Human rights organizations generally praise Tunisia as one of the most progressive countries in Northern Africa. In 2012, the country democratically elected human rights activist Moncef Marzouki as their interim president in the aftermath of the Arab Spring revolt that overthrew Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. Last October, the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, composed of four key trade union, human rights, and civil society groups, received the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for its work in maintaining peace and stability as the country faced widespread social unrest and political assassinations during the transition to democracy. The Quartet’s key organizations, the Tunisian General Labour Union, Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, the Tunisian Human Rights League, and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers have played an essential role in representing the interests of Tunisian civil society, maintaining the rule of law, and defending human rights.
In 2014, Tunisia adopted a new constitution that guaranteed key civil, political, social, economic, and cultural rights, including the rights to citizenship, bodily integrity, a fair trial, freedom of expression and association, freedom of assembly and movement, and freedom from torture. Article 46 vows to protect, strengthen, and develop women’s rights, and it requires Tunisia to work toward two new goals: to establish gender parity in its elected political assemblies, and to “take all necessary measures in order to eradicate violence against women.”
Despite these praiseworthy achievements, Tunisian law still permits a number of grievous human rights violations. Article 230 of the Tunisian Penal Code criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual relations and punishes “sodomy and lesbianism” with up to three years of imprisonment. Meanwhile, a provision in Article 227 of the penal code allows rapists to avoid prosecution by marrying victims between the ages of fifteen and twenty. Though Tunisia claims that its citizens possess the right to bodily integrity, Amnesty International argues that these sections of the Tunisian penal code justify affronts to bodily rights through legal language that prioritizes “morality” and condemns “attacks on decency.”
These legal norms are not the only threats to human rights in Tunisia. Prevailing social attitudes also contribute to a culture that views sexual and gender-based violence as commonplace. According to a national survey conducted in 2010, 47 percent of the women in the country have suffered violence. Last year, an Amnesty International report detailed instances in which women were regularly kicked, beaten, strangled, and even burned by their husbands. The same report profiled LGBT people who have been assaulted, threatened, stabbed, and beaten, and transgender people who have been prosecuted on the grounds that their appearance offends “public morals.”
As a leader and role model for aspiring democracies in the Arab world, Tunisia must continue to make progress in developing more efficient laws and policies to protect human rights. The international community, moreover, must continue to place pressure on Tunisia to continue to strive for progress, and it must lend its voice and support for the rights of those who are most oppressed in the country.
The University of Chicago’s Amnesty International organization will be hosting a study break and petition event on Wednesday, March 9 between 5:30 and 7:00 in the South Lounge of the Reynolds Club to give students a chance to voice their support for human rights in Tunisia. The petition calls on the Tunisian government to take stronger measures to protect victims of sexual and gender-based violence and to review harmful laws that shield rapists from prosecution and that fail to adequately protect human rights. RSVP online.
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