Can Tunisia eliminate violence against women?
Like much of the world, Tunisia is plagued with violence against women.
What sets it apart, however, is that while it suffers one of the world's highest gender violence rates, the Tunisian government is now taking substantial measures to eliminate it. It seeks to build greater awareness while increasing protection and support for victims.
Yet human rights groups, researchers and even ordinary Tunisians feel that powerful obstacles could hinder the government's well-meaning efforts.
Often praised by admirers as the most progressive Arab nation for women's rights, Tunisian women and girls still face gender imbalances and discrimination in many aspects of their lives.
Nearly 70 percent of Tunisian women suffer from some form of abuse - the most prevalent being domestic violence, as the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women reported last year.
But a recent awareness campaign on gender violence includes a promotion of the country's new gender violence laws, which are set to come into force next year. The campaign began on November 25, and will last until December 10.
"This campaign will witness the signing of a joint agreement to protect female victims of violence between the Ministries of Justice, Interior, Health, Social Affairs, Women, Family and Children," said Naziha Obeidi, Tunisia's minister of women, family and children.
"This campaign will also intensify the outreach campaign on the Basic Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which was passed in July and will enter into force in February 2018."
|After decades of hard struggle from women's rights activists, and pressure from within the government, Tunisia's President Beji Caid Essebsi this summer passed a landmark law dedicated to stopping violence against women|
On the first day of the campaign, Tunisians received texts from UN Women, stating: "Campaign against violence against women from 25/11 to 10/12. Do not leave anyone out to put an end to violence towards women and girls."
Naziha Obeidi also announced another campaign to raise awareness of the Basic Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
After decades of hard struggle from women's rights activists, and pressure from within the government, Tunisia's President Beji Caid Essebsi this summer passed a landmark law dedicated to stopping violence against women.
|Special coverage from inside the fight for
women's rights in the Middle East
The law establishes tougher penalties for violence against women, particularly domestic violence. It also officially criminalised sexual harassment. It provides greater protections for victims of rape and abuse, along with providing easier access to medical and psychological support.
The new law also guarantees greater training for medical staff and educators to prevent, recognise and treat violence.
Despite these legal shifts and recent awareness efforts, societal attitudes and economic difficulties must be overcome to genuinely reduce such high levels of abuse, many observers warn.
Rothna Begum, women's rights researcher at HRW, says funding is one issue; more economic support for anti-violence initiatives is needed for the changes to be effective.
"It is important that Tunisia is raising awareness on its new law on violence against women, but the authorities should - during this 16 days of activism - commit to funding shelters, providing women with timely financial assistance to meet their needs, and assist them to find long-term accommodation," she told The New Arab.
|Many women are financially dependent on their abusers, and without adequate emergency shelter, long-term housing or financial assistance, they will continue to remain trapped in abusive relationships|
Tunisia currently has just five shelters for female victims of violence, while the Ministry of Women, Family and Children recently announced a new 24-hour hotline to report violence against women.
Due to Tunisia's economic woes, women in abusive relationships are discouraged from leaving by the certain financial hardship they would subsequently face. In the current climate, it would be almost impossible for many women to survive alone.
"Many women are financially dependent on their abusers, and without adequate emergency shelter, long-term housing or financial assistance, they will continue to remain trapped in abusive relationships," Begum added.
Each Tunisian woman interviewed for this report knew several female victims of violence, or was one themselves. Women are living in fear of their partners or other male relatives; of daughters being punched, beaten and abused by their fathers; and of sexual harassment and assault.
One Tunisian woman, who wished to remain unnamed, told The New Arab that her sister entered a ten-year marriage at 18 years old, only to face arbitrary violence from her husband.
"He started beating her for the smallest and most insignificant reasons," she said. She found it hard to leave the marriage. "She was dependent on him because they have two children; she didn't continue studying when she married him, and she didn't work. She just lived in misery."
Balkis, a 20-year-old from Carthage, feels societal stigma prevent female victims of violence from speaking out or seeking help, which makes it harder for the government - or anyone else - to help:
"If a woman is beaten and stays in the relationship, then she is a good respectable woman. She may find herself pressured by her family to stay in the abusive relationship."
Lina Ben Mhenni, a renowned blogger and assistant lecturer at Tunis University, says these problems come down to a lack of awareness and societal values.
"Several people see this kind of violence as normal and support the assaulters and try to find pretexts to their actions. It is not easy to tackle such subjects in Tunisia," she told The New Arab.
"I usually see horrible comments towards the women victims of violence and rape on social networks. Some of the commentaries and ideas are disgusting. Generally, when a woman is victim of violence, she is considered as the one who was mistaken. 'She deserves it,' some will say."
Awareness campaigns must therefore be broader, she says, in order to make a lasting difference.
"The government should consider including gender equality values and anti-women violence education in schools from an early age. Violence against women cannot be eradicated thanks to some campaigns. Tunisian media shows violence as trivial, and makes it seem commonplace and normal.
"More educational and awareness TV programmes should help. Moreover, these awareness programmes should reach different layers of society and regions in the country."
Could the Tunisian government's recent efforts make an impact? "It will take time," said researcher Mehdi El Behi. "I would say a very long time, unfortunately."
Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a freelance journalist who has contributed to outlets including Counterpunch, Middle East Eye and Tribune Magazine.
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