Tunisia: Rapists given a way out while their victims are blamed and punished

This report has been published to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The report will be promoted with an event in Tunis on 3 December 2015.

Loopholes in Tunisia’s laws are granting perpetrators of rape, sexual assault and physical violence a way out while their victims are frequently punished and blamed when they dare to report the crimes against them, said Amnesty International in a new report published today.

The report “”, published on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, highlights how nearly five years since Tunisia’s uprising, the leading Arab nation for gender equality is still failing to protect women who experience violence and people targeted for their gender identity, sexual orientation or sexual activity, due to flawed laws and entrenched discriminatory attitudes.

A combination of archaic laws, ineffective policing and ingrained gender stereotypes make it difficult for women to seek justice for crimes committed against them and sometimes they are even prosecuted as criminals.

Said Boumedouha, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.

“This report exposes Tunisia’s chilling subversion of the notion of crime and punishment. A combination of archaic laws, ineffective policing and ingrained gender stereotypes make it difficult for women to seek justice for crimes committed against them and sometimes they are even prosecuted as criminals,” said Said Boumedouha, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.

“Within the Arab world Tunisia has led the way on breaking taboos and advancing women’s rights. Yet despite positive reforms over the years, in Tunisia today, rapists and kidnappers of teenage women can still get off scot-free if they marry their victim. Women who report marital rape or family violence are shamed into withdrawing their complaints. Gay men or lesbians who report abuse are more likely to be prosecuted than their attackers. In some cases police officers are even the perpetrators of abuse.

“It is disturbing to think that on top of enduring horrific abuse, survivors of such violence, including women and girls, face huge hurdles to obtaining justice and are effectively abandoned by the authorities.”

The report features interviews with dozens of people who faced physical and sexual assault, rape, family violence and sexual harassment, including women and girls, as well as groups particularly vulnerable to abuse in Tunisia, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people - attacked because of their sexual orientation or gender identity - and sex workers. All face serious legal or societal obstacles when they report attacks against them, and receive inadequate medical or social support.

Tales of harrowing abuse

Women and girls in Tunisia live in a society that prioritizes preserving family ‘honour’ over seeing attackers face justice. Women - particularly those who have suffered sexual assault or family abuse - are discouraged from filing complaints and made to feel they are bringing shame on their families by doing so. Police often dismiss or even blame those who do dare to come forward, and in some cases see their roles as mediators between the victim and perpetrator - even in the most serious complaints of violence.

Such social attitudes and failings by the state are particularly harmful in a country where sexual and gender-based violence remains prevalent. Nearly half of women in the country (47%) have experienced violence, according to the only national survey on violence against women, conducted in 2010, and there are few signs that the situation has improved since then.

Many Tunisian women find themselves trapped in a cycle of violence – including rape – often at the hands of their husbands. Amnesty International spoke to women who described being slapped, kicked and beaten – including with belts, sticks or other objects – or threatened with a knife, strangled or even burned.

“My husband used to beat me every day…When I complained against him in 2009 after he broke my nose and cut my face, the police blamed me,” said one woman who continues to suffer abuse.

She filed a complaint against her husband again in 2014 but instead of being arrested he was made to sign a written statement promising that he would not hit her again. He continues to beat her and faces no consequences.

Other women described how they had been raped by their husbands, including one who was anally raped:

“The first time we had sex, it felt like rape. He was forceful and left cuts which got infected….For a few days after the first night we didn’t sleep together. Then he told me: ‘You are my wife and I have a right to do what I want.’”

One woman told Amnesty International she was raped at 17 by a man she met after she ran away from home to escape family violence. She later became pregnant and felt pressured into marrying her rapist to avoid the shame of becoming a single mother. She is now divorced but a provision in Tunisian law allowing rapists of women under 20 who marry their victim to escape prosecution, means that her former husband cannot be convicted of the crime.

The report warns that Tunisia’s rape laws have serious flaws and deter survivors from coming forward. In practice, rape laws place undue emphasis on the use of force or violence, making it difficult for women to prove rape without significant medical evidence including signs of physical injury.

Victims fear police almost as much as their attackers

LGBTI survivors of sexual and physical violence in Tunisia face a heightened risk of being turned away by police or facing prosecution because of widespread homophobia and transphobia and the criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual relations in Tunisia.

Sharky a 25-year-old lesbian, suffered at least eight homophobic assaults over nine years, including being stabbed and heavily beaten. When she reported one attack, police officers warned her she could face a three-year prison sentence because she is a lesbian.

Amnesty International has also spoken to transgender people who have been prosecuted for offending “public morals” due to their appearance.

Laws on “indecency”, can also be used to punish survivors of sexual violence. In September 2012, a woman known as Meriem Ben Mohamed was charged with “indecency” after she accused two police officers with rape.

Sex workers in Tunisia are also particularly vulnerable to abuse such as sexual exploitation, blackmail and extortion primarily by police. The criminalization of their work means they are often too afraid to report abuse for fear of prosecution.

One woman told Amnesty International she had suffered repeated sexual abuse and exploitation by a police officer for two years after he discovered she was a sex worker.

Another sex worker described being sexually harassed after her arrest:

“The police that arrested me called me a ‘whore’ and said that I had no right to defend myself. When they were searching me they were groping my breasts. They think that everything is allowed and that you are nobody because you work as a sex worker.”

The criminalization of adultery with a five-year prison sentence against both men and women is yet another deterrent for women from speaking out against sexual abuse. Amnesty International spoke to women who were threatened with facing charges for adultery when they tried to report sexual assault.

Turning the tide of violence

Tunisia’s 2014 Constitution was a major breakthrough for safeguarding human rights and the gains made by the women’s rights movement over the years. It ensures greater protection for women and guarantees gender equality and non-discrimination. The Constitution also includes other important safeguards that protect the rights of LGBTI people. It guarantees the right to a private life and freedom of expression, thought and opinion.

But work on drafting a new law to combat violence against women and girls which also proposed to decriminalize same-sex sexual relations has recently stalled.

Amnesty International is calling on Tunisia to carry out a series of bold reforms to end the rampant discrimination and violence that continues to ruin lives, including:

Ensuring survivors of sexual and gender-based violence have increased access to health and justice without facing social and legal prejudices.
Adopting a comprehensive law to tackle violence against women and girls, in line with Tunisia’s international human rights obligations.
Reviewing harmful laws and in particular: recognize marital rape, stop rapists and kidnappers from escaping prosecution by marrying their teenage victims; and stop criminalizing sexual relations between unmarried consenting adults and same-sex sexual relations.

“Tunisia has a duty to protect the rights of people who have suffered rape and horrendous abuse instead of seeing them shamed and blamed. The authorities must send a clear signal that sexual and gender-based violence will no longer be swept beneath the carpet. Only through bold reforms challenging existing social and gender norms will Tunisia truly be able to eliminate gender inequality and protect people targeted because of their gender or sexual identity,” said Said Boumedouha.

“The authorities must also launch independent, impartial investigations into all forms of sexual and gender-based violence and provide more support services for survivors.”

My Body My Rights

This report is part of Amnesty International’s global My Body My Rights campaign, which aims to stop the control and criminalization of sexuality and reproduction by governments.