From outside, the new shelter in Gafsa looks like an ordinary house. The inside is homey except for the schedule on the kitchen door, which sets out the hours to eat and clean. The storage closet is stocked with sanitary pads, toothbrushes and clothes.
“Sometimes the women who come here ran away from a desperate situation with no luggage whatsoever. So we provide everything,” said Sonia Mhamdi, the manager of the intake center that is the first stop for women in distress before they are placed in shelters.
There are seven women’s shelters in Tunisia, funded by the European Union. Most opened after the country’s Arab Spring revolution, which began in December 2010 and inspired a string of uprisings around the Middle East and North Africa. The shelters offer protection, legal advice, some free job training, child care, and psychological and medical treatment.
While the new law and the shelters are breakthroughs, the next challenge is to broaden awareness of the changes and to get more abused women to make use of the new institutions and measures to protect them. The police, judges and doctors must also be made aware of the provisions of the new law.
“We need to educate children and their parents to respect family values, which include women’s rights,” said the minister of women, family and children, Néziha Labidi.
The legislation outlaws domestic rape and bars a rapist from marrying his victim in order to diminish his sentence. Police can face jail time if they refuse to take a woman’s abuse complaint or try to dissuade her from lodging one. Even if the victim drops the charges in a case of violence against women, the investigation is still required to go on.
Reporting of domestic abuse has increased, yet the rate of prosecutions remains low. According to the Ministry of Justice, 5,569 complaints of violence against women were registered between 2016 and 2017. But more than half of them were dropped or dismissed.