Before enactment of the integral law which mandates the State’s engagement in prevention, prosecution of those involved in crimes of violence against women, and care for victims, civil society had stepped in to meet needs where the government had not. At the forefront of this work was the Tunisian Association of Women Democrats (ATFD), the Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH) and the Association of Tunisian Women for Development Research (AFTURD). Since the early nineties, members of these organizations had campaigned to end discrimination and violence against women and to promote gender equality. In 2014, an initial integral draft law was authored by a group of experts including the ATFD’s current president Monia Ben Jemia. But the proposed reforms were contentious for the ruling political parties, and the draft was sidelined by the Mehdi Jomaa administration. Under Prime Minister Habib Essid in 2015, Minister of Women’s Affairs Samira Merai assigned a new team to adapt the text, excluding civil society actors from the process. Although the version submitted to parliament in July 2016 lacked many of the provisions included by the earlier authors, women’s rights groups and activists ultimately accepted the draft in order to push forward with the adoption of a new law.

Abrogation of an obsolete law

Organic law n˚2017-58 relative to the elimination of violence against women was adopted by a unanimous vote in parliament on July 26, 2017. The stand-out reform it introduced was the abrogation the penal code’s notorious « marry your rapist » provision, Article 227. Promulgated in 1958, the measure offered immunity to the perpetrator of a rape crime if he married his victim. In 2016, two separate cases of adolescents advised to marry the men by whom they had become pregnant drew public attention to the outdated measure and to media’s discriminatory and sensationalized treatment of violence against women, often at the expense of the victim’s right to privacy. Both incidents reinvigorated calls to accelerate parliament’s examination of pending legislation. Under the new Article 227, the perpetrator of rape now faces a 20-year prison sentence, or a lifetime sentence if the victim, female or male, is under 16 years of age or if the perpetrator is related to or « has an authority over » the victim. This includes a spouse, ex-spouse, fiancé or ex-fiancé. Whereas consent was previously considered non-existant for a victim under the age of 13, the current text sets the age of non-consent at 16 years old.

« Radicalizing the perception of violence against women »

In spite of several shortcomings, rights activists affirm that the text « radicalizes the perception of violence against women » as ATFD president Monia Ben Jemia told Nawaat. Just before the law was set to go into effect, Ben Jemia touched on the text’s main advancements, beginning with the broadened definition of violence against women to include « any physical, moral, sexual or economic assault against women, based on discrimination against the sex and which results in prejudice, suffering or bodily, psychological, sexual or economic damage… » (Article 3).

Under the new law, the State is not merely responsible for the « prosecution and repression » of those who have carried out violence against women, but also for the prevention of it and for protection of victims. Among others, the Ministries of Education, Health, Social Affairs, Justice and the Interior as well as the media are responsible for training staff and professionals in the prevention of violence against women. Media are furthermore prohibited from the « advertisement and diffusion, by all means and media outlets, of information containing stereotypical images, scenes, words or acts detrimental to the image of women ».

Significantly, points out Ben Jemia, the law also takes steps to hold police accountable for timely response to victims’ complaints and the reporting of cases of violence. « How many people who come to our centers tell us « I filed a complaint once, twice, three times, but the police didn’t report it, they refused, they didn’t follow up » ». Now, judicial police as well as professionals in the domains of health, education, and social affairs, must respond immediately to any demand for assistance and protection, are required to inform the individual of her rights, and to secure lodging if needed. Furthermore, each National Security and National Guard precinct is to set up a specialized unit to investigate cases of violence against women. Any agent affiliated with these units found guilty of exerting « pressure or any kind of constraint on a victim to influence her to renounce her rights or modify or retract her complaint » is punishable by a one- to six-month prison sentence.

Monitoring the law’s implementation, and its means

Article 40 stipulates the creation of the National Observatory for the Prevention of Violence Against Women which will be responsible for monitoring the « effectiveness and efficiency » of the law’s application. The text does not indicate who will run the Observatory, but Ben Jemia indicates that she and others will push for civil society representatives to serve among its members. Eventually, the Observatory’s functions and financing are to be determined governmental decree. In the meantime, a coalition of five ministries assembled in January to identify the government institutions responsible for data collection and the development of support for victims of violence. On January 15, the Ministries of Women’s Affairs, Justice, the Interior, Health, and Social Affairs engaged to coordinate monitoring efforts through a committee associated with the Observatory.

In spite of important changes that the integral law promises, Ben Jemia recalls that a number of discriminatory measures remain in the Personal Status Code dating from 1956. And since the law classifies discrimination as a form of violence against women, Ben Jemia observes, « it must review all discriminatory laws, including the Personal Status Code. This is our work now: we are going to ask that the law be made to conform with the constitution », says Ben Jemia. « When the law is adopted, the work does not end. It is only just beginning. »

Beyond the question of what strategies and approaches will be effective in eliminating violence against women, is the issue of how, financially, to develop them, given that neither the State budget nor the law itself designate any funding for the implementation of these reforms.