Tunisia’s parliament passed new legislation on July 26 to outlaw violence against women, a landmark step in protecting women’s rights in the country.
The North African nation, which transitioned from dictatorship to democracy as the birthplace of the Arab revolutions, previously had no specific law on domestic violence.
The new legislation, entitled the Law on Eliminating Violence Against Women, will allow women to seek protection from domestic violence committed by husbands or relatives, and provides provisions on harassment in public spaces, as well as economic discrimination.
The comprehensive bill criminalizes sexual harassment in public space, makes it easier to prosecute domestic abuse, and calls for police and judges to be trained on how to handle violence against women.
Critically, it also scraps a provision from the penal code allowing rapists to escape punishment if they marry their victims, setting a precedent in the region. A week after the bill was passed, Jordanian MPs voted to eliminate a similar law, while Morocco and Lebanon are also considering following suit.
“All of this represents a revolution in the legal system and also a revolution in the mentality because usually the violence against women that takes place inside the house is considered something private and something for the family to deal with,” Amna Guellali, Tunisia office director for Human Rights Watch, told FRANCE24.
Tunisia is considered a pioneer in women’s rights in the Arab world, with more than thirty percent of MPs women, the highest number in the Middle East. But domestic and public abuse is rife. In 2016, the Ministry of Women, Family, and Childhood said that 60 percent of women were victims of domestic abuse, while 50 percent experience harassment or aggression in public spaces.
The campaign to change the law, which will come into effect next year, was largely led by women’s rights organizations, together with different political parties and civil society groups. During Tunisia’s years of dictatorship under Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, from 1987 to 2011, women who were political activists or connected to the opposition were routinely victims of state violence, including sexual assault.
While the new legislation embarks on a bold new mission to provide accountability for violence against women, it does not set out how the state will fund new programs, Human Rights Watch says.
To fully combat entrenched discrimination against women, the government must also address the country’s personal status laws, which despite being the most progressive in the region, still designate the man as head of the household, deny equal inheritance rights, and forbid the registration of marriage of a Muslim woman to a non-Muslim man.