What difference does learning about your sexual and reproductive rights make in practice?

By Maryam Hamami, Sabri Yazidi, Camille Roch

Making your own decisions about your health, your body and your sexual life are basic rights. But how do you claim these rights when everyone else around you thinks this is taboo? In Tunisia, activists have developed ways to break the silence about issues no one talks about.

“When I first got involved in the My Body My Rights campaign, whenever I would try to raise the issue of sexual and reproductive rights, my friends would stop me or refuse to listen”, says Sabri, 23, activist at Amnesty International Tunisia.

“Because of the influence of religion, of customs… Because this is something you just don’t talk about.”

In Tunisia advocating for sexual and reproductive rights represents a great challenge. Discussing sexual issues, accessing information, or reporting violence and abuses are still largely perceived as taboo.

Gender-based violence and discrimination against women on the other hand remain prevalent. In 2010 a government survey showed how nearly half of all women in Tunisia have experienced violence at least once in their lives. The legislation still fails to prevent it, and victims of sexual violence are too often told to deal with it.

So how do you break the silence surrounding discrimination and sexual and reproductive rights when no one wants to talk about it?

Making change possible through education, activists from Amnesty International Tunisia have shared three examples to show how human rights training is helping them build up new educational projects and reach out to other young people.

Sexual and reproductive rights on screen

Across the country, activists have set up trainings in universities for students to develop a critical understanding of sexual and reproductive rights.

During filmmaking workshops, they use images to help students express on screen what they see happening in real life and use fiction to depict what discrimination means to them.

“We’ve found this is a good way to get students to express themselves about sexual and reproductive rights. The movies, directed for and by students, show their concerns on themes such as sexual harassment, violations occurring in their lives, or why women feel they cannot exercise the same rights as men,” says Sabri.

University students attend the first edition of the human rights film festival, Gafsa, Tunisia, February 2016 © Amnesty International

Seif, 23, one of the monitors , notes the impact this form of training has had on students in the cities Gafsa and Tozeur:

“We are trying to create a safe space for people to discuss the topic of sexual and reproductive rights, which is challenging because of different factors, like the fact that the majority of the people are conservative, or because of the influence of religion. After the session we noticed young people started changing their attitude and the way they behave towards sexual and reproductive rights, they also engage with others and change the behaviours of their friends and relatives."

In total students directed 19 short films which were aired at this year’s first edition of the human rights film festival, launched to support the students’ work.

Gender equality on stage

In the suburban areas of Tunis, 120 teachers have been trained in more than 20 schools to implement theatrical plays on themes including sexual and reproductive rights and women’s rights.

In Carthage, 480 primary school students participated in putting on plays that focus on messages such as the right for children to make decisions about their bodies, where to get help, and how to discuss taboo subjects in schools.

Students participated in the writing of plays on themes such as gender equality, citizenship and environment, Carthage, Tunisia, February 2016 © Amnesty International

Introducing these topics in the form of theatre facilitates the learning process for children, but also enhances parents’ participation:

“We try to focus on gender equality rather than sexuality, which is perceived as less problematic when talking about difficult or taboo topics. With this method we’ve noticed that students have become more involved in topics such as citizenship or sexual rights in school or in a family context. They’re also more communicative between themselves and between genders. This creates an environment of trust and openness in the classroom, as well as a better understanding,” says Bechir Manai, activist and primary school inspector.

Starting from the next school year, the method will be expanded to the northern regions of the country to reach more schools.

Women’s rights in the media

Increasing awareness of women’s rights has yet to be expanded beyond formal education to reach people across the whole country.

To tackle this, Amnesty International Tunisa has been providing trainings for media professionals in Mednine to reinforce their knowledge of sexual and reproductive rights. Journalists and bloggers have taken part in sessions that focus on defending human rights in the media and sending clear messages to the public.

At the two-day training, journalists and bloggers look at ways to better report on human rights violations and women's rights, Mednine, Tunisia, March 2016 © Amnesty International

“After the revolution, there’s been a big boom in journalism, both in terms of the number of journalists and the reporting of topics previously considered as taboo, but there has been also increasing concerns regarding the impact media can have in shaping public opinion.”

“We’ve seen that when reporting about human rights violations, or women’s rights, the terms being used are not well formulated. We’ve organized these trainings to develop a charter of conduct with journalists and establish new ways to think about and report on these issues,” says Monem Khaskhoussi, human rights education coordinator at Amnesty International Tunisia.

Following the training, all participating journalists sign a code of conduct with which they commit to highlight women’s rights and enhance their work on sexual and reproductive rights.

In Tunisia, the training of activists is part of the Education – Empowerment – Justice (EEJ) program, which aims to strengthen human rights and contribute to a greater justice through human rights education and empowerment initiatives, particularly to combat violence against women in Tunisia and raise awareness about sexual and reproductive rights. 

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