TUNIS: When Nadia told police about her husband's violence during a coronavirus lockdown in Tunisia, she nearly lost custody of her daughter, illustrating a chasm between a gender law and its enforcement. Adopted in 2017, the celebrated law greatly expanded the scope of punishable violence against women and in theory provides wide-ranging support to victims, making the country a pathfinder among regional peers.
But getting justice remains a battle without any guarantee of success, due to waning political will and scant funding. For several years, Nadia, in her forties, weathered threats and mistreatment at the hands of her husband. With no income of her own, she did not feel she could complain. "He would do it when drunk, then apologize," Nadia said. "He left for several months every year to work abroad, so I preferred to do nothing" about the abuse, she added. But things became intolerable during a three-month lockdown to forestall the spread of the coronavirus a year ago.
"He was stuck in the house, stressed. He drank a lot," Nadia said. "One day my daughter told me of inappropriate advances" of a sexual nature. Nadia immediately called the police, who summoned her a few days later. She was one among many Tunisian women who suffered a surge in violence during the March to June lockdown, as reported cases spiked five-fold, according to authorities. And cases remain high.
'Nearly lost everything'
But Nadia says she was completely blindsided by what happened next. While her initial interaction with the police was positive, things quickly turned sour. Her husband was able to afford a lawyer, while she is destitute and fears he may have bribed the police or magistrates. The police requested she put together an evidence file herself.
After several weeks without any progress and by now desperate and terrified of losing custody of her daughter, Nadia turned to a women's group for help. The Association of Women Democrats (ATFD), which provides everything from shelter to legal help, linked her up with a lawyer who found that the police station had not even sent her evidence to court.
The file was then sent to a second magistrate and a few days later her husband was finally arrested. "Fortunately I found some support," Nadia said. But by that stage, "I had nearly lost everything, even my daughter." The 2017 legislation, known as Law 58, was drafted in consultation with women's activists and associations.
In theory, it covers prevention, suppression and protection against violence, along with compensation. To improve the care of women seeking police protection, the interior ministry has established 130 specialist brigades since 2018. Specific education on such violence is now provided in police schools, while officers who attempt to discourage women from lodging cases face prison terms.
Several hundred police officers, including many women, have received specialist training in order to lead investigations or enforce restraining orders. But activists say they still face an uphill slog. "There is an enormous gap between the law of 2017, which is still very recent, and institutional and social practices," said Yosra Frawes, who heads the ATFD. Her organization reports that many more women are seeking support than this time last year.
Enforcement of the law "requires infrastructure, counseling centers, refuges-but the state has no budget" for such things, Frawes noted. "The issue of women has disappeared from the public debate" since elections in 2019, when avowedly conservative candidates performed well, she lamented. A 2018 bid to overhaul Tunisia's inheritance law-currently based on Islamic law, meaning that women inherit only half of their male siblings' share-has subsequently foundered. "We must fight two parallel battles-those of laws, and those of attitudes", said Frawes, noting that much work still needs to be done in training the police, judges, lawyers and doctors in appropriate responses. - AFP