Despite landmark legal protections, women continue to face gender-based violence in pandemic-era Tunisia

An employee of the Tunisian health ministry takes a blood sample to test a student for Covid-19. Since the start of the pandemic, violence against health workers has increased, especially women who make up the majority of workers in frontline roles. (AP/Hassene Dridi)

In Tunisia, during the two and a half months of lockdown introduced on 21 March to stop the spread of the coronavirus, the ‘1899 Green Line’ managed by the Ministry of Women, Children and the Elderly rang non-stop. Women were calling the 24-hour, toll-free helpline to report instances of domestic violence at a rate of five times – sometimes up to nine times – higher than comparable periods the prior year. “During the confinement there was no way to contact other people, there was limited travel, the aggressor and the victim were in the same space and there was no possibility to leave this space,” says Hanen Benzarti, who runs the line. The 1899 line received a total of 6693 calls during the initial phase of total confinement from 22 March until 3 May, mostly reporting verbal, psychological and physical violence. Most calls sought legal advice or just someone to listen to, although many callers required psychological support and help seeking protection.

However, at another domestic violence helpline set up by the national economic and social rights NGO Forum Tunisien pour les Droits Economiques et Sociaux (FTDES), the phone kept ringing – even after the national curfew (which was gradually lifted after 4 May) came to an end on 8 June. “Our centre received a lot of calls, especially during lockdown, about physical violence and sexual violence. After lockdown, the number of women calling us about economic violence peaked,” says Nawres Mabrouk, who runs the FTDES helpline.

“Lots of women have lost their jobs or have not been paid,” she says.

Women have also been burdened with an increase in unpaid care work since the start of the pandemic and a significant increase in household duties, sometimes resulting in the loss of work. “One woman we spoke to took leave because her mother was sick. When she went back to work she found out she no longer had a job.”

Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on the Tunisian economy. According to a government spokesperson consulted by Equal Times, 165,000 jobs were lost during the lockdown period of March to June. This resulted in the permanent loss of 69,300 jobs, although this does not take into consideration the second wave, nor do official employment figures include the 44 per cent of the working population that work informally – many of whom are women. In addition, GDP fell by 21.6 per cent in the second quarter of 2020, according to the National Institute of Statistics, which describes it as “unprecedented contraction of economic activity”.

As yet there is no data on how women specifically have been affected by job losses, but in some of the sectors where women account for a relatively high percentage of the workforce – in the hotel and textile industries, for example – Covid has resulted in widespread company closures and redundancies. Around 100 textile factories have closed since March, and those that remain open are working at reduced capacity, due to the cancellation of orders from Europe. As a result, thousands of women have lost their jobs.

For the women who have managed to keep their jobs, fewer are raising grievances as work becomes ever more scarce. “Fear reigns amongst women because of the economic crisis, and often they provide their household’s only income. The pandemic has accelerated exploitation,” says Mounir Hassine, head of FTDES’s branch in the central, coastal city of Monastir. Salma Houerbi, a researcher with the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, agrees: “There is so much uncertainty about what will happen next, about economic security. If we are talking about a vulnerable worker, would they really risk their job to go and report [violence or harassment]?”

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Legal protection undermined by poor implementation

Since gaining its independence from France in 1956, Tunisia has been at the vanguard of women’s rights in the MENA region, becoming the first Muslim country to legalise abortion in 1973, two years before France. Women were central to the 2011 uprising that overthrew the authoritarian rule of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and Tunisia’s 2014 constitution enshrines women’s equality, commits to working towards gender parity within all elected bodies, and pledges to eliminate violence against women.

According to an April 2020 policy briefing from UN Women, the “prevalence of violence against women was already alarming [before Covid-19] in Tunisia. Some 47.6 per cent of women report having suffered at least one form of violence in their lifetime and one in three women is a victim of domestic violence. In 2017, the Tunisian parliament passed Law 58, the first national law to combat violence against women and girls, which covers physical, emotional, sexual as well as economic violence. However, during the pandemic, women’s access to justice was severely curtailed by the decision to postpone all court proceedings for the duration of the lockdown. This had a major impact on family law and domestic violence cases.

In fact, the increase in domestic violence during the lockdown can be partly explained by the lack of available services, says Ahlem Belhadj, a psychiatrist and secretary general of the doctor’s union, Syndicat des médecins, médecins dentistes et pharmaciens hospitalo-universitaires, who works on the issue for the women’s rights organisation Association tunisienne des femmes démocratiques (ATFD).

“Tunisians are proud to say that we have 126 specialised [police] units on violence against women and children but during the Covid period they were re-deployed and so the number of police working in this area was reduced,” she says, adding that the lockdown also prevented women from travelling to seek help. “[The police] didn’t work on the violence, they were working to police the lockdown.”

Even when women were able to access a service – such as the police station or the hospital – they would often be turned away as staff were scared of Covid-19, and violence against women “wasn’t considered as urgent” as the pandemic, says Belhadj. After pressure from civil society, Tunisia’s civil courts once again started accepting cases from May.

The chaos caused by the crisis has also slowed down Tunisia’s progress on ratifying the International Labour Organization’s landmark Convention 190 on eliminating violence and harassment in the world of work. In 2019, Tunisia’s Minister of Social Affairs said that Tunisia would be the “first country to ratify C190,” says Naima Hammami, deputy secretary general of Tunisia’s national trade union centre, UGTT, and the first female member of its executive bureau. But Tunisia was beaten to it in June by Uruguay and Fiji, which are so far the only countries to have ratified the historic global treaty which sets international legal standards for preventing and responding to violence and harassment at work. In terms of the Tunisian government’s promise, the project “has been shelved” as the government struggles to stabilise politically and to manage the pandemic. “It is a crisis situation,” Hammami laments.

However, trade unions are continuing to pile on the pressure for the ratification of C190 with awareness-raising campaigns, by monitoring all cases of violence and harassment in the world of work, pushing for the inclusion of the Convention in collective bargaining agreements, and by preparing and completing periodic reports for the Tunisian government and the ILO, among other measures.

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Women health workers on the frontline

During this pandemic, health workers have been on the frontline. Not only do they face a greater risk of catching the virus – and are stigmatised for this – but in Tunisia, they are also vulnerable to physical violence and harassment, which disproportionately affects women who are perceived as ‘easy targets’ and also occupy the bulk of patient-facing jobs. According to research from 2018, in Tunisia, women constitute 50 per cent of doctors, 72 per cent of pharmacy graduates and 64 per cent of nurses.

Violence against medical staff predates the pandemic. According to a 2019 survey of 202 nurses across three Tunis hospitals, 75 per cent of them had experienced aggressive behaviour. But during the first wave of the pandemic, there was a dip in violence against medical staff as all non-emergency hospital care was cancelled and the number of coronavirus cases stayed low due to strict measures put in place by the government, says Donia Remili, a psychologist and researcher at the University of Tunis, who carried out the survey. “Moreover, everyone recognised that carers are ‘heroes’, so patients became more understanding.” However, during the second wave, certain hospitals, in particular those that lacked resources, saw a rise in violence, says Remili, who considers this to be due to a “lack of materials, lack of staff, tension and stress due to the alarmingly rapid propagation of the virus.”

Violence against medical staff is especially common during triage, when patients are waiting to be seen. “With a pandemic we need to do even more triage between patients, to separate those with the virus, those at risk,” says Jed Henchiri, president of l’Organisation tunisienne des jeunes médecins (the Association of Young Doctors).

“Public services have deteriorated so much that the citizen, when he comes to the hospital and he doesn’t find the service that he needs, he doesn’t attack the state, but he chooses to attack the [innocent] people who are there,” says Belhadj of ATFD, adding that this violence increases in a crisis situation.

In one recent example, a group armed with knives stormed Rabta Hospital in Tunis, assaulted a nurse and a doctor, and destroyed medical equipment, after medical staff failed to resuscitate a 94-year-old patient. Equal Times also spoke to a 33-year-old Tunis-based doctor (who asked not to be named) who says that she was recently part of a rapid-response team that was violently threatened by a group of 10 men when they were called out to the home of a seriously ill patient. “I am often insulted and threatened, but I have never feared for my life like I did this time,” she says.

Gender-based violence is not unique to Tunisia, but as one of the countries that has made such strong legal commitments to combat the issue, activists are calling on the government to make good on its promises – especially with regards to the ratification of C190. “The value of the Convention lies in its foundations and its scope to protect workers and persons in the world of work in all sectors,” writes Emna Aouadi, deputy secretary general of the primary school teachers’ union and UGTT’s national office of women workers in a recent article for Education International. “It also entails prevention. This consists of increasing the awareness of employers, workers and their representatives of workplace harassment and violence and to provide them with an action-oriented framework to identify, prevent and manage problems of harassment and violence at work.”

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