Tunisia Takes a Big Step to Protect Women From Abuse

Another study published the same year by the Center for Research, Study, Documentation and Information on Women, a Tunisian group that works with the United Nations, found that 70 percent to 90 percent of women had been victims of sexual harassment, mostly on public transportation, from 2011 to 2015.


Picking tomatoes in Kairouan. Tunisian women say sexual harassment in public places is common.

Fethi Belaid/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

When women speak out, it is often to little effect.

“We had too many reports over the years from victims of domestic abuse who said they were not taken seriously by the police when they filed a complaint,” Ms. Ben Jemia said. During Tunisia’s years of dictatorship, many women who were political activists or simply had ties to the opposition endured violence, including sexual assault, at the hands of the police.

Legislators drafting the new protections also joined a movement across the Middle East to do away with so-called marry-your-rapist laws, which allow men who wed their victims to escape prosecution. Although that part of the Tunisian penal code had largely fallen from use, last year a judge ordered a 13-year-girl who had been raped and become pregnant to marry her attacker. The case stirred up a national controversy and led to a push to change the law.

“We finally managed to amend this in the final version of the law, and this is a victory, because apart from one small party, there was a general consensus on the need to change this,” said Bochra Belhaj Hmida, a member of Parliament.

Mrs. Belhaj Hmida recalled the years after the Arab Spring when the Islamist party Ennahda was on the rise and women worried that their rights would be rolled back. Four years ago, Ennahda suggested that women were “complementary” to men, not their equals.

The debate on the law just passed by Parliament shows that there has been improvement, Mrs. Belhaj Hmida said. “It was completely different this time,” she said. “I felt that every woman agreed on the need of this law. The debate was more heated between men and women than between parties or political ideologies.”

Parliament also agreed to raise the age of sexual consent to 16, from 13.

The new legislation also enacted fines and jail time for people who employ minors as housemaids; last year, Tunisia ratified a law on human trade. And workplace…

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