Tunisia must not turn its back on survivors of rape and abuse

By Magdalena Mughrabi, Amnesty International North Africa Researcher @magdamughrabi

When Meriem Ben Mohamed was charged with “indecency” after she spoke out against rape by two police officers in 2012, her case sparked a wave of protests and a national campaign for legal change, marking a crucial turning point for Tunisia.

Her plight also became a symbol of the numerous legal and social obstacles facing survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in Tunisia: archaic and harmful laws, discriminatory attitudes, police abuse and corruption, inadequate medical services and stigmatization.

For its latest report Amnesty International conducted interviews with 40 survivors of rape and abuse across the country, including marital rape, sexual harassment, domestic violence and physical assault. Among them were single, married and divorced women, but also people especially vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence such as sex workers working illegally and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people.

Although they led different lives and came from different backgrounds, they all expressed a similar concern: being shamed and held responsible for the abuse that they were subjected to. Indeed, many who had sought help either from their family or through the justice system were told to “deal with it”, or, like Meriem, were threatened with prosecution. “Assaulted and accused” – was a message conveyed over and over in every testimony we gathered.

“Assaulted and accused” – was a message conveyed over and over in every testimony we gathered.

Magdalena Mughrabi

Despite Tunisia’s leading position on women’s rights and gender equality in the Arab world, and positive reforms made over the years, laws on sexual violence remain archaic, and fail to protect the rights of victims. Instead, they reflect discriminatory attitudes and harmful gender stereotypes still prevailing in Tunisian society and place a misguided emphasis on “honour” and “morality”. 

During our research we met women who have been stuck in a cycle of physical violence and psychological abuse for years, because they had nowhere to turn for help. They faced rejection from their families, and were discouraged by the police from filing complaints. In many cases, they were told to put the interest of preserving the family’s reputation above their own security. Those who found the courage to report the violence to the police, often dropped their complaints because they were financially dependent on their husbands, or because of pressure from their community or family.

It is with this same aim of preserving family honour – often defined by the preservation of a girl’s virginity – that a loophole in the Penal Code allows rapists and kidnappers of teenage women to escape prosecution if they marry their victim.

Crucially, current laws fail to recognise that rape should be defined by a lack of consent – not the use of violence, they also do not explicitly recognize marital rape. Instead it is implied that a woman’s marital duty is to have sexual relations with her husband whenever he pleases. This is particularly problematic in a society where domestic violence remains widespread, and is yet to be tackled effectively.

Other laws criminalizing certain forms of consensual sexual relations between adults, including adultery and same-sex relations put LGBTI people and sex workers at increased risk of violence. Police regularly threaten LGBTI people telling them to drop complaints if they want to avoid being prosecuted themselves for engaging in same-sex sexual relations. We also met sex workers who were sexually abused or blackmailed by the police who threatened to prosecute them for adultery.

In a welcome step, last year, the Tunisian authorities announced that they were drafting a comprehensive law to protect women and girls from violence, which could go a long way in addressing some of the gaps in law that fail survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.

Yet as security matters increasingly dominate the public discourse in Tunisia, there is a danger that over the coming months sexual rights and gender issues will be forced to once again take a ck seat. These are issues that affect all ordinary Tunisians and it is crucial that they do not slip from the agenda. 

What Tunisia needs right now are a series of bold reforms to capitalise on the progress made so far and ensure access to justice for survivors of rape and abuse.

Magdalena Mughrabi

What Tunisia needs right now are a series of bold reforms to capitalise on the progress made so far and ensure access to justice for survivors of rape and abuse. This requires decisive and courageous leadership and a willingness to challenge existing social and gender norms and break taboos around sexual and gender-based violence. The authorities must move forward with a comprehensive law to tackle violence against women and girls, and repeal a series of harmful laws to bring them in line with international human rights obligations.

Tunisia can’t afford to take a step back when a breakthrough on these issues is within its grasp.

This article was first published by Tunisia Live here