Tunisia is currently ranked 123rd on the Global Gender Gap Index of 2014 according to the World Economic Forum, and is therefore one of the highest ranking countries in the Arab world. Tunisia is viewed as a relatively advanced country in terms of women’s rights. Tunisia has repeatedly expressed its willingness to meet international norms and standards with regards to both human rights protection and women’s rights. To this end, the country has adopted several national measures regarding women’s rights, including granting women the vote in 1957 and granting women reproductive freedom in 1962 with access to birth control measures. In 2014, a new Constitution was drafted. The new Constitution included Article 46, which guarantees the “equality of opportunities between men and women to have access to all levels of responsibility and in all fields” and fair representation in all elected bodies. As a result, over 4000 women ran for Parliament in 2011 and almost as many ran again in 2014. Correspondingly, women currently hold more than 31% of seats in Parliament, which by comparison is significantly higher than other states in the North Africa region, as well as the U.S record of 19.4% of the seats occupied by women in Congress. Moreover, on the side of the electorate, the number of women involved in the political process was relatively high. During the elections in 2014, female Tunisian voters outnumbered men among newly registered voters.
In order to meet its constitutional mandate to eliminate violence against women, the Tunisian government adopted the National Action Plan for the Elimination of Violence against Women (NAPEVW) in 2013. The National Action Plan aims to end violence against women through the dissemination of information materials, the use of free hotline services and by strengthening and increasing access to comprehensive care for domestic violence survivors. To the same end, the Tunisian Center for Research, Studies, Documentation and Information on Women (CREDIF), which operates under the Ministry of Women and Family Affairs, now offers trainings to prevent and end violence against women in public spaces. The Ministry has also ordered a study to be conducted regarding the laws on sexual harassment and its impact on the standing of women in Tunisia.
Additionally, over the last decade, a wide variety of steps have been taken to strengthen the protection and promotion of women’s rights. For instance, the interim government announced the withdrawal of reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 2011. This could not have occurred without the lasting advocacy and lobbying by civil society and the support of many NGOs and international organisations. Other areas in which Tunisia showcases its gender equality initiatives include its ban on polygamy, its positive representation of women in educational institutions - the majority of those being universities - and its high number of women occupying high-ranking positions in the public and private sectors.
However, despite immense gains on paper, Gender Concerns International and other NGOs have noted the contrasting stark reality of Tunisian women; a significant gender imbalance in Tunisia still remains. Several women’s activists have argued that this gender gap can be explained through a lack of awareness about women’s rights and the regression within the education sector of the country. Moreover, Tunisian women have continued to fight several forms of violence and harassment. According to a 2012 survey of the National Board for Family and Population (ONFP), about one in two Tunisian women said they had been subjected to violence during their life. With the resurgence of Islamist ideologies in Tunisian society of which some view women as second-class citizens, violence against women is increasing every day. Unfortunately, government is slow to react to this type of violence. This may be attributed to the fact that gender-based violence laws are currently still sitting in parliament and have yet to be signed into law.
With alarm, Gender Concerns International and other NGO´s have observed that due to the government remaining silent on gendered security issues, unjust treatment of women still occurs on a daily basis. When a young woman is raped by a police officer for example, she can be charged with indecency which may lead to imprisonment, regardless of her status as a victim. Another, rather hidden issue is the fact that some women are the victims of incest practiced by fathers, uncles, cousins or brothers. Besides the physical and sexual forms of incest which are the most commonplace, many women suffer from economic violence since they are banned from working while others have their wages confiscated.
The position of Tunisian women in rural areas remains extremely problematic: 40% of women living in rural areas are illiterate while many rural women face numerous health problems due to a lack of access to free healthcare. Furthermore, these women are not well integrated on the economic and political scene. As recommended in the final report of the Gender Election Observation Mission (GEOM) 2014, 300,000 Tunisian women mostly living in these rural areas, who have been excluded from the electoral process, need to be given access to vote in any future elections in Tunisia. The fact that these 300,000 women lacked the official identity card necessary to cast their vote underscores the gap in Tunisia´s democratic system, especially with regard to gender parity.