COMMITTEE EXPERTS COMMEND TUNISIA’S ‘GREAT STRIDES FORWARD’ IN PROMOTING EQUALITY BETWEEN WOMEN, MEN

14 June 2002
WOM/1348

COMMITTEE EXPERTS COMMEND TUNISIA’S ‘GREAT STRIDES FORWARD’ IN PROMOTING EQUALITY BETWEEN WOMEN, MEN

14/06/2002
Press ReleaseWOM/1348

Committee on Elimination of

Discrimination against Women

565th and 566th Meetings (AM & PM)

COMMITTEE EXPERTS COMMEND TUNISIA’S ‘GREAT STRIDES FORWARD’

IN PROMOTING EQUALITY BETWEEN WOMEN, MEN

Country Requested to Withdraw Its Reservations to Anti-Discrimination Convention

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 Committee’s 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 women’s choice of residence and domicile, and article 16 on women’s equality in marriage and divorce.  The country’s first and second reports were considered by the Committee in 1995.]

As the Committee discussed Tunisia’s third and fourth reports during two meetings today, experts commended the Government’s 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 Tunisia’s efforts to integrate women in development and reduce illiteracy, maternal mortality and women’s health problems.

It was encouraging to see the country’s 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 country’s female population was still illiterate and unaware of its rights.  To rectify the situation, it was important to educate the people and raise women’s awareness of their human rights.

Addressing concerns about Tunisia’s 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 women’s 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 country’s responses to questions by the Committee’s

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, Tunisia’s 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 Tunisia’s numerous reservations in connection with article 16 of the Convention on women’s equal rights during marriage and upon its dissolution, Tunisia explains that a major development in that respect has been the abolition of the wife’s duty to obey her husband.  With respect to divorce, the country’s 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 country’s law now stipulates that both parents should “cooperate in managing the family’s affairs”, including children’s education, travel and financial transactions.  Yet another amendment has given “a say in the child’s 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 country’s achievements in education.

The reports before the Committee were introduced by Tunisia’s Minister of Women’s and Family Affairs, Nezina Ben Yedder.  Also participating in the work of the Committee were the Director General of the Ministry of Women’s and Family Affairs, Zohra Ben Romdhane; Ridha Khemakhem, head of the human rights unit at the Ministry of Justice; the country’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Noureddine Mejdoub; and Soumaia Zorai and Ali Cherif of Tunisia’s Mission to the United Nations.

When the Committee meets again at 10.30 a.m. on Tuesday, 18 June, it is scheduled to begin its consideration of the initial, second, third, fourth and fifth reports of the Republic of Congo.

Background

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women met this morning and this afternoon 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 women's 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 country’s Personal Status Code, several international conventions on women’s 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 family's 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 Women's 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 media’s 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 country’s 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.  Tunisia’s 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 country’s 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 women’s health, which has been specifically recognized as a main component of the country’s 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 diarrhoeal 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 women's health in particular, including mental health, by stepping up prevention.

In the financial field, women's 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.

Introduction of Reports

Presenting her country’s reports, NEZINA BEN YEDDER, Tunisia’s Minister of Women’s and Family Affairs, said that the change of Government of 7 November

1987 had marked the beginning of a new era in the further strengthening of women’s rights in Tunisia, as enshrined in the country’s 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 had witnessed an important quantitative jump forward in the promotion and consolidation of women’s 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 had implemented a comprehensive strategy to develop women’s 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, she said.

Since August 1992, she continued, Tunisia had 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 had 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.     

She said that Tunisia had responded positively to the recommendations and working methodologies flowing from discussion of the country’s first and second reports in 1995.  She cited various actions and decisions her country had 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.

Tunisia’s determination to enhance the status of women by developing its legislative system was one of the options pursued, she said, in line with society’s developing needs.  Since 1995, Tunisia had 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.

She said Tunisia was 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 had dropped from 80.4 per cent in 1966 to 36.2 per cent in 1999.  Tunisia had 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, she stated.

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 Tunisia’s 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.

Ms. BEN YEDDER further told the Committee that Tunisian women had gained access to all field 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, she said, adding that women in both rural and urban areas had actively benefited from adequate care, allowing them to participate in economic and social programmes.

She underscored the dramatic increase in women’s access to decision-making positions.  Their presence in Parliament had 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.  She added that Tunisia was unwavering its determination to safeguard all the gains so far made and to continue its efforts to eradicate all forms of discrimination against women.

She stressed the major part played by associations in the country’s development effort.  As women’s rights came centre-stage within the universal system of human rights, and as the number of worldwide initiatives to consolidate the status of women increased, Tunisia was determined to further develop its programmes and form forces with other countries and regions as well as international institutions and bodies.

She concluded by assuring the Committee that Tunisia stood ready to provide it with additional information on the contents of its report.

Experts’ Comments

Speakers in the ensuing debate welcomed the country’s well-structured and comprehensive reports and expressed gratitude to the delegation for its extensive responses to the questions formulated by the pre-session working group.

“I am very proud of what is happening in Tunisia,” one expert said, explaining that on each of her several visits to the country, she had seen significant progress in advancing the cause of women.  The experts commended the Government’s strong political will to implement the Convention through numerous amendments to the country’s legislation, and improve de facto gender equality in Tunisia.

Besides numerous institutions and programmes for gender equality, they noted the efforts to integrate women in development and to reduce illiteracy, as well as reduction in maternal mortality and improvement of women’s health.  Tunisia had also tackled the situation of women in the family.  In particular, the country had done away with polygamy and introduced the concept of partnership in marriage.  A daughter could now inherit her parents’ possessions in their entirety.

It was encouraging to see the country’s efforts to harmonize the provisions of Islam with the human rights approach, which integrated law and policy in a holistic way, one speaker said.  Up to 20 per cent of the country’s budget was committed to education, and a legal framework for human rights had been established in Tunisia.

Despite the country’s great strides forward, the patriarchal heritage still hindered progress in Tunisia in many respects, however.  Warning the country against complacency and “resting on its laurels”, speakers reminded the delegation that suits brought by women victims of discrimination were still not recognized by the country’s courts, and the activities of women’s NGOs critical of the Government’s policies were not allowed.  A large portion of the country’s female population was still illiterate and unaware of its rights.  To rectify the situation, it was important to educate the population and raise women’s awareness of their human rights.  The progress in Tunisia was so significant that it should lead to further achievements, a speaker said.

Among the remaining issues of concern, the experts drew attention to the problem of exploitation of prostitutes and trafficking in women.  While strictly prohibited by law, clandestine prostitution still existed in the country.  Such a situation could lead to further marginalization of prostitutes.  Regarding domestic violence, it was said that the country’s penal code clearly stated that assault against a wife should be punished, but there was no specific law defining the concept of domestic violence.

Several speakers pointed out that Tunisia still maintained its numerous reservations to the Convention, despite its efforts to address the issues involved.  The experts hoped that following on the progress already achieved, the country would soon remove its opposition to the articles of the Convention, currently still in conflict with domestic law.  [Tunisia ratified the Convention in 1980, with reservations to several articles of the Convention, including article 9 on nationality, 15 on women’s choice of residence and domicile, and    16 on women’s equality in marriage and divorce.]

It was also regrettable that the country had not signed the Optional Protocol to the Convention, several experts said.  The Protocol entitles the Committee to inquire into grave violations of the Convention and consider petitions on questions within its area of competence. 

Speakers wanted to know about the status of the Convention in the country’s legislation, and asked if an introduction of a broader concept of non-discrimination on the basis of gender was being contemplated by the Government.  Was there a specific article on torture in the country’s Constitution?  What was the situation regarding violence against women in places of detention?  Were there limitations on the time of custody for women?

Responses

Ms. BEN YEDDER then introduced the members of the Tunisian delegation, who would respond to the specific issues raised by the experts.

NOUREDDINE MEJDOUB, Permanent Representative of Tunisia to the United Nations, said women’s rights represented an old dream that had become a reality, first in the western world, and then more and more in the rest of the world, including Tunisia.  He said his country partook of what he termed a tolerant and wise Muslim tradition whose efforts to defend women had begun as far back as 1956, when people still needed courage to interpret everyday religion and adjust the laws to the changing spirit of the times.  That had taken great courage, and demonstrated how far Tunisians had come in accepting truly radical reform.  Present-day Tunisia boasted of a new generation which even outside observers believed to be highly advanced in terms of female advancement.  He added that Tunisians “massively” supported those changes, which were permanent and could not be called into question. 

SOUMAIA ZORAI, Counsellor at the Permanent Mission of Tunisia, described the reforms Tunisia had undertaken as a commitment it intended to respect.  On the legal aspects of prostitution and the licensing of prostitutes, she said, authorities were making every effort to close the country’s brothels, noting that the current report referred to a number of such closures.

She added that there was now a special law on domestic violence, and also provisions for the consequences of such violence.  Legislation on citizenship was enacted in 1993. 

RIDHA KHEMAKHEM, Director, Human Rights Unit of the Ministry of Justice, said every kind of discrimination was illegal in Tunisia.  On abuse of detainees by prison officers, he said the country had criminalized abuse or torture by prison authorities and warders.  Other mechanisms to protect human rights also existed.  Noting that the judiciary in Tunisia was also independent, he said there was a committee on human rights composed of experts in human rights law.  Reports of violence against women and on detainees were referred to investigators.

On the limits to length of determination, he said that preventive detention by police was limited to a period of three days.  With regard to criminal offences, the provisions were for six months with the option of two extensions for a maximum of 14 months detention.

ZOHRA BEN ROMDHANE, Director General, Ministry for Women and Family Affairs, said that remarkable progress had been made in pursuing Tunisia’s policy. Machinery to ensure promotion of rights for women had been established.  For the time being the goal was to achieve and sustain a high profile for women’s rights, she added.  There was also a national communication strategy that focused on the young.  The strategy aimed at attacking sexist stereotypes that still exist, particularly in the media itself.  The programme had been in operation since 1989.  There was also a programme to help women with special needs, such as teen mothers. 

Experts

Several experts in the second round of comments welcomed the country’s efforts to change laws related to polygamy and women’s rights in marriage.  However, legal changes alone could not bring about de facto equality of women.  According to the reports, the Government believed that democracy could not be achieved without women, yet despite its efforts, the number of women in decision-making positions remained low.  Did the country intend to introduce quotas in order to increase women’s participation in political life?  Were women able to make appeals before the courts in cases of discrimination?

Amendments had been made to reinforce punishment for violence towards women, another speaker said.  However, women often remained silent out of respect for family traditions and fear of reprisals.  Did modesty and silence prevail over the violations of women’s human rights?  Other speakers also sought information about assistance to victims of violence and preventive programmes.

Returning to the question of reservations, an expert said that the country had had the courage to move ahead in terms of equality.  Would Tunisia now find it possible to lift the reservations and advance further on such issues as the question of women’s inheritance rights?

Also mentioned in the discussion was the fact that little information had been provided regarding trafficking in women.  The delegation was asked to elaborate on an assertion in the report that a percentage of families “had made a transition” from traditional to modern approaches.  Several questions were asked about the functioning of political parties in the country.

Country Response

Mr. KHEMAKHEM said that, under the country’s Constitution, “one shall not create any political party based on language, religion, ethnic origin or regional adherence”.  Tunisian legislators had based that decision on the desire to preserve a peaceful political climate in the country.

Regarding complaints, he said there was no provision in Tunisian legislation that would prevent women from lodging complaints before public authorities if they became a target of violence.  There was also an official with functions similar to those of an ombudsman, who received all complaints and forwarded them to relevant bodies.

The country had adopted a comprehensive approach in dealing with violence, he continued.  A study had been initiated to discern the real situation as far as domestic violence was concerned, because currently no statistics existed in that regard.  Among the measures envisioned by the Government were reconciliation efforts.

Regarding trafficking in women, he said that Tunisia had ratified an international convention dealing with that crime.  Trafficking in people was a crime under the country’s domestic law.  While rehabilitation programmes for victims of trafficking did exist in Tunisia's prisons, the Government recognized that more needed to be done in that respect, probably with assistance from civil society.

Ms. BEN ROMDHANE said a recent survey showed that only 21 per cent of Tunisian families lived according to the traditional code.  Most of them were now in transition to the modern way of life.

Turning to the issue of women’s participation in public life, she said that without calling its efforts “quotas”, the Government was promoting their increased participation in elections, striving to achieve a goal of some 20 per cent.  The number of women in administration was growing, and the Government was trying to speed up that process.  A programme was under way in the country to raise awareness of problems associated with prostitution, as well as sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS.

Ms. ZORAI said that, as an Arab and Muslim country, Tunisia had deeply rooted modes of behaviour.  The country’s strategy was to enact gradual change to overcome stereotypes.

Ms. BEN YEDDER said that due to changing attitudes, Tunisian women were well represented within the Government.  There were two female ministers and three secretaries within the cabinet.

Regarding traditional families versus modern ones, a number of studies had been conducted, she said.  At present, Tunisian families were not traditional anymore.  Up to 50 per cent of all households were now in a transitional phase.  A high percentage of mothers who took part in a recent survey indicated that they would like their daughters to continue with their studies rather than get married.

As it was not easy to promote a change in attitudes, efforts were being made to influence public opinion through television and radio programmes, which were projecting a new image of women and family relationships based on mutual respect and dialogue.  The Government was also doing everything within its power to make violence against women unacceptable in society.

As for withdrawal of reservations, she said that she could not but “marvel” at the experts’ questions in that regard.  It was enough that the country was doing its best to implement the Convention and to bring its legislation in line with it.  In 2001, a new law was added to the law on nationality, which accorded Tunisian women the right to pass their nationality to their children if a father died or left her to care for them alone.  Women could now participate in the upbringing of children on equal terms with fathers.  Tunisia could not be sure that all women were aware of the new amendments, and, for that reason, it was trying to publicize them as much as possible.  The country was, indeed, working hard to achieve the advancement of women.

Experts

An expert noted that neither the report nor the country’s replies indicated the existence of a government policy to counter sexual harassment.  She sought a further clarification on this issue.  Both at work and in the public schools, sexual harassment was apparently not a subject of clear government policy, she said.  It would seem that violence against women was still seen as a private matter and not recognized as an infringement of women's rights.

However, the expert continued, such violence was not just a family or private matter, but concerned society as a whole.  Further, there appeared to be no data available to show the extent of this problem, as there were very few complaints and very few prosecutions over violence.  She wondered if this was due to the fact that women dared not address courts to seek redress, because at that point they might be considered guilty.  She said there were few women who would dare challenge that sacrosanct area, unless they were educated and understood that this was a violation of their rights.

The dignity of women was at stake, she said, and asked if there were provisions in Tunisia’s criminal code that called for criminalization of acts of violence against women.  She pointed out that there were no provisions against marital rape or incest in the criminal code, even though those provisions existed in the international conventions ratified by Tunisia.

Two other experts also sought further clarification on the concerns raised by previous questioners.  They wanted to know if there were women prisoners of conscience, and asked about the position of children born in prison.  The experts also wanted to know if there were female officers trained to look after women in custody, and whether they had any psychological training in that area.

Country Response

On the issue of violence against women, Mr. KHEMAKHEM said that domestic violence did not exist on a wide scale in Tunisia.  Indeed, there were individual cases of violence and sexual harassment, which were brought to court, but compared with other offences, violence was not a major concern.  Certain preventive mechanisms had been introduced in the country, including appointment of an officer responsible for child protection under the relevant act.  The country’s penal code criminalized violence without distinction between men and women.  No special crimes against women were determined under the law, as men and women were considered equal.

As for the concern that abused women often did not resort to courts, he said that the country was going to undertake a field study to determine the real scope of the phenomenon.  While the notion of marital rape was not specifically addressed by the penal code, a woman could approach a court, and he himself had participated in a hearing in a similar case.

The rates of crimes committed by women in Tunisia were minimal, he continued.  Among them were theft, infanticide and prostitution.  There was no special category of political prisoners in Tunisia.  Although it had never been invoked, there was a law that stipulated that a pregnant woman who was condemned to death would be allowed to deliver her baby before she was executed.  In general, pregnant women and children were well protected under the new laws.  An incarcerated woman could keep her baby for up to three years.  Prisons for men and women were segregated, and there were female personnel in the women’s prisons.  Doctors could visit female prisoners under certain conditions.

Turning to prostitution, he said that it was criminalized under the law.  So was inducing women to resort to prostitution, or exploiting their services.  Trafficking for prostitution was also considered a crime.  Under the penal code, women engaged in prostitution could be punished with a sentence of up to two years.

Ms. BEN ROMDHANE then presented some figures related to violence against women.  In 1999, there had been 3,600 cases of violence in the country.  During the first six months of 2000, there were over 2,000 cases of domestic violence in Tunisia.  The phenomenon was limited in scope, compared to the total number of families.  A seminar on violence had recently been organized in the country, and a pilot committee had been set up to develop the guidelines of a recently launched study.

Experts

An expert congratulated the Government on providing for the granting of nationality in cases of mixed marriages.  A new law would soon make it possible for a Tunisian woman to register her child as a citizen.  She hoped that elements of the new law which appeared to maintain discriminatory distinctions between men and women would be addressed.  She applauded the Government’s decision to change the relevant laws, and looked forward to the time when the country harmonized its laws by bringing them in line with international standards.

Another expert expressed dissatisfaction at the limited political participation by women, especially in Parliament.  She also sought a clarification on the position of women in the Tunisian judiciary.

Response

Ms. BEN YEDDER assured the committee that the country was working hard to remove some of the reservations it had expressed on the Convention, particularly with regard to women in the judiciary.

On the transference of nationality, she said, Tunisia was resolved to implement the laws recently enacted.  The country had a new law stipulating that in case of death of the father or loss of his legal identity, it was enough to consider the mother’s situation in deciding the case. 

Mr. KHEMAKHEM said he believed that Tunisia was making slow but steady progress in comparison with others.  However, there were some areas which required more time because they involved inheritance.

On the participation of female judges and on interpretation of laws concerning women, he said that Tunisia -- with 25 per cent of the judiciary represented by women -- took pride in the success it had scored.  However, whatever the gender of the judge, the law was applied objectively and without regard to whether it applied to a man or a woman.

Ms. YEDDER said that everyone shared in the goal to defend human rights, but that the peculiarities of each society should be taken into account.

Experts’ Comments

It was commendable that more than 50 per cent of university students in Tunisia were women, a speaker said.  Tunisia was also reporting a decline in women’s illiteracy and an increase in girls’ school enrolment.  However, serious concern remained regarding adult illiteracy in the country, for over 40 per cent of the rural population remained illiterate.  What was being done to increase the literacy of mature women?  Were there women’s studies courses at the university level?

An expert said that, according to the report, the country intended to reduce the rate of rural illiteracy by 2004 from 53 to some 20 per cent and eliminate it completely in another 10 years.  It was an ambitious plan which deserved appreciation, but she wanted to know how the country intended to reach that goal.

Also addressed by the experts were the issues of employment and the low level of women’s participation in the labour force.  What was being done to increase the number of women in the workplace and avoid discrimination there?  Experts wanted to know if the wage gap existed, and if there was equal employment opportunity legislation in the country.  Did women have civil remedies in court if they were discriminated against in the workplace?  Information was also sought regarding pensions and measures to alleviate poverty among women.

It had been brought to the Committee’s attention that there was a serious problem of sexual harassment in the workplace in Tunisia, a speaker said.  Would the State consider introducing specific legislation to prohibit it?

An expert wondered about the law in Tunisia which prohibited the wearing of the traditional scarf, or hijab, in particular, in government offices and at the universities.  Did that curtail women’s opportunities to receive education and get jobs in the public sector?

Additional information was also sought regarding the situation of rural women.

Country Response

Ms. BEN ROMDHANE said that in 1990 the rate of illiteracy among women had been 48 per cent.  That number had been brought down to some 36 per cent in 1999. Reflecting the Government’s efforts in the area of education, in recent years school enrolment of girls had increased.  The nationwide literacy drive gave the highest priority to educating adult women, particularly in the rural areas. Various studies were being conducted to reflect the situation in the country.

Regarding the number of women professors, she said that the figure of 8 per cent quoted by one of the experts was incorrect.  In fact, the number of women professors stood at some 30 per cent.

She said that, under the national development plan, a micro-credit programme had been initiated to increase rural women’s participation in economic life.  Several NGOs were working in the field to promote the situation of rural women.

Although the number of women participating in the workforce had not grown significantly in recent years, it was expected to rise as women’s level of education and qualifications grew.  A national commission had examined the situation in the labour market in 2000, and now the Government had an accurate picture of women’s employment issues.  The problem of the wage gap between men and women needed to be further considered.

Mr. KHEMAKHEM added that legislation had been introduced to eliminate discrimination against women in the workplace.  If any kind of discrimination did occur, women had access to the courts and could receive reparation.  As for sexual harassment, article 6 of the labour code stressed the employers’ obligation to ensure good conduct at work.  While there were no specific provisions regarding sexual harassment per se, such behaviour was targeted for under that regulation.

As for the dress code, women were encouraged to wear traditional scarves for traditional celebrations, but not in public places.  Those decrees did not have the power of law and were intended as a neutral reminder for women.

Experts

Speakers wanted to know why the age for marriage was different for women and men.  That disparity would encourage and expose the woman to early pregnancy, they felt, and wondered why women’s marriage age had not raised to the same level as men’s?  The payment of dowry also conveyed the image of the young woman as being put up for sale.

One expert asked how many marital violence and/or conjugal violence cases had been recorded, how many of those had been withdrawn, and how many had actually gone to court or reported to the police.

The experts also wanted to know to what extent Tunisia intended to mobilize the media in “socializing” the management of the family.

Another sought an explanation of the inheritance system in Tunisia.

On alimony and divorce, an expert lauded Tunisia’s reforms, which she said were of particularly tremendous importance in Islamic jurisprudence.

Country Response

Responding to concerns about the difference in the legal marriage ages for men and women, Mr. KHEMAKHEM told the Committee that what had been laid down was merely the minimum age.  With regard to the practice of giving a dowry, he said it was not intended to -- and indeed did not -- give the impression of a transaction.  Dowry in Tunisia had its roots in religion and was a symbolic gesture.

Ms. BEN ROMDHANE referred to the new accord following the reform of 1993, which considerably reduced the difference in marriage age between men and women.  The Government was tackling the media and both young men and women.  A training document had been put out to make men and women, spouses and others aware of their responsibilities and rights within society.

Addressing the concern over what (if anything) was being done for the elderly, she said that a programme which targeted older citizens was in place.  Additionally, all members of the family enjoyed the same rights.

Experts

From the responses, it was clear that men were considered breadwinners, a speaker said, asking for further clarification on that matter.  Speakers also wanted to know about the rules governing women’s place of residence, guardianship, matrimonial property, changes of name and parental leave in Tunisia.

An expert said that if women in Tunisia wanted custody of children after divorce, they had to remain unmarried.  That provision did not apply to men, which represented discrimination against women.

Going back to the problem of domestic violence, an expert said that a conciliatory attitude towards perpetrators was a source of concern.  Was Tunisia considering introduction of protection orders?  Had it implemented previous recommendations regarding the establishment of shelters for the victims of rape?  Was reparatory marriage between the perpetrator of rape and the victim allowed?

Country Response

Mr. KHEMAKHEM said that in his country a husband was considered the head of the family and the main provider.  The personal code maintained that notion, but limited the man’s previously absolute authority over the family.  The wife had the right to spend money on the family, if she possessed it.  The choice of domicile was up to the family after the marriage contract had been concluded.  A dual property law existed in the country.  Under religious law, if the couple acquired property, it was considered the property of the husband.  If the couple chose the so-called optional regime, marriage property would be considered communal property.

It was not true that if a woman wanted custody of children, she had to remain single after divorce.  The custody of children in Tunisia was connected not to the marital status of parents but to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, taking into account the child’s right to parental care.  Along with regular leave, mothers had maternity leave in Tunisia.

The legal system in the country was not rigid –- it was constantly evolving in order to reflect the changes in society, he continued.  Reparatory marriage was not allowed in Tunisia if violence was involved.  If a woman wanted to marry a man following out-of-wedlock sexual intercourse, she was free to do so.

Ms. BEN ROMDHANE said that several NGOs maintained shelters for the victims of violence.  Those shelters received subsidies from the Government.

Ambassador MEJDOUB said he deeply appreciated the Committee’s comments, which demonstrated the objectiveness and frankness of the experts.  Particularly important to him was the view of Tunisia as a pioneer in the Arab and Muslim world.  As for the future, he had a vision of Tunisia as an African, Arab and Muslim country, which also looked towards Europe and promoted fellowship in a way similar to the practice in Europe.  That was a region which also practised and valued its traditions.

Concluding Country Remarks

In her concluding remarks, Ms. BEN YEDDER asked the Committee to acquaint itself with Tunisian legislation, as it marked a new start in her Government’s effort to perpetuate and consecrate the Committee’s goals.  She said that women were an integral component of the human rights picture, and pledged to accurately convey the Committee’s questions to all interested parties, authorities and civil society alike, so that progress in achieving goals could be guaranteed.

Tunisia’s forward-looking vision would also enable the country to reconsider the principles agreed to during the meeting.  She said that her country would work at the highest levels of authority towards helping women achieve their goals.

CHARLOTTE ABAKA (Ghana), Chairperson of the Committee, described the session as a constructive dialogue which demonstrated the Committee’s profound interest in what was happening in the field of women’s rights.  She said the Committee had taken note of the delegation’s pledge to take action on its areas of concern.  She asked Tunisia to export its experiences in the field beyond its borders, because one intention of the Committee’s sessions was to share experience beyond national borders.  She concluded with the hope that, the next time the Committee met, Tunisia would have no reservations on the Convention.

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For information media. Not an official record.