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    Country Reports

June 2002





Independent information for the twenty-seventh session of the Committee on the Elimination of  Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)





Combined third and fourth State Party report (CEDAW/C/TUN/3-4)

submitted on 27 July 2000




Government type:      Republic

Constitution:               June 1959; amended 12 July 1998

Population:                 2001 estimate:  9.7 million

Ethnicities:                 98% Arab, 1% European, 1% Jewish and other

Religion:                     98% Muslim, 1% Christian, 1% Jewish and other


GDP, 2000:                             US$62.8 billion

GDP, annual growth rate:      5%

GDP per capita, 2000:           US$6,5000

Major industries:                   petroleum, mining (especially phosphate and iron ore, tourism, textiles, footwear, food and beverages


Employment (2.65 million):                           55% services, 23% industry, 22% agriculture

Unemployment rate, 2000:                           15.6%

Annual population growth rate, 2001:           1.15%

Infant mortality rate, 2001:                           29.04 per 1000 live births

Life expectancy at birth:                               male:  72.14 years

                                                            female:  75.36 years


Maternal mortality rate:                               170 per 100,000 live births

Literacy rate:                                                 male:  78.6%

                                                                                                female:  54.6%

Sources: US Department of State, World Factbook, International Planned Parenthood Federation, Africa Online


Critical Issues


Political and Public life (Article 7)

  • Inadequate female representation


Education (Article 10)

  • High rate of illiteracy


Employment (Article 11)

  • Lack of equal opportunities


Rural Women (Article 14)

  • Inferior services; limited access to education and training; highest illiteracy rates


Marriage (Article 16)

  • Influence of Shari’a law

Recent Political Events


Tunisia is often viewed as one of the most progressive Islamic states.  While the Constitution stipulates that the president must be Muslim and the state religion is Islam, [1] the government has also taken steps to secularize the country and move society away from Islamic fundamentalism.  As a part of a secularization effort, which began under the presidency of Habib Bourguiba (1956-1987), the Tunisian government banned all political groups formed on a religious basis; one of the groups banned as a result of the law included the Movement for Islamic Tendency (which was later renamed Al-Nahda).


The wearing of hijab (traditional headscarf) was outlawed under Bourguiba in 1986 [2] as it was considered to identify affiliations with Al-Nahda. [3]   The government viewed Al-Nahda as its main political opponent, and it was targeted for elimination through the state’s adoption of restrictions on political organizing.  When Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali became president in 1987, he lifted the ban on Al-Nahda and the wearing of hijab for two years. [4]   However, when the government felt threatened by Al-Nahda both politically and culturally, the group’s activities and organization were again prohibitted.  Currently, the wearing of hijab is forbidden in government offices.


The government has demonstrated strong support and commitment to the rights of women. However continued discrimination exists against women especially in property and inheritance law, governed by Shari’a (Islamic law). [5]



Despite its progressive social policies, the government does not tolerate criticism. Any critical coverage of Tunisia politics and human rights violations is very difficult given the government’s continuing persecution of reporters and independent opposition press. Journalists have been assaulted, fired, and put under police surveillance as a result of critical reporting. In addition, the state-backed Tunisian Journalists Association (AJT) supports these crack-down measures taken by the state by further vilifying human rights activists in written attacks that border on defamation.


Journalists travel and use a number of strategies to get out information on human rights abuses.   Internet, satellite television, and foreign newspapers are some of the methods employed to publicize critical information about the Tunisian government, although journalists fear retribution for using these outside resources.  The Committee to Protect Journalists reports,


                        In June (2001), Sihem Bensedrine, a human rights activist

who edits the weekly on-line magazine Kalima, was arrested

upon her return to Tunisia from Europe, where she had

criticized Tunisia’s judiciary and human rights record on an

Al-Mustaqila talk show that was broadcast in Tunisia. Bense-

drine was held for six weeks and denied visits from her family

and lawyers. In August, plainclothes security forces attacked

a group of supporters and family members who had gathered

to celebrate her August 12 release. Charges against Bensedrine

were still pending at year’s end.


A judge also filed a complaint with the British Independent Television Commission (ITC) against the show on which Bensedrine had appeared, alleging libel by the program and station and requesting sanctions and financial penalties be placed against that media outlet.  The ITC threw out the complaint, but the government has since filed another complaint with the ITC and banned all publications criticizing the Tunisian government and policies. The government has also blocked web sites, both domestic and international documenting human rights abuses in the country. [6]









Article 6 of the Tunisian Constitution states that “all citizens have the same rights and the same duties.  They are equal before the law.” [7]   Tunisia ratified the CEDAW Convention in 1985, but reserved the provisions that contradict the Tunisian Constitution, the Personal Status Code, or the Tunisian Nationality Code. [8]   Specifically, Articles 9(2), 16 (c), (d), (f), (g), and (h), and 29(2) have reservations, and 15(4) has a declaration.


The 1956 Personal Status Code introduced radical changes to the organization of the family in Tunisia, including the abolition of polygamy and giving both spouses the right to initiate divorce.  In 1992, the Code was amended with the goal to further advance women’s rights in the family. Nevertheless, Islam has played an important role in the formation of Tunisian law, and the Personal Status Code reflects that influence.  Although the government has made an effort to develop a “new phase of Islamic thinking” (ijtihad), [9] reforms that contradict traditional social convention can sometimes be abandoned. [10] In addition, many women remain ignorant of their legal rights. As of 1991, some 70 percent of illiterate women did not know that the provisions of the Personal Status Code granted them rights. [11]  


The Ministry of Women’s and Family Affairs became a full-fledged ministry in 1993 (out of the State Secretariat of Women’s and Family Affairs which was established in 1992). [12]  The Ministry has spearheaded the development of government policy on women and acted as coordinator on such policies with different parties. [13]   The Ministry reportedly has also worked to promote women’s rights in the media. [14]  




In an attempt to fight discrimination in employment, the government has made equal opportunity a mandatory part of investigation within audits of governmental institutions and state-owned enterprises.  However, these standards have only a limited effect, as these requirements do not apply to the private sector. [15]



Convention Article 7 AND 8: Political and public life, AND INTERNATIONAL REPRESENTATION


Women in Government

Although women do participate in politics, the level of participation continues to be fairly low. Following the 1999 parliamentary elections, only 21 out of 182 seats are occupied by women in the lower and single houses of parliament (11.5 percent). [16]   There are four women in the Cabinet, two of them ministers (the Minister of Vocational Training and Employment and the Minister for Women and Family Affairs), and the other two hold Secretary of State positions in ministries (Secretary of State in Charge of Housing, and the Secretary of State to the Minister of Public Health).  The vice-president of the Chamber of Deputies is a woman.  Women constitute 21 percent of the Central Committee and there is one woman (out of 10 members) on the political committee of the ruling Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD).  Women on municipal councils represent about 20 percent of elected officials.


Tunisian women are fairly well represented on the international level, including a Tunisian representative on CEDAW for the third consecutive term, high-ranking representatives in the Economic Commission for Africa, and the position of Secretary General of the Arab Organization for the Family. [17]


Women’s NGOs

The government recognizes the Union Nationale De La Femme Tunisienne (UNFT), Association Tunnisienne Des Femmes Democrates (ATFD), and the Centre de Recherches, d'Etudes, de Documentation et d'Information sur la Femme (CREDIF) as the only legitimate women’s organizations in the country. [18]   The Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH) was banned, and its information is no longer available online. [19]





Following the 1992 amendments to the Personal Status Code, a Tunisian woman may now transmit her nationality to her children. [20] Until recently it had been stipulated that the father’s consent was required in such cases.   However the government recently introduced a new law, which would make it possible for a Tunisian mother to register her child as a citizen in the absence of a foreign father. [21]  



Convention Article 10: Education


Although the government has attempted to eliminate female illiteracy, a significant number of Tunisian women and girls can neither read nor write. The rates of illiteracy for females are double or more of those for males in all age categories.  For 10- to 14-year olds, only 2.2 percent of urban boys are illiterate, whereas 5.5 percent of urban girls are illiterate. [22]   In the rural areas, only 7 percent of the boys are illiterate, whereas 27 percent of the girls are illiterate. The group of 18- to 29-year old females suffers the most from inadequate schooling. [23]


Nonetheless, there are clear signs that an increasing number of women are entering into post-secondary education. In 2000-2001 academic year, slightly more than half of all university students were women. [24]


Convention Article 11: Employment


About 29 percent of the work force is comprised of women; the majority of these women occupy jobs in the textile, manufacturing, agricultural, and health sectors. [25]   Women run about 5,000 businesses [26] and constitute about 37 percent of the civil service workers (especially in fields of health, education, and social affairs).  About 60 percent of Tunis judges and 24 percent of all jurists are women. [27]   To reduce official discrimination, women are to be given equal opportunity in all government departments and sectors and in state-owned enterprises; unfortunately, as indicated above, this equal opportunity standard is not applicable to the private sector. [28]


Observers have noted that women in managerial positions feel the need to act like men in order to feel effective and in control. [29]   On one hand, these women are expected to be decisive and aggressive, and on the other hand they are expected to act “feminine.” In addition, Tunisian women still suffer from stereotyping in employment roles.




Protection of Pregnant Women

According to the World Bank, only 2.2 percent of Tunisian public expenditure is used on health programs. [30]   Pregnant women are protected under Tunisian law.  If a woman goes on maternity leave, she can expect to receive 67 percent of her wages paid in the covered period. [31]   Domestic servants, however, are excluded from receiving sickness and maternity leave. [32]   In 1999, 20 percent of female agricultural workers were pregnant, 40.3 percent of industrial workers were pregnant, and 37.7 percent of the service workers were pregnant. [33]   But only 71 percent of pregnant women received prenatal care in 1996, [34] and in 1999, 82 percent of pregnancies and deliveries were attended by health care staff. [35]   Thirty-eight percent of pregnant women are anemic. [36]

Family Planning and Reproductive Health

Tunisia is credited with being the first Arab and African country to adopt a clear population policy, and the government’s commitment to family planning is reflected in legislative and institutional reforms, as well as in its support for the inclusion of family planning services in maternal and childcare. Tunisia’s current abortion law dates from 1973 when the new Penal Code was enacted.  Article 214 of the Penal Code authorizes the performance of abortions on request during the first three months of pregnancy.  Government subsidizes abortion and those entitled to receive free health care can obtain an abortion free of charge in public hospitals. [37]


Currently, approximately 97 percent of women have access to information about contraception. In 1986, Tunisia was named a model country for family planning programs and for the training of medical staff and decision makers from other Arab countries. Approximately 50 percent of women of reproductive age use at least one of the contraception methods.  Tunisian women show preference for the IUD's (26 percent) followed by condoms (12 percent) and pills (7 percent). [38]  

Reportedly, the government provides support to the Tunisian Family Planning Association (ATFP).   However, it is necessary for the government to make further efforts to ensure access to family planning in underprivileged areas, especially those areas outside of urban centers, which have not enjoyed the same access to information and services.





In the 1990s women provided 23.5 percent of agricultural labor and 34.7 percent of temporary agricultural workers.  Rural women in Tunisia participate in a variety of aspects of agricultural work: they work in the field, attend to livestock, and take part in other aspects of work for the household (such as collection of water and firewood) and the market.  However, most women work as unpaid family labor and their contribution to agriculture has been neglected or underestimated in statistics.  Rural women have higher illiteracy rates and less access to many services than their counterparts in urban areas, including family planning information and services. [39]   Schooling and professional training opportunities for rural women are inadequate, and insufficient efforts have been made to encourage their use and access to credit.   They are mostly excluded from decision-making in the planning of rural development. [40]

Women’s Role in Decision-Making in Farming

Men still have most of the decision-making power in matters such as the sale, rental and exchange of land and other production capital.  Male planners typically make decisions on development issues and planning, large-scale projects, and choice of technology with minimal or no input from rural women, nor do they independently consider the specific needs of rural women. [41]


Illiteracy and Agricultural Training

Despite efforts by the government, illiteracy rates in rural areas are still very high for women at more than 60 percent. [42]   Women’s access to many services, such as agricultural credit, is limited by both tradition and lack of education and information.   In the mid-1990s, women accounted for 12 percent of those enrolled in agricultural training (8.7 percent in professional agricultural training centers, and 18.6 percent in secondary agricultural education.). [43]



Convention Article 16: EQUALITY IN Marriage AND FAMILY LAW


An amendment to the Personal Status Code abolished the “obedience” clause of the original code, therefore giving women de jure equal status in marriages.  All marriages must be registered, and both spouses are expected to contribute to “all family matters.” However, it is doubtful that the improvements made in the Code have affected the inequalities within marriages.  Although the Shari’a law became less important after Tunisia gained its independence in 1956, Shari’a still influences inheritance law in marriages.  Property acquired during the marriage, regardless of who actually previously owned or obtained it, is in the name of the husband. [44]   According to Shari’a, girls are to inherit only half of what boys are. [45]


A Muslim Tunisian woman may only marry a non-Muslim if he converts to Islam; women are not allowed to marry non-Muslim men. If a Muslim woman marries a non-Muslim outside Tunisia, the marriage would be classified as common law, which, under the revision of the Personal Status Code, is illegal. [46]   On the other hand, if a non-Muslim woman marries a Muslim Tunisian man, then the woman is not entitled to any of the property or inheritance of her husband. [47]


According to Shari’a law, the father is the household head, and he makes decisions regarding the children.  For example, he decides whether minor children may leave the country.  Some judges have allowed children to travel against the wishes of the mother (in complete disregard for the custody rights of mothers) because they view the father as the one in charge. [48]   Al-Raida notes that a divorced mother has a right of custody over sons up until seven years of age and daughters up until nine years of age; following that, the father will gain custody if he requests. [49]   At times Shari’a law is held superior to statutory law and this has occurred especially in cases over child custody. [50]






Spousal abuse is a serious accusation: “both the fine and imprisonment for battery or violence committed by a spouse or family member are double those for the same crimes committed by an individual not related to the victim.” [51] Although the Tunisian Penal Code has made domestic assault a punishable crime, violence against women is still pervasive and prosecution is infrequent.  In 2000, a family court judge reported that of the 4000 complaints filed, one-half were subsequently dropped before any legal action was taken. [52] Most women do not officially report abuse because of the social stigma and the lack of intervention and code enforcement by authorities such as the police and courts. [53]


Tunisia has one shelter for battered women in operation. It is run by the Tunisian Democratic Women’s Association. [54] About twenty women per month seek services at the shelter.  The National Union of Tunisian Women (UNFT), a government sponsored association, also provides support and services to women in crisis situations. The majority of UNFT’s clients are victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. [55]  






Concluding Observations of the Committee against Torture: Tunisia.  18 and 20 November 1998.  CAT/C/SR.358, 359 and 363.


Subjects of concern:

                The definition of torture under Tunisian law is not in conformity with article 1 of the

Convention, as the Tunisian Criminal Code, inter alia, uses the term “violence”       

instead of torture and article 101 of the Criminal Code penalizes the use of violence

only when it is used without just cause.

                Wide gap that exists between law and practice with regard to the protection of human


                Pressure and intimidation used by officials to prevent the victims from lodging


                Many of the regulations existing in Tunisia for arrested persons are not adhered to in

                 practice.  These include limitation of pre-trial detention, immediate notification of

                 family members, requirement of medical examination, and carrying out of autopsies in

     all cases of death in custody.

    Abuses directed against female members of families of detainees and exiled persons;

     dozens of women were subjected to violence and sexual abuses or sexual threats in

     order to put pressure on or to punish their imprisoned or exiled relatives.

    By constantly denying these allegations, the authorities are in fact granting those

     responsible for torture immunity from punishment.

    Requests of extradition of political refugees are not acceded to.



                Put an end to the degrading practice of torture and to eliminate the gap between the

                 law and its implementation; ensure strict enforcement of the provisions of law and

                 procedures of arrest and police custody; strictly enforce procedures of registration;

                 ensure the right of victims of torture to lodge a complaint without the fear of being

                 subjected to any kind of reprisal; and, ensure that medical examinations are

                 automatically provided following allegations of abuse and an autopsy is performed

                 following any death in custody.

                Reduce policy custody period to a maximum of 48 hours; bring relevant articles of the

                 Criminal Code into line with the definition of torture as contained in article 1 of the

                 Convention; and, amend the relevant legislation to ensure that no evidence obtained

     through torture shall be invoked as evidence in any proceedings, except against a

     person accused of torture as evidence that the statement was made.


Concluding Observations of the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights: Tunisia.  14 May 1999.  E/1990/6/Add.14.


Positive aspects:

    Achievements in the field of better promotion and protection of the economic, social,

and cultural rights of women; these achievements have contributed positively to

family life by making polygamy illegal and has further promoted equality between

men and women by removing all legal recognition of so-called “crimes of honor.”


Subjects of concern:

    Inequalities between men and women continue to persist, including with regard to

     access to positions of responsibility and to remuneration; according to laws on

     inheritance, females are entitled to receive only half of the inheritance of males;

     scarcity of official data on this phenomenon.


Suggestions and recommendations:

                All men, women, and children of both sexes should be enabled to enjoy the right to

                 inherit on a basis of equality.

                Monitor more closely the incidence of domestic violence

                Continue efforts to achieve balance in the development of urban and rural areas

                Develop immediate national plan of action in order to reduce the disparities of living

                 standards that exist between various regions

                Continue to make efforts to guarantee a basic education to all children

[1] US Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2001: Tunisia available at www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrtpt/2001/nea/8303.htm accessed 30 April 2002.

[2] Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights (2002), Asylum application packet  for a Tunisian woman. Case is on appeal; therefore,  no details of the case may be disseminated.  Name of the defendant is withheld for security.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] US Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2001: Tunisia available at www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrtpt/2001/nea/8303.htm accessed 30 April 2002.

[6] The Committee to Protect Journalist, Middle East and North Africa 2001: Tunisia, available at www.cpj.org/attacks01/mideast01/tunisia.html accessed 30 April 2002.

[7] Tunisian Constitution (1991),  available at www.uni-wuerzburg.de/law/ts00000_.html#A006, accessed 3 April 2002.

[8] Emory College Law School, “Amendments on the Legal Profile of Tunisia,” available at

http://els41.law.emory.edu/ifl/legal/Tunisia2.htm, accessed 05 April 2002.

[9] United Nations Development Programme (2001), Programme on Governance in the Arab Region., “Tunisia: Women in Public Life,” available at www.pogar.org, accessed 20 March 2002.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Tunisian Ministry of Women and Family Affairs (1999).

[13] Ibid.

[14] United Nations Development Programme (2001), Programme on Governance in the Arab Region., “Tunisia: Women in Public Life.”

[15] US Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2001: Tunisia.

[16] Women in Parliament, available at www.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm,  accessed 4 February 2002.

[17] Tunisian Ministry of Women and Family Affairs (1999).

[18] Women in Parliament.

[19] “Tunisian Opposition Appeals for World Support against ‘Dictatorship,”  BBC Monitoring International Reports,  14 March 2002, Nexis,  accessed 14 April 2002.

[20]   Tunisian Ministry of Women and Family Affairs, Women and Civil Rights,  available at www.tunisiaonline.com/women/index.html, accessed 5 April 2002.

[21] US Department of State.

[22] Africa Online: Database of African information,“Report on Tunisia,” available at www.afrol.com/Categories/Women/profiles/tunisia_women.htm. Information gathered from US Department of State, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and Mundo negro, accessed 4 February 2002,.

[23] Ibid.

[24] US Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2001: Tunisia available at www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrtpt/2001/nea/8303.htm accessed 30 April 2002.

[25] Ibid.;  International Planned Parenthood Federation, Country Reports: Tunisia, available at http://ippfnet.ippf.org/pub/IPPF_Regions/IPPF_CountryyProfile.asp?ISOCode=TN,  accessed 8 March 2002.

[26] US Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2001: Tunisia.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Simel Esim, “Panel Review: Images of Muslim/Middle Eastern Women,” Middle East Women’s Studies Review (1998), 10-12.

[30] World Bank,  Report on “Maternal Mortality: Key Inequalities” (1999),  available at www.genderstats.worldbank.org/MortalityRpt.asp?/WhichRpt=mortality&Ctry=TUN,Tunisia, accessed 4 April 2002.

[31] World Bank. Report on “Women in Development.” 2001,  available at www.worldbank.org/data/wdi2001/pdfs/tabl_3.pdf,  accessed 4 April 2002.

[32] “Social Security Programs throughout the World (1999),”  available at www.ssa.gov/statistics/ssptne/1999/English/tunisia.pdf, accessed 4 April 2002.

[33] World Bank, “Maternal Mortality: Key Inequalities.”

[34] World Bank, “Women in Development.”

[35] World Bank, “Maternal Mortality: Key Inequalities.”

[36] World Bank, “GenderStats (1999).” available at www.genderstats.worldbank.org, accessed 4 April 2002.

[37] United Nations, Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Policy Data Bank.

[38] International Planned Parenthood Federation, Country Profiles: Tunisia, available at http://ippfnet.ippf.org/pub/IPPF_Regions/IPPF_CountryProfile.asp?ISOCode=TN, accessed 5 April 2002.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Food and Agriculture Organization, Fact Sheet: Tunisia – Women, Agriculture and Rural Development, available at www.fao.org/docrep/V9321e/V9321e00.htm, accessed 4 April 2002.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Africa Online.

[45] Ibid.

[46] US Department of State.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Al-Raida, Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World – Lebanese American University, 2001. “Islamic Family Law Tabulated.”

[50] US Department of State.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Africa Online.

[55] US Department of State.





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