COVID-19 has become a defining governing challenge of 2020 in countries around the world. The pandemic’s intersection with gender has created unique and disproportionate effects on women, and one of the most severe among them has been increased rates of gender-based violence (GBV). The stresses of the pandemic, increasing incidents of substance abuse, and economic strain have combined in dangerous ways for many women and their families at the same time that their access to critical support services and networks -- both formal and informal -- have been curtailed. For the past four months, NDI has been working with a network of women parliamentarians in Tunisia who are committed to creating a pandemic response well-suited to addressing increasing rates of GBV.
Despite its modest COVID case count and progressive legislation concerning GBV that preceded the pandemic, Tunisia has seen a dramatic increase in domestic violence throughout the confinement period. During the first six weeks of the crisis, the number of official reports of domestic violence increased by a factor of seven to 6,693 cases. Under the framework of Tunisia's landmark 2017 law on eliminating violence against women, the Ministry of Women had begun establishing support resources for victims, but these were limited to emergency shelters for survivors. Due to rising rates of GBV, available shelters were quickly inundated by the rapidly increasing caseload, and they became difficult to access due to government restrictions, particularly on domestic travel, during the pandemic.
In response, an informal network of women MPs supported by NDI and two civil society organizations focused on women’s advocacy -- TUMED and Aswat Nissa -- scheduled a series of meetings with the Ministry of Women and other key stakeholders to discuss the issue. NDI had been working with the network since February 2020 to identify priorities for Tunisian women and develop the group’s strategy. A key point of focus for their work that emerged during initial meetings was to push for the even and full application of the 2017 law against GBV, so when the pandemic took hold in Tunisia and this issue was pushed to the forefront, the group was prepared to mobilize and advocate for government responses to address the needs of Tunisian women during this crisis.
In April, NDI, TUMED and Aswat Nissa facilitated a virtual meeting among 19 women MPs, including five members of the Committee on Women, Family, Children, Youth and the Elderly to discuss the increase of reported domestic violence cases, unique challenges facing vulnerable women and children in rural areas, and steps that should be taken to raise public awareness of the rights of -- and protections and resources available to -- victims. NDI also briefed the women MP network on political and crisis communication strategies to help women MPs develop their advocacy strategy around GBV and gender-sensitive communications. The network of MPs discussed the effectiveness of the government’s response to the rise in GBV, and decided to schedule a meeting with the Ministry of Women to make recommendations for how to further mitigate the problem. Among their recommendations, the group centered on the full implementation of the 2017 law to combat violence against women, including broad expansions to the shelter system, paritucularly in rural areas, as well as targeted government support for domestic workers (overwhelmingly women) who had been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Later that month, the network of women MPs held a meeting with the Ministry of Women, where they discussed the current government’s response and presented their policy recommendations. The Minister for Women, Asma Shiri, presented the key measures adopted by the Ministry thus far to reduce the impact of COVID-19 and GBV on women, children and the elderly. These measures included the creation of a temporary shelter to house women and youth victims of domestic violence, the launch of the 24/7 Help Line, and the development of an interactive online platform that will offer psychological support and counseling services to children and families. Shiri presented the Ministry’s overall strategy and objectives to continue to make resources available for victims of GBV, including creating a ''National Observation Center for Violence Against Women” and modifying the legal framework related to centers for women and children victims. The Minister emphasized the importance of the economic and social empowerment of women both during and after the crisis.
The network of women MPs provided feedback on the effectiveness of the current government policy, stating that while the government had made important inroads, more work needs to be done to decrease the alarming spread of GBV-related incidents in Tunisia. The network of MPs recommended that the government fully enact the 2017 law to combat violence against women; expand and increase the capacity of shelters for victims, particularly rural women; and help alleviate the financial burden on domestic women workers resulting from the COVID-19 crisis. The Minister of Women agreed to collaborate with the head of government and other ministers to follow-up on these issues. In May, NDI helped the network of women MPs hold followup meetings with the Ministry of Women and the vice president of the parliament to track progress on combating GBV and hold the government officials responsible for change. In addition, a virtual exchange through the House Democracy Partnership on the topic provided opportunities for countries throughout the MENA region and the United States to learn from each others’ experiences with GBV during the pandemic, with a group of women MPs in Iraq launching a similar initiative to Tunisia’s following the conversation.
As part of NDI's efforts to work with the Tunisian parliament and its members to effectively oversee the activities of their government, the Institute and its civil society partners continue to advise the women MPs on how to track the Ministry's responses to their recommendations and stay true to their commitments. Through this effort, the network has honed key skills in government oversight, as well as crisis response and communications. The interest that the government has taken in hearing recommendations from parliamentarians on this issue is itself cause for optimism. This case is one of successful parliamentary activism overall that will develop over the coming months as the government continues to reevaluate its approach to GBV, both in the context of the crisis and beyond.
The National Democratic Institute’s work with the Tunisian parliament is generously funded by the United States Department of State’s Near East Bureau.
Authors: Ahlem Ben Yahia (Program Officer) and Andrew Blunt (Project Assistant) work with NDI’s Middle East and North Africa team.