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Tunisia makes children's rights a national priority Open in fullscreen

Alessandra Bajec

Tunisia makes children's rights a national priority

Protecting children has become a national priority in Tunisia [Getty]

Date of publication: 2 April, 2018

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Tunisia has introduced a number of new laws and measures designed to protect the rights of children, making it a leader in the Arab world on this issue.

 

At the start of the year, Tunisia signed the Council of Europe's "Convention on the Protection of Children Against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse", also known as "The Lanzarote Convention". Tunisia became the only non-European country to adopt the convention - along 47 Council of Europe member states - that aimed at preventing and combating all forms of sexual offences against children.

This includes laws to tackle sexual abuse of children, exploitation of children through prostitution, grooming and exposing children to sexual content and activities, and other offences related to child abuse material.

"This adoption tells that Tunisia recognises the importance of child protection," UNICEF Tunisia representative Lila Pieters said, praising the country's decision to back the convention. 

"All actors concerned with child rights now need to work together to put an action plan in place."

Rights for children

During a debate on the convention, the majority of Tunisian MPs agreed there were gaps in the country's legal framework that increase the risks of child abuse. Lawmakers called for a fight against juvenile delinquency and prevent school dropouts that all contribute to the exploitation of children.

Parliamentarians said that at least 36,000 children have dropped out of school in the 2016 school year. Around 70 percent of street children have joined organised crime networks, with 5,000 theft-related offences and 1,500 sexual crimes having being committed by children.

"As more cases of sexual violence have been exposed, we realised that Tunisia needs protection mechanisms to fight such phenomenon," said Amel Nefoussi Koubaa, deputy director at the children services directorate of Tunisia's ministry of women, family and children. "The answer is in this covenant, we need to find the means to apply it."

The Lanzarote Convention requires all ratifying parties to establish specific legislation to criminalise the sexual abuse of children, introduce measures that could prevent sexual violence, and protect child victims and prosecute perpetrators.

Within this framework, the education, health, women, family and children, social affairs, justice and interior ministries are working in synergy to introduce appropriate prevention and response policies that are suited to the protection of the child.

Incidents of violence and abuse against children in Tunisia is are the rise according to reports on social media and civil society groups.

Ministries are working in synergy to introduce appropriate prevention and response policies that are suited to the protection of the child.


The last annual report on the activities of the Child Protection Delegation showed that child exploitation cases in Tunisia increased by 60.7 percent in 2017 compared to the previous year, especially base of domestic abuse.

At a press conference to present the report's findings, General Child Protection delegate Mehyar Hammadi noted that that state institutions were showing awareness of their responsibilities in protecting children.

"The Child Protection Delegation's activity in 24 governorates has documented a high number of notices [of abuse], and this is a proof of the awareness of state institutions and civil society components of their notice duty."

Guardians

Delegates for childhood protection are responsible for working with parents or guardians to prevent any violations or abuse that could threaten the security and development of children.

Child Protection Delegates received 16,158 notices of child exploitation in 2017. It was found that 63.1 percent of the children who had been abused were done so at home, while 17.7 percent of them had been threatened on the streets, and 16.3 percent of them had been bullied at educational institutions. The report indicated that parents (or one of them) and society were the main sources of threat with 49.8 percent and 17.3 percent respectively in the notified cases.

Parents' inability to provide sufficient care for their children represented the main cause of 3,634 cases (27.4 percent) followed by a lack of regular access to education and protection in 3,491 cases (26.3 percent). Cases of sexual exploitation accounted for 7.4 percent (680 girls versus 295 boys).

"In Tunisia, parents are insufficiently prepared to become parents, they are disengaged, which causes much stress in an already economically unstable and pressurising context," UNICEF's Pieters explained. "That can lead adults to turn violent against their own kids."

Acknowledging such deficiencies, the Tunisian government is currently introducing parenting programmes. By supporting parents as positive, primary caregivers, the goal is to encourage stable and positive relationships in families, and reduce violence.

With support from UNICEF and the World Bank, the ministry of women, family and children launched last August. It was an initiative aimed at reinforcing the dual positive role of parents in the child's upbringing with a focus on fathers, who have been known to neglect or provide little care for their kids. 

We focus our work on parental education in accordance with our vision of promoting a positive environment that benefits the child's development.
- Asma Matoussi, ministry of women, family and children


Through communication and awareness campaigns, along with training sessions, the project delivers good practices for parents to ensure quality education, lives that are free of violence, and protection of the child, while conveying the importance of sharing responsibilities in parenthood.

Carla Bruni-Sarkozy visited an SOS children's village [Getty]


"We focus our work on parental education in accordance with our vision of promoting a positive environment that benefits the child's development within the frame of an overall strategy on early childhood development and protection," said Asma Matoussi, coordinator of the multi-sectoral strategy on early childhood development at the ministry of women, family and children.

Protecting youth

A national strategy has been enforced that aims to ensure all young children in Tunisia - especially those vulnerable and disadvantaged - have access to quality integrated services through a framework of action for the physical, cognitive, socio-emotional child development.

The government has also developed a non-violent communication strategy involving a wide range of stakeholders including media, social networks, children and parents. 

In addition to this, the education ministry will work on strengthening the capacities of education professionals and child specialists so they are able to provide children with quality education and foster the child's individual development.

In late January, Tunisia's women, family and childhood ministry partnered with Finnish company Fun Academy for the further development of quality pre-school education in Tunisia. The main areas of collaboration include professional development, training, support to early childhood educators and executives, adapting learning materials and tools to the Tunisian context, and research on early education.

Through our programme we help families stay together and prevent child abandonment.
- Malika Hezzi, FSP coordinator at SOS Tunisia,


In 2017, Child Protection Delegates requested 14,068 legal permits (to raise cases of exploitation) and 4,279 social and psychological investigations by the concerned authorities, based on the last annual report on the delegation's activities. Last year, 13,916 protective measures were taken for 12,751 cases, which included providing help as well as psychological and social care to children, according to the General Child Protection delegate.

SOS Children's Villages, the world's largest NGO supporting children without parental care and families at risk, runs Family Strengthening Programmes (FSP) in order to help families to protect and care for their children. SOS is currently supporting vulnerable young people and children by providing day care, education and medical assistance.

SOS Tunisia

Malika Hezzi, FSP coordinator at SOS Tunisia, explained that on a preventive level, awareness training is run for FSP staff and the programme's beneficiaries (families and children) on issues related to children's rights and protection from abuse. Training is given to FSP's protection team on reporting and responding to reported cases. Visits and meetings are organised with family members as well as the different stakeholders such as nurseries and schools. Follow-ups on all child abuse-related cases are carried out.

"Through our programme we help families stay together and prevent child abandonment," said the FSP coordinator. "We also ensure access to basic services such as food, healthcare and schooling," she added.

In addition, public institutions operate integrated centres for vulnerable children and youth aged between six and 18, until they achieve independence. Where families cannot take care of their children, they offer full-board and half-board systems as well as providing additional services to provide children with the opportunities they need to enjoy a safe and stable life. There are also mobile clubs, run by the women, family and childhood ministry, offering cultural and recreational activities to serve remote areas of Tunisia. 

Besides this, the ministry of justice is considering creating a specific unit for enforcing justice to better protect children's rights.

In an effort to reduce risk of child abuse, during the debate over the Lanzarote Convention, one Tunisian MP suggested the inclusion of sex education in the school environment with the aim to identify when a child who has been sexually abused, and to protect the child from sexual aggression.

SOS Tunisia, for its part, will develop more actions to promote sex education among children and young people through regular awareness workshops in villages as well as in FSP programmes.

Tunisia is currently ranked ninth for child protection, and first in the Africa and in the Arab world. It has legislative mechanisms and specific laws safeguarding the child's rights, and prohibiting violence against children. The Child Protection Code in law number 95-92 of 1995 guarantees the child's right to development. Law number 95-93 further strengthens the penal code against any form of sexual or economic exploitation, by an individual or criminal organisation.

Tunisia has adopted a number of international treaties to tackle child abuse. Most notable was the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to prevent the rape of children, child prostitution, sexual exploitation and other abuses, and punish abusers. It also signed the additional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, regarding children in war zones. Along with this it approved an additional protocol to the UN Convention against organised trans-national crime, aimed at preventing, repressing and punishing slavery, in particular that of women and children.

With this, Tunisia has taken a leading role in tackling child abuse and shown the way for others in Arab world and Africa to provide a better and safer future for their youngest citizens.



Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis. 

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec

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