Written by : Nadia Ben Ammar
Navigating through the wickedness of gender-based violence in Tunisia
9 mai 2022
The Accelerator Lab in Tunisia, in collaboration with UNDP’s Reform of the Security System initiative, has been exploring different facets of Gender Based Violence (GBV) in Tunisia to make sense of this complex challenge that is shaped by various social, political, cultural and economic forces. This is against the background of Law 58 that was adopted in 2017 in Tunisia.
Under this new law, the State is not only responsible for prosecuting those who have carried out violence against women, but also for the prevention of GBV and the protection of victims. Among others, the Ministries of Education, Health, Social Affairs, Justice and the Interior as well as the media are responsible for training staff and professionals in the prevention of violence against women. The law also holds the police accountable for timely responses to victims’ complaints and for reporting cases of violence.
Following the implementation of Law 58 in the past 4 years, it was important to make sense of the emerging institutional ecosystem of support to GBV victims. This learning journey was intended to reinforce current efforts of UNDP to improve the quality of support provided to GBV victims in specialized units and adopt a portfolio approach to GBV in Tunisia. In this blog we will walk you through our learning journey where we gathered insights from over 30 different perspectives on GBV, key factors of its support system, as well as challenges related to it Our learning journey is primarily focused on a specific type of GBV called Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) and thus focuses on violence in the context of marital relationships, which constitutes the majority of cases of GBV in Tunisia and globally.
Some methodological notes
The insights extracted from this learning process are based on patterns observed from various sources of data. We have interviewed over thirty actors related in one way or another to GBV, including local government institutions, including from the security, social affairs, justice, education, health and family affairs sectors; local and national CSOs involved in supporting women victims of violence; sociologists involved in GBV, independent lawyers and victims of violence. While this was an important source of insights, we also drew from academic research which studied the phenomenon of GBV in the Tunisian context, including quantitative studies conducted in the past 8 years. Layering these sources of information gave rise to additional insights and patterns.
What have we learned so far?
To reflect the emergent themes of our sensing phase, we have modelized a problem space in which we have focused key learning questions. It is divided into three parts: Support system/resources; Threats and Risk factors; and Beliefs and policies.
We consider support resources any resources available to women victims of violence, be it personal, social/professional and/or institutional. Institutional resources are the actors involved in the implementation of Law 58.
Personal support systems and their importance in GBV
“Women who seek institutional help are almost always the ones with no personal support system”. When asked about factors leading to seeking justice, almost all our interviewees mentioned personal support. Whether it’s a close friend, a family member or a neighbor, women are often encouraged to file a complaint when they are supported by others.
Paradoxically, those with limited personal support are most vulnerable and need an institutional system the most. Furthermore, many victims we interviewed indicated that their spouses were very keen to isolate them from society, friends, family and neighbors in what seemed to them as an effort to dissuade them from seeking justice or other institutional support.
Administrative vicious circles
Despite an increasing number of women seeking legal support, very few complaints result in actual convictions. The length and cumbersomeness of the legal procedure which, on average, lasts 1 to 1.5 years according to lawyers interviewed, is mainly why many women give up their complaints. Members of local CSOs who support women victims of violence explain that sometimes it is linked to deliberate decisions from administrators to halt legal procedures. “Many women change their minds or get pressured to withdraw their complaints.
It was reported that a significant number of women file complaints to “scare off their spouses” and use this as leverage to ensure that violent behavior stops but are not intending to pursue the case legally. Knowing this, many public institution agents won’t invest their efforts into a file which will later be withdrawn so they wait to see if the victim comes back and shows signs of persistence to start any procedures.”
This behavior further impedes the process and discourages women who perceive the procedures as lengthy and almost dormant. Another factor leading to this phenomenon is also the limited human resources to treat all complaints received. While statistics do not exist, one of our interviewees referred to a large proportion of files “the personnel cannot afford to follow-up on.”
 Source: FRANCE 24: la société civile tunisienne au chevet des femmes victimes de violences
Pressure and dissuasion
Many women have reportedly been dissuaded by agents from the security, health or social affairs system or actors from the justice system.. Most explained that they tried to “fix” marital issues to avoid legal action to be taken by victims. Almost all of those who reported dissuading victims said they were trying to avoid bigger grievances for victims who would be subjected to long and inefficient administrative and legal procedures.
Many actors believed that the offence committed was not worthy of legal attention. Indeed, despite a real evolution in the taxonomy of violence, many agents we interviewed in the GBV institutional support system do not believe that certain types of violence should be penalized by the law.
Others said they felt responsible to fix the problem in the absence of other conflict resolution mechanisms. Many reported being successful in bringing peace between spouses after mediating between the two parties. In a country where culturally and religiously people believe it is a duty to contribute to resolve problems, there is a strong resistance to apply certain aspects of the law.
A hostile reporting environment
Complaints about GBV are mostly made through specialized units created for this purpose in police stations. The staff is composed of men and women who are assigned to be part of these units and who originally work as police officers. Many women reported being intimidated by the association of these specialized units with crime.
“The police station is not a place to be seen at and is not a place suitable for a woman, a child” said one of our interviewees referring to women who are forced to bring their children with them to the police station to report violence. Most domestic abuse reports happen after 5 pm and during the weekends, when the unit is already closed. This means that most complaints arrive to the duty office which is attended by an untrained police officer.
Women wait in spaces shared with other services, in other words an environment which is very masculine and which is often intimidating, especially to women who are victims of GBV.
Trust and inter-sectoral coordination: a network inside the network
When Law 58 was actioned, local coordination bodies were created to make sure that a follow-up mechanism is established to support women victims of violence at all points of the procedure and in all sectors, in a coherent way. The role of the committee is also to make sure that processes linked to GBV are fast and reactive and that action is taken in a timely manner. Reports from these committees point towards a mechanism which often struggles to have all actors involved and onboard.
One of the insights gained in our learning journey is that trust between members of the committee and the informal and personal ties linking them is a key factor of success. One member told us “I know exactly who is reliable and who is not within the system, and we all trust each other. When I send a victim to x, I know she will do the right thing and fast”.
Financial and logistical support
Women who are victims of GBV are sometimes women with zero immediate financial means. Often, they are mothers and deal with family matters alone. This can be extremely problematic when it comes to access to specific services and being protected. Sometimes, removing the spouse from the marital home is not enough to guarantee the safety of a victim and her children. Refuge centers that allow women to be sheltered at least temporarily are not found in all cities and areas. Similarly, following the legal complaint procedure entails logistical costs, which are very often not affordable.
These costs have been often covered by NGO members from their own personal budgets, transport is often arranged by members of local committee who crowdsource money for this purpose and, in some cases, arrangements with hotel owners are made to use as shelter for victims of abuse.
Information is key
An interesting insight from some of the NGO actors we interviewed was that often the guidance and orientation they provide to victims is key in determining the outcomes of the legal procedures. One participant said that administrative agents take women more seriously when they know they are being sheltered by knowledgeable NGOs as they are better informed about the law, the procedures to follow and whom to contact. Therefore, information seems to be a key factor.
One of the interviews described the GBV support system as “a woman surrounded by many service providers and support organizations but lost and not understanding whom she needs to turn to, while organizations are "throwing ball" to each other”. Vulgarizing knowledge about Law 58 is key but what is even more urgent is creating standard operating procedures to be shared among actors from various sectors and widely disseminating this practical knowledge about what needs to be done in various cases of GBV with victims and people concerned.
Psychosocial support: I speak to those I trust
While psychosocial support is provided formally by many local NGOs (with individuals highly trained to provide this type of support), many interviews revealed the provision of indirect informal psychosocial support in various administrations who are not necessarily specialized or do not officially provide this service.
“Women who are victims of violence are often just looking for a sympathetic ear”. Many women come to the specialized units not to press charges but just to be heard and experience empathy, something they often do not get in their families and communities.
Threats and Risk Factors
In this section, we explore key factors which, according to our interviewees and to the research reviewed, correlate with GBV.
A cultural clash inside Tunisian households
An important number of actors in direct contact with GBV victims and survivors indicated that power dynamics between spouses is a major trigger of conflict and often violence. According to a sociologist we interviewed, many talks between men revolve around being the dominant figure in the household and preserving their decision-maker status. In many cultures however, these socially constructed gender roles are not a source of conflict within the household.
Many of our interviewees believe that, in Tunisia, education plays an important role in creating a schism between spouses. While women are raised to be leaders, financially autonomous and important members of society, men, are still raised, in many households, with a patriarchal ideal.
Indeed, the role and status of women in the Tunisian society has evolved since the introduction of the Code of Personal Status, a series of progressive laws aiming at gender equality. Economic conditions have also pushed women to be autonomous and contribute economically when a single income no longer suffices for a household. This is creating a clash in mentalities and in the way gender roles are perceived among men and women, sometimes leading to conflict.
From conflict to violence
Conflict is part of everyone’s life. It is part, to various degrees, of virtually every human relationship, including marital ones. While conflict can often be a trigger of violence according to our interviewees, the link between conflict and violence is not always a direct one. According to many interviewees, the way conflict was resolved in the past, especially in the southern regions of Tunisia, was through the involvement of senior family members.
It was very common (and this persists in some households) to see women leave their marital home to spend a few days at her parents’ place due to tensions at home. This would trigger a family intervention to resolve the conflict. It was therefore not surprising to hear, for instance, that women who lived far away from their parental homes to be more likely to be subjected to GBV.
This paradigm also means that spouses are rarely equipped with conflict resolution approaches, as this task was often delegated to senior family members. It was also found that young men and women are seldom prepared/educated to resolve conflicts by themselves.
Economic factors of violence
In all the insights collected throughout this exercise, the economic aspects are hard to ignore. When looking at the insights gathered, financial issues are on top of the list. This includes fights on how money is managed within a household, economic violence, tensions linked to lower and/or lack of revenues.
What COVID-19 unveiled about GBV in households
During the first lockdown, there was a big spike in GBV police complaints and cases in general. According to a report by the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, more than 7000 cases were reported through the designated national hotline services. Insights from our interviewees point primarily towards the loss of jobs in many sectors as a great source of stress and further tensions within households.
Other insights indicated that the concentration of stress factors, for example due to the loss of revenue, spending a greater deal of time together, and the uncertainty linked to the pandemic, as important stressors and triggers of violence.
Financial issues as push factors
When asked about factors encouraging women to file legal complaints, the strength of family and personal support was a top factor. The second most frequent factor is the loss of economic activity and means by the male spouse or intentional economic deprivation by the spouse.
This may indicate that women are ready to endure a great hardship, as long as their financial needs and those of their children are fulfilled. When this is no longer the case, this constitutes a great motivator to file for divorce and/or file a complaint. This brings us to one of the most important economic aspects of GBV: women’s financial autonomy.
The importance of obtaining “financial” justice
In Tunisia, men who are married and have children are obligated by the law to provide financially for their family. Economic violence is, therefore, penalized. This is applicable in cases where spouses live together or when a divorce is pronounced. Following divorce, women are almost automatically custodian of their children, especially when they are young.
A specific financial allowance is determined by the judge for which the male spouse is accountable every month. Failure to provide financially, in both contexts, can result in legal action by female spouses. In theory, there are mechanisms to speed the process of filing complaints about “naf9a”, the term designing the financial contribution of a male spouse, to make sure that women can continue providing for basic needs of their children. However, in practice, this process can be lengthy and involve much follow-up.
Lawyers that we talked to estimate that 2-3 months is the minimum amount to obtain financial justice. During COVID-19, these processes were even slower due to administrative disruptions. Many victims mentioned this as a reason to give up on legal complaints. One victim claimed, “I did not get any “naf9a” since 2018 despite filing many complaints”, another reported a 15-month waiting time to obtain the financial contribution from her ex-spouse due to COVID-19 disruptions. Furthermore, our interviewees reported a number of cases of corruption: “men would rather pay a bribe to make the file “sleep” rather than pay for the full amount due to their spouses”.
While some women have the support of their families or have some revenue to ensure their children are provided for, many are entirely dependent on this contribution. It is therefore not surprising that many women are choosing to resolve conflicts informally or tolerate some level of violence if they obtain some financial support from their spouses.
This is a major factor dissuading women to file complaints. One woman said: “If I file a legal complaint, my husband will stop providing to put pressure on me to withdraw or just out of spite, this means months and months without revenue, I really cannot afford it”.
Economic empowerment as a source of direct and indirect relief
Two of the NGOs working to protect and support victims of GBV are located in buildings where micro-credit companies are also located. Women working in these NGOs perceive economic empowerment as the most potent way to “get women out of trouble and give them the courage to seek a better life”. We were told by one NGO that, while they did not have quantitative data on this, they believe that a significant proportion of women who ask for micro-credits are victims of violence.
In one region, an informal referral system was established to enquire about violence when women came to ask for micro-credits and look for signs of support seeking. Women were then referred to the NGOs to be counselled by trained staff. One interviewee indicated that “any economic activity leading to autonomy is one step towards ending an abusive relationship, sometimes a hairdryer and some hair styling tools can be enough to get a woman back on her feet. Many put up with misery just because they are in a financial dead end and despair”.
Many women told us that beyond autonomy, empowering a woman through professional training and financial support to have an economic activity greatly affects a women’s self-confidence and self-efficacy. Furthermore, many women claimed that this was a factor which discourages violence.
According to several interviewees, violent spouses who know that their wife depends on them feel like they have a financial leverage on them. One woman told us: “my husband told me he would never let me work. He perceived my financial autonomy as a threat as then I would not have to put up with his verbal abuse”.
Another said, “my husband knew that he could never lay a hand on me, I was financially independent, and he knew I would not hesitate to leave him if things got too difficult”.
Beliefs and Policies
We consider in this section, beliefs and social constructs which contribute to perpetuating and normalizing GBV in Tunisia.
Social constructs of masculinity in Tunisia and how they may affect violence
Often when we talk about social perceptions and GBV, we think about how women are perceived, their status and models in a society. However, as mentioned above, these perceptions have greatly evolved in the past few decades in the Tunisian context along with other changes in thelegal, economic, cultural spheres.
Many participants reported that threats to this traditional male model and status can trigger violent behaviors, particularly verbal and emotional abuse. One of our participants said “Men don’t really want to be violent, but when they are not obeyed, and they do not react, they feel like they are showing a vulnerability and are afraid to be perceived as weak or less of a man even by their spouse.”
Shame and shame: How the community perceives GBV reporting
Stigmatization of women who file GBV complaints is a reality in Tunisia. Factors leading to “shame”, however, differ from one social context to another. In rural and more conservative regions, it is often perceived as socially undesirable for a woman to report her husband as she is going against conservative expectations about how women should deal with marital conflict.
A woman should “preserve her image and that of her family and not talk about these things outside of the family sphere”. On the other hand, the “shame” factor in more progressist milieus stems from the fact that GBV is seen as primitive and backward. One victim told us “I was so ashamed that my neighbors and friends would find out that I, a high school teacher, an educated woman, am being physically abused by my husband. It makes me look weak”.
Gender stereotypes and justice
While gender stereotypes are to some degree universal, many of the ones we have heard throughout the interviews are very context specific. One of them is this idea that men are somehow not entirely in control of their feeling and emotions and that often violence is the product of an impulsive and reactive gesture rather than a premeditated behavior. “He is just reacting because she has provoked him several times and he could not restrain himself”.
Many of the victims we spoke to said that people around them often tell them to be patient, that this is the nature of men and that women must “remain patient” and that they are the responsible, mature party. There is often an assumption that women’s behavior is often the trigger of violence. More importantly, these stereotypes influence decision-making throughout the legal journey of victims.
Actors from the justice, social affairs and security systems often created excuses to violent spouses claiming that their wives “should have known better and avoided provocative words”. “When we hear his version, we can understand why he reacted in this way”. This normalization and justification of violent behavior is not uncommon and is an important factor in a process where individual appraisal plays an important role in decision making at various stages, especially legal ones.
When it comes to the support system in place, and especially as far as Law 58 is concerned, our learning journey highlighted that much more needs to be done in terms of training, standardization of procedures and vulgarization as well as disseminating information on how the law is operationalized. User experience design can be a good place to start imagining more empathic and people centered services, which are close and easy of access.
Often victims feel they are in a position where they need to justify their victimhood. Changing the paradigm of interactions in various services is a necessary step to make women feel safe and to encourage them to seek justice. While most campaigns target women, there is not an equal focus on men’s behaviors, and masculinity. Behavioral insights could be further leveraged in the area of GBV.
Last but not least, indirect factors which strongly correlate with violence or have been identified as barriers to seeking legal help, such as economic factors or access to “financial” justice, need to be further explored and tested.
References & attributions
· Fekih-Romdhane, F., Ridha, R., & Cheour, M. (2018). Sexual violence against women in Tunisia. L'encephale, 45(6), 527-529.
· Grami, A. (2008). Gender equality in Tunisia. British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 35(3), 349-361.
· Jellali, I. A., Jellali, M. A., Gataa, R., & Mechri, A. (2014). Psychosexual impact of violence against Tunisian women in marriage: Cross-sectional study about 197 consultant in family planning centre of Monastir. Sexologies, 23(3), e75-e78.
· FTDES (2020) L’expérience tunisienne dans la lutte contre la violence basée sur le genre durant la période post-révolution: Forum Tunisien pour les Droits Economiques et Sociaux & Centre d’Ecoute pour les Femmes Victimes de Violence Economique et Sociaux
· FRANCE 24 (2021): En Tunisie, ces femmes victimes de violences domestiques.
· Abdessamad, H. (2020) Les ONG tunisiennes se mobilisent contre la violence faite aux femmes.
· Both illustrations designed by pch.vector / Freepik
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