The case of a young Tunisian woman who was allegedly raped by police officers, and who along with her fiance was charged with “indecent behavior” when she filed a complaint, made international headlines toward the end of September. The case infuriated women’s rights advocates and highlighted an important issue in post-revolution Tunisia: addressing violence against women. The young woman, who has chosen to remain anonymous, is suing her alleged rapists. But how many women might choose to remain silent to avoid being stigmatized? Women make up half of society, and their role in post-revolution Tunisia is critical. The most important issue for the country today is to protect women from violence so that they can feel safe and empowered to contribute to building a democratic state.
The latest study performed by Tunisia’s National Bureau for Family and Population (a public institution affiliated with the Health Ministry), which polled 5,000 women from across Tunisian society, found that 47 percent of Tunisian women have been exposed to violence (physical, emotional or psychological) at least once in their lives.
To tackle this problem, civil society as well as the state needs to promote greater awareness among women about their rights. Along these lines, the National Bureau for Family and Population initiated a 36-monthlong program to protect women from violence. The program goals include developing equal opportunities in work, education and society in general for men and women; raising awareness of violence through campaigns that highlight individuals that women facing violence could turn to for help, such as judges and social workers; and developing medical and psychological intervention plans for women exposed to violence so that they can receive proper treatment and care.
This program also works to protect women through awareness and education campaigns, and offers counseling for women who are victims of violence. Part of this program has been conducted in clinics in rural areas. Usually in these clinics, one day per week is reserved for women only. The program conducted an awareness campaign for the women visiting the clinic, focusing on the definition of violence, the different forms it can take and the ways women can protect themselves, such as going to a judge or a social worker who can intervene in the situation.
Efforts to reduce violence include research, medical consultations for women who are victims of violence, and education about women’s rights for both boys and girls in schools so that all students understand and can help address the problem.
Importantly, youth are also playing a key role in raising awareness about the issue and they should be encouraged to be more involved in all programs to end violence against women. Many of them will participate in the International Day for Eliminating Violence against Women Nov. 25. Civil society groups have planned awareness and education campaigns across the country, especially in rural regions, that target several age groups.
Last year, I took part in one such campaign with a group of 16 youth from The Tunisian Association for Reproductive Health. We reached out to young girls in a local school, talking with them about what violence is and the forms it can take. We also highlighted where they can turn for help if needed and gave them a hotline they could call anonymously.
Media outlets also need to play a major role in education to combat violence. Civil society groups working to end violence against women should reach out to media to cover their events and spread their messages so that they can reach more people than only those directly affected by their work.
Social awareness is a significant component of any program to promote social change, especially among women. In this way, women can become more aware of their rights and learn how to defend themselves against violence. Women need to continue to make their voices heard, showing that they refuse to compromise their rights or remain silent about violations of these rights.
Meriem Marufi is a member of a youth leadership council in Jendouba, Tunisia. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service (www.commongroundnews.org).