Despite initiatives, Tunisia’s domestic violence persists
Tunis - “Domestic violence is a bitter reality that has always been around. The only difference is that we hear a lot more about it now, thanks to the liberation of the media from political control,” said Zohra Touati, a 46-year-old philosophy teacher at a Tunis high school and a victim of domestic violence.
For more than 20 years of marriage, Touati suffered different forms of abuse, including physical violence, economic control and emotional abuse at the hands of her husband.
“In the first years of our marriage, he used to seize my salary and beat me for no reason at all. Everything I used to do was wrong to him; the way I do the laundry, how I talk to his mother, the way I cook and so on,” she said, letting out a long sigh.
“I should have stopped him and asked for a divorce before he took the violence out on the children. It was the day that he hit my youngest son in the face that I decided to report the incident to the authorities.”
Without a partner, Touati lives with her three children and struggles to make ends meet. She has not heard from her husband since he was arrested but the idea of him being freed frightens her.
“It is a relief at this point but the damage will take time to recede,” she said, sitting in the waiting room of a therapist’s office.
In Tunisia, women remain sceptical of the justice system. Only 17% of domestic violence victims report attacks and 73% said they do not expect anything from the institutions and services in place.
The government-affiliated Centre for Research, Studies, Documentation and Information on Women (CREDIF) conducted studies in 2010 and 2016, polling 3,873 women between the ages of 18 and 64. The results indicated that the rate of violence against women rose from 20% in 2010 to 75% in 2016. The rate of domestic abuse surged from 47% in 2010 to 60% in 2016.
Surveys carried out every four years by the Ministry of Women, Family and Children have shown that more than 90% of children are victims of domestic violence in Tunisia.
Reports by the ministry detail different forms of child abuse, ranging from verbal and physical violence (in and outside the home) to sexual assault and neglect.
Minister of Women, Family and Children Naziha Laabidi said during a workshop titled “Women, Peace and Security in Tunisia” that there was a comprehensive strategy to combat violence against vulnerable groups from different demographic categories.
“Counselling centres and shelters have been created for victims of abuse, notably women. We have also launched a toll-free number, 1899, for vulnerable people. Currently, we are working to train the personnel so as to provide the callers with the required assistance on a daily basis,” she said.
The minister said the toll-free number was “destined to serve all vulnerable categories, including children, women and old people.”
“Human dignity has no date and no limit,” Laabidi said.
CREDIF Director Dalenda Largueche said the care centres, notably the Sidi Dhrif Centre, had been created for psychological treatment.
“At CREDIF, we have organised awareness campaigns in the different regions to promote the current legislation and reassure women that they are not alone,” Largueche said. “Many women are not aware of their rights, the laws and the different mechanisms in place to ensure their protection.”
In Tunisia, many actors are involved in advocating on behalf of vulnerable groups. However, government bodies and civil society groups face major resistance from traditional society and other forces of conservatism, especially Islamists.
“It is a vicious circle,” Largueche warned. “Children who have been raised in an environment of abuse are more inclined to reproduce this model.”
With the help of international organisations, Tunisia is testing different ways to prevent domestic violence. Awareness campaigns are focused on schools and universities. The country is also relying on culture as a field through which to raise awareness on the issue of domestic violence.
Cooperation between the different ministries is also picking up steam and national bodies and independent institutions are redoubling efforts to guarantee the rule of law.
“Do not be mistaken,” Largueche cautioned, “the fight against domestic violence will take decades.”