many important rights have been acquired by Tunisian women since 1956.

Still more impressive is the recent lifting of all government reservation on the CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discriminations against Women). It is, in fact, a landmark decision by the Tunisian government.

Unfortunately, there is still a considerable distance between nice theories and the bitter reality. The oppression of women remains a fundamental feature in everyday life and the more worrying fact is that women are now more than ever exposed to various forms of violence and abuse (verbal, economic, verbal….).

And since remembrance is mostly a memoria futuria, a lesson from the past to the future, let’s just recall that after the 26 October 2011 elections , there was a new regressive political speech; a willingness to curtail women’s acquired rights. Sometimes to question some of them in the name of Islam. For instance, we heard a female minister in the Troika government say, in no uncertain terms, that the customary marriage is “a personal choice.”

Preachers coming from the Gulf region have quickly taken over to spread a reactionary and misogynist speech. The deputies of the Islamist Party were not outdone; they tried desperately to substitute the notion of equality between men and women with “the complementarity” in the first drafts of the new Constitution.

Fortunately, these attempts were short-lived thanks to the mobilization of civil society and the final version of the Constitution helped reinforce the existing achievements as it’s been ,mainly, stipulated that the State has to ensure equality between men and women “in all fields.”

The Code of Personal Status, the New Constitution and the ratification of the CEDAW are, in fact steps of great value that clearly mark the path to women’s full empowerment. They’ve made of Tunisia one of the countries in the region where laws are constantly evolving towards gender equality and parity between men and women. The major challenge, however, remains the delicate adequacy between the text and its application in real life.

It is true that violations of women’s rights had existed before 2011. But it is also true that since the Revolution they have experienced a steady increase. And there is no shortage of examples: a rise in a deeply ingrained misogyny, more difficulties in access to unemployment in the private sector, as has been rightly noticed by Mrs. Neila Chaabane, Secretary of State in Charge of Women and Family Affairs.

With regard to physical violence, there’s been an increase in crimes against women. According to a report by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network called, “Violence against women in the context of political transformations and economic crisis in the Euro- Mediterranean region” (March 2014) there’s been an unprecedented rise of violence against women in Tunisia, including sexual violence. Statistics provided by criminal police revealed that 46 women were killed in the first ten months of 2013 (34 for the same period in 2012). It should be pointed out that 90% of these crimes are committed by a male partner.

Another source of concern: women trafficking. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Tunisia is a source, destination and transit country for women who are “subjected to force labor and sex trafficking.” Jihad Al Niqah (Sexual Jihad) among Tunisian women, if proved, is another source of major concern, (same previous source).

Indeed, Jomaa’s transitional government raised an alarm about the issue. The National Office for Family and Population has revealed that about 50% of Tunisian women have suffered some form of violence, knowing that 42% of them are university graduates.
Mrs. Chaabane stated that the study, that had an aggregate sample of 3000 women, showed that 31% had been victims of physical violence, 28% suffered sexual violence and 7.1% were subject to economic violence (13 August 2014).

Domestic violence remains the most common as has been shown in a study conducted by the Tunisian Democratic Women (ATFD, French acronym): 84% of women who are victims of violence are married, and 82% of cases happen in the matrimonial home.

And today there’s more and more talk of economic and social violence. The paradox is that while some “women are not allowed to work outside home, others have their salaries confiscated by the husband, this is not to mention pay inequalities at the workplace between men and women,” (Radhi Meddeb, President of Action and Développement Solidaire).

Certainly, the government is working, through constitutional bodies, to implement mechanisms that combat this scourge: a framework legislation to severely punish perpetrators of violence and a law that gives victims free access to medical care. Yet, it is evident that this is not enough. Both State and civil society should step up efforts to put in place listening centers for victims, ease access to legal aid and should integrate psychological assistance for abused women.

Nevertheless, there remains much to be done, mainly on education. Schools and universities can play an important role in the long run. The idea of equality between the two sexes should be instilled in the children’s and youth’s minds. In order for this to be possible, misogynist and reactionary contents of some curricula should be eliminated. As a start, we shall combat the ravages brought by the proliferation of the out-of-control Koranic Schools, often hotbeds for inequalities, sexism and fanaticism.

(Committee for the Respect of Liberties and Human Rights in Tunisia)