It has been five years since the promulgation of Law 58 of 2017 concerning the elimination of violence against women. In this time, assaults targeting women have not only increased, they have become endemic.
Since the beginning of the year, nine women have been murdered by their partners. These victims add to the list of 15 women killed by their spouses in 2022. Between legislation and reality, the gap is glaring.
In just one month, between March 25 and April 25, 2023, the Ministry of Women’s hotline received 232 calls, including 167 relating to physical and material violence. According to statistics published by the Ministry of Women, domestic violence makes up 81% of these calls.
These numbers do not reflect the magnitude of this issue, says Monia Kari, former general director of the National Observatory to Combat Violence Against Women, legal expert and member of the Tunisian Association of Women Democrats (ATFD), in an interview with Nawaat.
A law without funding or political will
The government’s failure to apply Law 58 has become apparent through this surge in violence. « It’s women who are paying the price » remarks Sara Medini who works for the association Aswat Nissa, where she is in charge of cases involving women victims of violence.
Lauded by feminists as a historical landmark, Law 58 has crystallized the absence of a global strategy to stem acts of violence against women. Its implementation remains at a standstill owing to a lack of political will, which has translated into inadequate funding. « We cannot commit the resources necessary for a law’s application without the political will to drive it », Medini tells Nawaat.
Monia Kari argues that Law 58 suffers from an original handicap. « Every draft law should set a budget line for its application. The law was passed without this estimate », she explains.
This error was never rectified. « The Law did not establish the means necessary for its enforcement, » Kari continues. The State’s shortcomings are apparent throughout the Law’s different components, namely prevention, protection, care provided to victims and penalties for perpetrators of violence.
The Ministry of Women did not respond to Nawaat’s request for an evaluation of Law 58’s application.
Law 58 dedicates an entire section to the prevention of violence. Among the prescribed initiatives, training programs for different social actors which commenced following the Law’s promulgation. Since 2020, however, the government’s commitment in this arena has waned, Medini observes. In its 2021 report, the Ministry of Women laid out measures undertaken to apply the prevention component of the Law, notably the training of civil servants.
Monia Kari indicates that a great deal of money was invested in the training programs. « But how were they carried out, by who, and with what tools? You can’t train people by simply reading the law. Nor can you elaborate guides to then stuff away in some drawer. Training programs must be practical and ongoing » she argues.
With the objective of instilling a legal culture which ensures the proper enforcement of Law 58, the training programs in fact « often proved ineffective. Only a few individuals carry the spirit of this law and make an individual effort to apply it » Kari says regretfully.
Prevention requires a change in thinking. To achieve this, article 7 of Law 58 tasks the Ministries of Education, Higher Learning, Professional Training, Culture, Health, Youth, Sports, Childhood, Women and Religious Affairs with the responsibility of elaborating programs that introduce issues of inequality and combating violence within their respective departments. However, as Sara Medini highlights, the most important aspects of this article—the introduction of Law 58 into textbooks as well as raising awareness within the Ministry of Religious Affairs—were never accomplished.
According to Monia Kari, there is no global vision regarding prevention policy. Instead, initiatives are sporadic, coinciding with certain events: International Women’s Day on March 8, Tunisia’s national Women’s Day on August 13, or else the annual 16 days of activism against gender-based violence between November 25 and December 10. « We should dedicate a specific budget to prevention within each concerned ministry, then ensure its execution and evolution. This is not the case today », notes Kari.
Creating a buzz
It is also the absence of a budget which explains the National Observatory’s shortcomings. Having run the National Observatory to Combat Violence Against Women from 2020-2022, Kari describes the difficulties she faced serving at the head of this institution. « I lacked the human and financial means necessary to run it. I set to work with literally four people at my side », she recalls.
As per Law 58, this observatory attached to the Ministry of Women has many functions. The Observatory is notably responsible for producing an annual report on its activities. « It was impossible for me to submit this report with such meager human and financial resources. I was working on every aspect of this project », Kari tells Nawaat. Certain administrations within the Ministry refused to relinquish their prerogatives to the Observatory. Designed with the objective of ensuring the law’s proper enforcement, this institution has become the object of a power struggle.
Shelters for victims of violence were indeed set up in certain regions. Just as with the Observatory, however, the government did not carve out sufficient funding for their effective operation.
The Ministry of Women reports that the number of shelters rose from a total of two in the beginning of 2022 to ten in January 2023. But as Kari points out, these shelters which operate under the Ministry and are run by associations, do not have the resources necessary to provide services. She cites the example of a shelter managed by the Association of Tunisian Women for Development Research (AFTURD): « Employees were not paid. The association had to find its own sources of funding. Ultimately, this center closed for more than a year due to lack of funding ».
What’s more, these shelters were set up at random, says Sara Medini. The inauguration of a new shelter cannot be to simply « create a buzz », she explains. « There must be a global strategy driving it, based on the evaluation of needs in each region ». Statistics are still needed in order for such evaluation to be carried out. Medini adds that since 2011, a national study on violence against women has never been conducted.
The Ministry of Women is thus blindly moving forward, leaving unaddressed other aspects of the law regarding protection of and care for victims. The effects of this negligence are tangible on the ground, as the government struggles to fulfill its obligation to provide immediate protection and care for victims of violence. Drawn-out administrative procedures and judicial proceedings are to blame for this failure, in addition to authorities’ underestimation of the effects of violence.
« The victim’s formal request for protection can take four months. The State does not offer legal counsel to victims, even though the Law provides for this right. Verdicts may be announced after a long period of time, between one to two years in sexual harassment cases. As for crimes of sexual assault, it takes about one year for the medical examiner to produce a report, since there is only one medical examination department which is at the Charles Nicolle Hospital » Medini reports. All of these factors which discourage the victim from pressing charges simultaneously operate in favor of the aggressor’s impunity.
Faced with this situation, the Ministry of Women « settles for publishing statements every time a woman is murdered. Neither the Presidency of Government nor the Presidency of the Republic deign to show any interest in this issue » Medini tells us.
The Ministry’s casual treatment of violence is also manifest in its rapport with civil society. « Some associations are considered to be allies of the Ministry, while others have become public enemies », Kari mentions. And yet many of them step in to assume the role of the State in terms of the care they provide to victims, « work for which they receive no government funding, even though civil society does not have the resources that the State does », Medini points out.
Medini and Kari alike insist that any hope for remedying these shortcomings depends upon public policy accompanied by a substantial budget devoted to the issue of violence against women.
In the meantime, the Ministry of Women receives a meager sliver of the State budget, with 39.1 million dinars for 2023, a pitiful portion in contrast with the 191 million dinars designated for the presidency.