Last summer, Tunisia’s parliament signed a bill that transforms its laws on violence against girls and women. The landmark legislation, which is scheduled to go into effect this month, was more than 20 years in the making, an effort led largely by the country’s strong women’s rights movement. We sat down via Skype with one of the movement’s early pioneers, Monia El Abed, a lawyer and member of the Tunisian Order of Lawyers — one of four groups awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015 — to learn what led to the law’s passage and what it means for Tunisian women.
Interview had been edited for length and clarity.
Welcome Monia and thank you for speaking with us. Can you explain why this bill is considered historic and groundbreaking? It is a historic law, a landmark law because it’s the first time the national legislative body has recognized the concept of discrimination and gender violence in a bill. Not only is violence against women now in the penal code, the law is specific to women and girls. And it’s comprehensive. It defines violence precisely, whether it is psychological, verbal, or economical. And it engages the responsibility of various ministries and institutions in all areas. It forces each of them to work on protection, caring for women once they have pressed charges, ensuring the crimes do not go unpunished, and building awareness and prevention. The law was inspired by CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) in the sense that it engages the state to prevent violence, to protect women and to have an action plan to limit gender-based violence.
What work went into getting this law passed? It was a long process that started 20 years ago. Tunisia has a very strong feminist movement and back to the 1990s, the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women had a shelter for women victims of violence and we saw what was happening and began talking about changes. Other groups formed, including the Association of Tunisian Women for Research and Development (AFTURD), and the Coalition of Tunisian Women. The specifics of this law [raising the age of consent, doing away with marry-your-rapist laws, a comprehensive approach] came directly from these women’s associations. The law is a response to all our demands.
What was your personal involvement in this work? I was at the shelter for the victims of violence in the 1990s working as a lawyer and represented women survivors in court. Later, I moved into research and at the request of the National Office For Family and Population, I studied the verdicts in domestic violence cases, looking closely at the mindset of the judges and the manner in which they ruled.
Also, as a member of the Tunisian Order of Lawyers, I helped create a women’s commission. We took apart existing laws and proposed laws in favor of women. We also organized seminars and advocacy sessions.
All of this ended up being important groundwork for what happened after the revolution in 2011. One party was trying to secure power and change our constitution, threatening women’s rights, and I worked with the Ministry of Women in an appeal to ensure our rights would be included and protected in the constitution.
What enabled this law to be passed now? Because after the revolution, women were highly mobilized. At the legislative level, reforms were already underway due to the pressure of women activists. They led the plea to have a specific law that addressed all forms of gender violence. After the revolution, we saw a lot of violence against women and we mobilized for the adoption of a law that would crack down on all such acts of violence.
Do you believe the law will affect the lives of Tunisian women? This law permeates every level of government and society. Training on addressing violence against women is now mandated for police officers on up to the public prosecutor and judges. Awareness on violence against women will be taught in elementary school, high school and at institutions of higher education. This is a guarantee. The law institutionalizes the prevention and protection of women. Of course, the application of laws is always difficult. It requires vigilance and mobilization of civil society and strong political will. It will take years, probably, but for me the law is something crucial we now have.
Human Rights Watch mentions funding as a critical step. Yes, this will all require massive investment. We need training, we need guidance. International organizations are already involved. They are financing the training of lawyers, magistrates, police officers and staff at various ministries. The training includes general awareness regarding women’s place in society and respect for women. This is powerful. This is a law that is not just about judicial proceedings and caring for victims. It is a law designed to change mentalities and mindsets. It includes teaching the universal principle of the rights of women.
Why did you decide to join Everywoman Everywhere? My friend Khadija Arfaoui [another Tunisian pioneering women’s rights advocate] and I are involved in many activities on women’s rights and she told me about this organization. I am very interested in what happens in other countries, as the status of women is not specific to one nation. We must evolve collectively towards identical rights and equality for all, men and women. I liked the word “Everywhere” in your name. It asks the question, how do we create a link between women in the United States, in Bangladesh, and in Libya and other parts of the world? We have a common cause. Our project is equality for all. For this reason, I find myself joining your organization. It is research and work that is making us all richer.