Tunisia - one step forward, two steps back?

On 17 December 2010, in a small town in central Tunisia,  the desperate and tragic act of one young street vendor quite literally sparked the flames of protest across the Middle East and North Africa.

Having been humiliated by officials and unable to find work, 24-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire. The maelstrom of popular fury that followed culminated in a huge demonstration in the capital Tunis on the 14 January. The people of Tunisia stood together and demanded the departure of President Ben Ali.

Hours later, after the demonstration had been dispersed with tear gas, they heard that Ben Ali and his family had fled the country.

Looking positive

Tunisians hoped this was the start of something good. That genuine change and reform would come next. Initially, things looked positive. In the months following the ousting of Ben Ali, the caretaker government ratified a number of key human rights treaties. New national laws were introduced and old ones amended. In February 2011, political prisoners and prisoners of conscience detained before the uprising were released, and NGOs were able to operate more freely.

A year ago today as the first free and fair elections in the country for a decade were held, things were looking positive. But one year on, cause for celebration is worryingly absent.

Our latest report, released today, instead identifies some worrying trends The very bodies associated with repression, particularly the police, continue to commit human rights violations. Commitments made following the uprising have yet to be fulfilled, and there have been some serious setbacks.

I am particularly concerned about women’s rights. Following the uprising, the interim government took a number of steps to ensure women enjoyed equal rights to men, and in April 2011 adopted the principle of parity between sexes in elections.

Positive changes seemed to continue when, in March 2012, Tunisia agreed to implement a strategy to eliminate negative stereotypes of women, and ensure the principle of equality was reflected in the new Constitution.

In reality, however, little progress had been made.

In November 2011, NCA member Souad Abderrahim, said on a radio debate that single mothers were “an infamy” and they should not aspire to laws that respect their rights.

Existing law allows for a man  who rapes or abducts a female minor to escape prosecution if he marries her.

Other legislation still in place is used against victims of rape. On 3 September a young woman was with her fiancé in a car in Tunis when three policemen approached them. The young woman says that two of the police officers raped her in their police car, while the third took her fiancé to a nearby cash machine to extort money.

As you would hope, the officers involved were arrested, charged and detained. But unexpectedly, the woman herself was also charged. She was summoned to court on 26 September to face a complaint of ‘intentional indecent behaviour’, after the policemen alleged that they had found the couple in an “immoral position” in the car.

At best, charging the victim of a rape rather than protecting her from intimidation and stigma highlights the deep flaws in Tunisian law. At worst, it is an insidious attempt to discredit a rape victim and protect those accused of raping her.

That such legislation is still in force in Tunisia raises massive question marks about the seriousness of efforts by the authorities to promote and respect women’s rights. It seems a very basic step that anyone found guilty of rape should be prosecuted and punished with a sentence that reflects the seriousness of the crime.

Where next?

The coming months will be crucial in determining whether the new Tunisia will guarantee women all the rights to which they are entitled. The authorities must seize this opportunity to ensure that these rights are firmly enshrined in law, starting with the constitution (PDF).

Tunisia is at a crossroads and despite the gains made since the uprising, much work needs to be done to address Tunisia’s legacy of abuse and bring national laws in line with international human rights standards.

Anything else makes a mockery of those who gave their lives to the uprising. 

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1 comment

As a whole, I love the country and have visited many times, but the human rights abuses and apalling lack of parity between men and women continues to shock and dismay me. I sincerely hope that the government takes the necessary steps towards serious reform.

ambrosia110 6 years ago