This series of country context overviews is founded in the Coalition of African Lesbians’ (CAL) work in different countries, specifically the Masakhane project in Southern Africa. The project’s focus is on strengthening capabilities of CAL members and partners in different countries through learning in action, as the basis of facilitating effective growth in activism among the groups with which CAL works: lesbian women, women living with HIV and AIDS, sex-workers and young women. As feminists and activists concerned with gender and sexual rights and justice, we understand that current social, political and economic structures, institutions, ideologies and practices undermine our rights and freedoms and restrict our autonomy. This understanding informs both CAL’s areas of focus in its work and the focus in this context overview; Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR), sexuality politics specifically expressed in issues of sexual orientation and gender identity, and gender discrimination and violence.
CAL’s approach to its work is also informed by the five factors identified in the “Report of the Study on the Situation of Women Human Rights Defenders in Africa” by the former Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in Africa of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. CAL has modified these factors; patriarchy and heteronormativity, fundamentalisms, militarisation, war and conflict, neoliberal capitalism, crises in democracy and environmental exploitation.
This publication focuses on sexual and gender rights, specifically violence against women, sexual and reproductive health and rights and sexual orientation and gender identity. It is intended to support Civil Society Organisations, activists and government agencies and institutions in their work to address persisting SRHR issues, gender violence and sexual orientation and gender identity issues.
Population: 11.7 million (World Bank)
Women’s Literacy: (UNESCO Institute for Statistics)
95.8% [15 – 24 years]
72.2% [15 – 64 years]
24.4% [65 years old and older]
Women’s Employment Rate: 24% (World Bank)
Maternal mortality: 43 per 100, 000 live births (World Health Organisation)
HIV prevalence: <0.1% [Women aged between 15 – 49 years old]
<0.1% [Young women] (UNAIDS)
GBV: 47.6% of women between the ages of 18 and 64 have experienced some form of violence at least once in their lifetime. (UNICEF)
GDI: 0.900 (United Nations Development Programme)
GII: 0.296 (United Nations Development Programme)
COVID-19 Status: 217, 753 confirmed cases, 7, 257 deaths (February 9, 2021) (World Health Organisation)
Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights
As concluded by the World Health Organisation (WHO), Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights (SHRH) encompass efforts to eliminate preventable maternal and neonatal mortality and morbidity, to ensure quality sexual and reproductive health services, including contraceptive services, and to address sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and cervical cancer, violence against women and girls, and sexual and reproductive health needs of adolescents. Universal access to sexual and reproductive health is essential not only to achieve sustainable development but also to ensure that this new framework speaks to the needs and aspirations of people around the world and leads to realisation of their health and human rights.
Contraceptive Access and Use
In 2019, the most prevalent contraceptives used by women in Tunisia were the pill, male condoms, injectables and IUDs (Statista, 2019). Contraceptives are mainly administered through Tunisia’s four faculties of medicines with the assistance of midwives and gynaecologists (Laajimi, A. 1987). The Population Department and the Centre of Research on Human Reproduction collectively create a data bank on demographics and contribute to the training of medical personnel, respectively (Laajimi, A. 1987). At time of this report, no reliable data was available on the unmet need for contraceptives.
Maternal Mortality Rate
The main causes of maternal mortality in Tunisia are haemorrhages and hypertensive disorders (Farhat et al., 2012). Research conducted between 1994 and 2007 indicates that there was decrease from 69 to 36 deaths per 100, 000 live births which was attributable to Tunisia’s commitment to women related concerns evidenced by the establishment of the National Board for Family and Population, the Tunisian Safe Motherhood Initiative as well as the legalisation of abortion (Farhat et al., 2012).
In 1965, Tunisia became the first predominantly Muslim country to avail legal abortion services to women who had more than five children, women in their first trimester of pregnancy and women whose husbands had consented to the termination procedure. This law was later liberalised in 1973 by doing away with the requirement for a husband’s consent.
Currently, the abortion framework permits women in Tunisia to undergo an abortion within the first trimester of pregnancy. The procedure is strictly to be performed by a legally practicing physician in a hospital, authorised clinic or an established healthcare facility. Beyond the first trimester, an abortion is only legal is the termination is for purposes of preserving the pregnant woman’s mental/or physical health or in the case of a foetal anomaly. Where the termination of pregnancy is for the sake of the woman’s mental health, she must undergo a psychiatric assessment and receive a certificate from a specialist (Hajri et al., 2015). Abortion services and post abortion care in Tunisia are subsidized by the government and abortions performed within the first trimester are free of charge in healthcare facilities and public hospitals.
Despite the liberal abortion laws, many women in Tunisia are not aware of the availability of aboortion services while others are deterred by social norms from terminating their pregnancies as abortion is still widely considered a taboo. Other women are denied access to an abortion for reasons such as a doctor’s conscientious objection (Hajri et al., 2015).
Discrimination and Violence against Women
One in three women have experienced domestic violence in Tunisia (Benninger-Budel, 2002). As a response, the government has attempted to address violence endured by women through legislature – Organic Law 58, passed in 2017. The progressive law expands the parameters of violence to include psychological, economic, sexual and political violence. Additionally, the legislature provides for psychological and legal assistance to survivors of violence. Prior to Law 58’s enactment, perpetrators of sexual violence against minors were pardoned if they subsequently married the survivor but this impunity has since been abolished (UN Women, 2017). As per the legislature, marital rape is criminalised.
Tunisia has a constitutional obligation to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls as per Article 46 which also speaks to equality and equal opportunities for men and women. In furtherance of this obligation, a National Action Plan for the Elimination of Violence against Women (NAPEVW) was established in 2013 to assist survivors of violence through hotlines, increased access to healthcare and the dissemination of vital information. The Ministry of Women and Family Affairs additionally offers training in an attempt to sensitise Tunisians on violence endured by women. Tunisia has further shown its commitment to eradicating violence against women by withdrawing a reservation previously made to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) (Human Rights Watch, 2014).
Despite the commendable efforts mentioned above and the abolition of polygamy, women still face discrimination and violence in Tunisia. A hashtag called ‘EnaZeda’ – synonymous with ‘#MeToo’ – has emerged in Tunisia and women have shared their various experiences of harassment and violence in the workplace, in the home and in public places (Doelker, R. and Scheicher, P. 2020).
Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity & Expression
In Tunisia, homosexuality is criminalised according to Article 230 of the Penal Code and attracts a three-year imprisonment. In the past, Tunisia has made multiple arrests of those suspected to be queer. Those arrested are often subjected to forced anal examinations which are contrary to the constitutionally guaranteed rights of privacy and bodily integrity. Most recently, two men charged with sodomy and a reduced sentence of one year’s imprisonment detailed the gruesome discrimination and stigma experienced at the hands of police officers – they were bullied and threatened into confessing their sexual orientation under duress (Human Rights Watch, 2020).
An article titled, ‘Kill Them, They Are Sodomites,’ reveals that queer people in Tunisia face high levels of discrimination from security officers. The discrimination is likely to get worse should the proposed bill – Number 25/2015 – pass. As per Article 7 of the proposed bill, security forces would not have to account for any excessive use of force, thereby increasing their impunity (Amnesty International, 2020). The fear and concern amongst human rights defenders and LBQTI+ organisations is that the passage of this bill will lead to an increased ill and inhumane treatment of queer people at the hands of the homophobic state and its security personnel (Younes, R. 2020).
Treaties Ratification Table
Below are the sexual and reproductive health and women’s rights treaties to which Tunisia is a party. By virtue of being a signatory to these instruments, Tunisia is obligated to abide by the treaties and ensure that there is a harmony between its domestic laws and international law standards.
|Treaty||Signed||Ratification, Accession (a), Succession (d)|
|Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)||24 July 1980||20 September 1985|
|Protocol to The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol)||30 November 2015||23 August 2018|
Organisations in Tunisia Working on Women’s & Sexual Rights
- Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD)
- Association of Tunisian Women for Research and Development (AFTURD)
- Tunisian Center for Research, Studies, Documentation and Information on Women (CREDIF)
- The Nation Union of Tunisian Women
- International Council of Women
- Centre of Arab Women for Training and Research (CAWTAR)
- Association Tunisienne de la Santé et de la Reproduction (ATSR)
United Nations Treaty Body Database: https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/TreatyBodyExternal/Treaty.aspx?CountryID=178&Lang=EN
African Union Treaty Body Database: https://au.int/sites/default/files/treaties/37077-sl-PROTOCOL%20TO%20THE%20AFRICAN%20CHARTER%20ON%20HUMAN%20AND%20PEOPLE%27S%20RIGHTS%20ON%20THE%20RIGHTS%20OF%20WOMEN%20IN%20AFRICA.pdf
Benninger-Budel, C. (2002) Violence against Women in Tunisia Report prepared for the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.
Doelker, R. and Scheicher, P. (2020) CEDAW in Tunisia: EnaZeda fights against sexual violence and discrimination. Available at: https://www.boell.de/en/2020/01/13/cedaw-tunisia-enazeda-fights-against-sexual-violence-and-discrimination (Accessed: 10 May 2021).
Farhat, E. Ben et al. (2012) ‘Reduced maternal mortality in Tunisia and voluntary commitment to gender-related concerns’, International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics. John Wiley and Sons Ltd, 116(2), pp. 165–168. doi: 10.1016/j.ijgo.2011.10.010.
Laajimi, A. (1987) ‘Family planning in Tunisia: reasons for success and strategies for the future’, National Library of Medicine , pp. 48–70. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12179481/ (Accessed: 10 May 2021).
Tunisia: Homosexuality Convictions Upheld (2020) Human Rights Watch. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/08/05/tunisia-homosexuality-convictions-upheld (Accessed: 10 May 2021).
Tunisia: Landmark Action on Women’s Rights (2014) Human Rights Watch. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/04/30/tunisia-landmark-action-womens-rights (Accessed: 10 May 2021).
Tunisia: Members of parliament must reject legalizing impunity for security forces (2020) Amnesty International . Available at: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/10/tunisia-members-of-parliament-must-reject-legalizing-impunity-for-security-forces/ (Accessed: 10 May 2021).
Tunisia: use of contraceptives by type – 2019 (2019). Available at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/1197858/use-of-contraceptive-methods-in-tunisia-by-type/ (Accessed: 10 May 2021).
UN Women (2017) Tunisia passes historic law to end violence against women and girls , UN Women . Available at: https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2017/8/news-tunisia-law-on-ending-violence-against-women (Accessed: 10 May 2021).
Younes, R. (2020) “Kill Them, They Are Sodomites” , Human Rights Watch . Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/12/10/kill-them-they-are-sodomites (Accessed: 10 May 2021).