Womens Rights in Tunisia Essay

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During a Conference held in 2002, members of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women commended Tunisia today for its great strides forward in promoting equality between men and women, and urged it to withdraw its reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

[Acting in their personal capacity, the Committees 23 experts from around the world monitor compliance with the Convention, which requires States parties to eliminate discrimination against women in enjoyment of all civil, political, economic and cultural rights. Tunisia ratified that human rights instrument in 1980, with reservations to several articles of the Convention, including article 9 on nationality, article 15 on womens choice of residence and domicile, and article 16 on womens equality in marriage and divorce. The countrys first and second reports were considered by the Committee in 1995.]

As the Committee discussed Tunisias third and fourth reports during two meetings , experts commended the Governments strong political will to implement the Convention through numerous amendments to national legislation and measures to improve de facto gender equality. Besides many institutions and programmes for gender equality, the experts noted Tunisias efforts to integrate women in development and reduce illiteracy, maternal mortality and womens health problems.

It was encouraging to see the countrys efforts to harmonize the provisions of Islam with the human rights approach, which integrated law and policy in a holistic way, speakers said. To improve the situation of women in the family, the country had done away with polygamy and introduced the concept of partnership in marriage under its personal code.

Warning the country against complacency and resting on its laurels, however, experts pointed out that despite impressive achievements, patriarchal stereotypes still hindered progress in Tunisia in many respects. A large portion of the countrys female population was still illiterate and unaware of its rights. To rectify the situation, it was important to educate the people and raise womens awareness of their human rights.

Addressing concerns about Tunisias reservations to the Convention, members of the delegation said the country would consider withdrawing its reservations in the future, but, for the time being, its main goal was to develop means of implementing womens rights and giving them a higher profile. At present, the country was doing everything in its power to implement the Convention. Above and beyond legislation, institutional machinery had been established to make equal rights a practical reality for all Tunisian women. A set of initiatives was under way to implement the national strategy on gender issues.

[According to the countrys responses to questions by the Committees pre-session working group (document CEDAW/PSWG/2002/II/CRP.2/Add.2), in line with article 9, paragraph 2, of the Convention regarding equal rights in transferring nationality, Tunisias nationality code had been amended as far as acquisition of Tunisian nationality by a child born abroad of a Tunisian mother and an alien father was concerned. In connection with article 15 of the Convention, the document explains that freedom of choice of residence is guaranteed under the Constitution, but to ensure stability and cohesion of families, the law provided for a conjugal duty of cohabitation, incumbent on both spouses.

With respect to Tunisias numerous reservations in connection with article 16 of the Convention on womens equal rights during marriage and upon its dissolution, Tunisia explains that a major development in that respect has been the abolition of the wifes duty to obey her husband.

With respect to divorce, the countrys personal code now allows the wife to request and obtain a divorce under the same terms as her husband.

By further amendments to the personal code, the country has protected the wife against attempts to manipulate divorce proceedings against her interests. The countrys law now stipulates that both parents should cooperate in managing the familys affairs, including childrens education, travel and financial transactions. Yet another amendment has given a say in the childs affairs to the father, guardian and mother.] Among other issues highlighted in the debate were problems associated with prostitution, the age and conditions of marriage, the situation of women prisoners, Tunisian inheritance laws, matrimonial property, and the countrys achievements in education.

Background

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women met to consider the combined third and fourth reports of Tunisia (document CEDAW/C/TUN/3-4), submitted in compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women. Tunisia ratified the Convention in 1980. The report notes that womens rights in Tunisia have been strengthened, their roles diversified and their image enhanced. It details various measures taken to advance the status of women through the countrys Personal Status Code, several international conventions on womens rights, and internal reform.

Such measures ban discrimination in political parties, lay down principles for cooperation between spouses, establish the rights of women as individuals as well as daughters, wives and mothers, and bring in more balanced individual and civil rights.

A major amendment to the Personal Status Code aims to eliminate the link between women and submission, which represents a break from the former treatment of women as inferior beings. Another major innovation obliges women to contribute to the familys expenses, recognizing the economic role of women. Under the Code, however, the husband remains head of the family, albeit in an economic rather than domineering role, as the provider for his wife and children.

The report states that Tunisia has attempted to combat sexist stereotypes through the celebration of National Womens Day on 13 August, through an exhibition called Women through the Ages, through revision of school textbooks to remove inferior images of women and through the media.

Several mechanisms have been set up to improve the medias portrayal of women, including the Commission for Monitoring the Image of Women in the Media, an observatory within the Centre for Research, Documentation and Information on Women that monitors the image of women, and the Tahar Haddad Prize for a balanced image of women in the media. In addition, the Ministry for Women and Family Affairs is developing a communications strategy to change attitudes towards women and also ensure that human rights become part of family life, using radio, television and the press as well as intermediaries working in the family environment.

Efforts have also been made to combat violence within the family, the report continues. For example, an article of the Penal Code which granted attenuating circumstances to husbands who had murdered adulterous wives has been repealed. Husbands who murder their wives now face life imprisonment, and those who practice marital violence are subject to two-year prison terms as well as a fine. According to 1998 statistics, 3,600 women ” representing 0.21 per cent of families ” instituted legal proceedings against their husbands.

The countrys Child Protection Code now shields children from any form of violence, and a body of regional child protection officers takes preventive action when the health or physical and mental integrity of a child is threatened. Officers may take measures to eliminate the source of the threat or temporarily place the child with a foster family or social institution.

The report notes that prostitution has declined as Tunisian women have become more emancipated, and several establishments have closed. In 1998, the number of authorized prostitutes came to 422 in a total of 15 establishments. The remaining brothels are subject to strict medical and health controls by the Ministry of Public Health. The report states, however, that Tunisian society is tolerant of prostitution, and the practice can be only gradually reduced as relationships between men and women based on equality and reciprocity are strengthened.

Regarding political and public life, the report states that the number of women in the Chamber of Deputies increased from 1.12 per cent in 1957 to 11.5 per cent in 1999, or 21 women out of a total 182 deputies. In 1998, the Higher Magistracy Council comprised 28 members, including two women.

Since 1983, two women have also held ministerial office, as Minister of Public Health and Minister for Women and Family Affairs. In the late 1990s, women accounted for over one quarter of civil servants, 34.4 per cent of the banking sector and 48 per cent of the health sector. The role of women has also increased in ministerial departments, the economy, entrepreneurship, social and educational care facilities and in public life.

Tunisian women have become increasingly active as international representatives, accounting for 14.3 per cent of the diplomatic corps in 1999, as compared to 9.1 per cent in 1993, as well as in international forums, intergovernmental and NGOs (non-governmental organizations). In the field of education, gaps between girls and boys at all levels are quickly closing, the report states.

Promotion rates for both sexes have increased at an almost identical pace, but girls are now ahead. In higher education, the proportion of women rose from 37.2 per cent in 1988 to 50.4 per cent in 2000. Despite those figures, female illiteracy remains high at 36.3 per cent, compared to 17.7 per cent among men in the same age groups. A national programme to combat illiteracy has been set up to eliminate illiteracy among the 15-44 age group, narrow the difference in illiteracy between males and females, and prevent any backslide into illiteracy.

Regarding employment, some 65.6 per cent of Tunisians are employed in the urban areas and 34.4 per cent in rural regions. Women hold 24.6 per cent of jobs in urban areas and only 20 per cent in rural areas, although the latter figure has climbed from 17.6 per cent in 1989.

Tunisias legal system has gradually shifted towards integrating women in employment on the basis of equal skills, equal pay, and the demand for female employment grew consistently between 1993 and 1997. A priority objective under the countrys Ninth Development Plan is to more effectively integrate women into economic activity by giving them access to new technologies, improving their professional qualifications, achieving equal opportunities in training and retraining, and promoting equal opportunities in investment.

Tunisia has also made gains in the field of womens health, which has been specifically recognized as a main component of the countrys overall health system, the report states. Currently, 90.6 per cent of basic health centres offer maternal and child health services.

Due to improved living conditions and national programmes for women and children, including those providing immunization, fighting diarrheal diseases and enhancing prenatal follow-up and delivery, child mortality declined from 150 per 1,000 live births in 1966 to 45 in 1990. The adoption in the 1990s of a risk-free maternity approach reduced the child mortality rate to 27.2 per 1,000 by 1997. The mortality rate for women of childbearing age (15-49) fell from 1.6 per 1,000 live births in 1985 to 0.66 per 1,000 in 1994.

Contraceptive use rose from 49.8 per cent in 1984 to 65.6 per cent in 1998 in Tunisia. In addition, abortion is now part and parcel of human rights for women, which makes Tunisia the first Muslim country to permit it. However, a significant gap remains between urban and rural areas in attitudes towards abortion, and there are pockets of resistance in the south and central west of the country.

The report notes that the State has made considerable efforts to ensure access to basic health care as well as to maternal and reproductive health care. Attention is devoted to the health of women at various stages of their lives. But persistent gaps remain in some areas between the medical means employed and the results recorded. The Ninth Development Plan has rightly emphasized the need for better supervision of womens health in particular, including mental health, by stepping up prevention.

In the financial field, womens access to home loans and income-generating credit has been increasingly encouraged by public authorities to strengthen the role of women in development. The creation of new finance mechanisms as well as a new system of micro-credit should open up new and promising horizons for women who have difficulty accessing traditional forms of bank credit. Diversification of micro credit sources will help strengthen both average and vulnerable social groups, the report states, favouring an increasingly active role for women undertaking small projects in the informal sector.

According to the report, rural women have benefited from technical and financial support in the fields of agriculture and handicrafts. It highlights efforts to improve education, literacy, access to health services, and employment, to assist women farmers and craftswomen, and set up anti-poverty and other governmental programmes to assist agriculture and urban development.

The quality of rural life had improved considerably, due to a combination of regional development policy, overall sectoral policies and efforts of the National Solidarity Fund and the Tunisian Solidarity Bank. New mechanisms and the launch of regional plans of action for rural women should open up real prospects for self-development and better living conditions, and the access of women to various services, including employment and production support.

Tunisian women have also gained in the legal area, the report states. Women now have the right to conclude contracts in their own name, dispose of property, serve as administrators of estates and institute proceedings before any court. Other legal rights include access to judicial office, the right to choose their home, equality and partnership within the family, possession of their dowries, mutual respect between spouses, and the right of women to own, acquire, retain and dispose of property.

A new era had been marked in the further strengthening of womens rights in Tunisia, as enshrined in the countrys Constitution of 1959. That Constitution promulgated equal political, economic and social rights and duties for men and women. Since the formation of the new Government in 1987, Tunisia has witnessed an important quantitative jump forward in the promotion and consolidation of womens status within the family and society as a whole, as well as a strengthening of their role in the development of the country. In this respect, Tunisia has implemented a comprehensive strategy to develop womens capacities and protect them against all forms of discrimination.

The approach adopted was one in which democracy and development were closely related and solidarity and tolerance were complementary.  Since August 1992 Tunisia has fostered partnerships between women and men in the management of family affairs and of children, as well as in the areas of employment, social security and other fields related to civil and economic relations.

She said that since the 1990s, Tunisia has been active in the development of a comprehensive system of mechanisms and programmes, such as the Committee on Women and Development, a planning methodology based on social gender. Tunisia had responded positively to the recommendations and working methodologies flowing from discussion of the countrys first and second reports in 1995. Various actions and decisions have been taken ” moves considered as breakthroughs in the consolidation of the status of Tunisian women. Among them were establishment of a committee on the image of women in the media and a national committee for the promotion of rural women.

Tunisias determination to enhance the status of women by developing its legislative system is one of the options pursued in line with societys developing needs. Since 1995, Tunisia has passed legislation introducing a joint ownership scheme for couples; granting women the right to give their own family name to children born of unknown fathers and the opportunity for gene testing to prove parenthood; giving Tunisian women married to non-Tunisians the right to confer Tunisian citizenship on children born outside the country.

This could be done by making a mere declaration when the father was dead, legally incapacitated or missing. Tunisia is proud of its success in achieving equal rights between men and women in most sectors. The eradication of illiteracy was another of the objectives of the comprehensive development schemes adopted by Tunisia.

Female illiteracy rates has dropped from 80.4 per cent in 1966 to 36.2 per cent in 1999. Tunisia has also initiated a national adult literacy programme in April 2000 to reinforce the programme already in place. These programmes sought to reduce illiteracy rates to 20 per cent by 2004.Promoting the economic capacity of women, facilitating their access to appropriate vocational training, and encouraging them to set up small- and medium-sized enterprises were some of the highest priorities in the strategy for the promotion of Tunisias women.

The ratio of girls benefiting from vocational training had increased from 27 per cent in 1996 to 35 per cent in 2000. The number of women benefiting from micro-project mechanisms had similarly increased, with the proportion of women granted loans rising to as high as 35 per cent in 2001 from 10 per cent in 1997.

Tunisian women have gained access to all fields of employment and public life, their participation rate reaching 25 per cent in 2000. Today, women accounted for one out of two teachers, one out of three doctors, one out of four magistrates, 25.2 per cent of all journalists, and 14 per cent of all executive positions in public administration.

Tunisia had not excluded anyone from its development plan, adding that women in both rural and urban areas had actively benefited from adequate care, allowing them to participate in economic and social programmes. There has been a dramatic increase in decision-making positions for women. Their presence in Parliament has increased from 7 per cent in 1995 to 11.5 per cent today.

Women accounted for 9.3 per cent of government positions; such achievements would not have been accomplished were it not for the staunch political determination and firmly-rooted belief that democracy could not be achieved. Tunisia is unwavering its determination to safeguard all the gains so far made and to continue its efforts to eradicate all forms of discrimination against women.

 Associations play a major part in the countrys development effort. As womens rights come centre-stage within the universal system of human rights, and as the number of worldwide initiatives to consolidate the status of women increases, Tunisia is determined to further develop its programmes and form forces with other countries and regions as well as international institutions and bodies.
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