Tunisia Gender ProfileThe position of women in Tunisia is among the most privileged in North Africa, and can be compared to parts of Southern Europe. The Tunisian government for decades has strongly emphasised on gender equality and on promoting social development, translating into concrete results. Nevertheless, as rural life to some degree remains traditional, Tunisian women still have a long way to go to reach genuine equality. Although not a rich country, Tunisia has been quite successful in modernising society; in particular in urban areas. With a life expectancy of over 70 years and almost universal access to medical services, substantial gains have been made in the social sectors, contributing significantly to the status of Tunisian women. Also legislation has been changed to promote gender equality, but law practice and traditions still are preventing real change in many cases.
Tunisia has become the most socially advanced nation of the region and probably of the entire African continent. Given decades of large investments in the social sector, all social indicators are far above the African average. Nevertheless, there still are large underprivileged segments of the population with little access to social services. Poverty prevails and unemployment is a main issue. Both these problems affect women stronger than men.
Despite these problems, the general picture is encouraging for Tunisian women. Due to government's gender and social policies, primary school enrolment for both girls and boys has become almost universal during the last decade. Literacy rate among adult women thus rose from 55 percent in 1995 to over 64 percent in 2003, according to national statistics. It nevertheless remains substantially below the male literacy rate due to less focus on women's education previously.
With a strong focus on women's social position, health and education, Tunisia has managed to reach the lowest population growth rate in North Africa, set at 1.1 percent annually. This is far below regional neighbours such as Algeria and Morocco (1.65%) and Egypt (1.88%). This low and still dropping population growth comes while Tunisians have among Africa's highest life expectancies and lowest infant mortality rates.
These trends are mirrored in the relatively advanced health sector in Tunisia. With a good access to medical personnel - this also includes the Tunisian countryside - and good access to unbiased health information, the use of modern contraceptives is high among married women in Tunisia. Also, the country largely has avoided the AIDS pandemic.
The following basic country data are based on the newest information as available in mid-2004, but its origin may vary from 1998 to 2003.
Life expectancy at birth:
Total population: 74.4 years
Male: 72.8 years
Female: 76.2 years
Annual population growth: 1.09%
Lifetime births per woman: 1.9
Percentage of married women using modern contraceptives: 49
Education and literacy:
Primary school enrolment rate: 99%
Total adult literacy rate: 74.2%
Adult literacy rate - Men: 84.0%
Adult literacy rate - Women: 64.4%
1,400 persons per doctor
90% of total population has access to health services
Infant mortality: 27 deaths/1,000 live births
Adult HIV prevalence rate is at 0.05%
African religions and Jews 0.7%
Gender polices and sensitivity
Since the approval of Tunisia's 1959 constitution, women's equal rights have been guaranteed by the law. The strongest gains in gender equality however occurred during the 1990s and that decade was ended with the establishment of a Tunisian Ministry for Women and Family. The government of President Zine el Abedine Ben Ali (since 1987) has sought to improve gender sensitive legislation and promote women's participation in the nation's economic and political life.
The Tunisian constitution provides that all citizens shall have equal rights and responsibilities and be equal under the law. Since 1995, Tunisia has also passed legislation introducing equality within married couples, including granting women the right to give their own family name to children born of unknown fathers.
Legislation also specifically prohibits sexual harassment, rape including spousal rape, and domestic violence. These laws are generally upheld by the government and courts. Domestic violence is even punished harder than other types of violence.
While the Penal Code and common-law go far in protecting women's rights, Muslim shari'a law practice however still provides for some discrimination, in particular regarding inheritance and family law. Shari'a provides that daughters receive only half the amount left to sons. Most property acquired during marriage, including property acquired solely by the wife, is held in the name of the husband. Muslim women are not permitted to marry outside their religion.
In educational and economic terms, Tunisian women have made a leap forwards during the last decades. While 35 percent of women still are illiterate, these numbers are dropping rapidly as they are largely due to rural illiteracy among generations born prior to Tunisia's independence. Female illiteracy rates have dropped from 80.4 percent in 1966 to 35.6 percent currently. The government follows a programme to eradicate illiteracy altogether by 2014 and around 20 percent of the country's budget is committed to education.
School enrolment is by now compulsory and 95 percent of boys and 93 percent of girls are present in primary school - and approximately 73 percent of boys and 76 percent of girls are in secondary school. A slight majority of university students are women.
While Tunisian women rapidly are bridging the educational gender gap, professional life nevertheless remains dominated by men. Women comprise approximately 30 percent of the work force and the law requires equal pay for equal work. In the public sector, women's participation is rapidly increasing and strong measures are taken to reduce discrimination. In the private sector, however, women's employment is lower and societal and economic discrimination is more widespread.
Women in increasing numbers are entering the work force, employed particularly in the textile, manufacturing, health, and agricultural sectors. Women represent around half the workforce in the industrial sector and the health sector. Women now account for one out of two teachers, one out of three doctors, one out of four magistrates and 25.2 percent of all journalists.
In 2002 there were an estimated 5,000 businesses headed by women; up from 2,000 businesses in 1998. There exist government schemes to encourage women to set up small- and medium-sized enterprises. Also in politics, women are getting a stronger voice. Women currently serve in high levels of the government as cabinet ministers and secretaries of state, comprising more than 13 percent of the total.
Family and tradition
While government policies favour gender equality, traditions and family values are still hindering progress in Tunisia in many respects. The patriarchal heritage remains strong and with reference to Islam's conservative interpretations, women are often denied equal rights in practical terms.
According to Tunisian tradition, a husband is considered the head of the family and the main provider. The law maintains that notion, but limits the man's previously absolute authority over the family. The wife had the right to spend money on the family, if she possessed it. A dual property law exists, but under shari'a, if the couple acquires property, it is considered the property of the husband.
Faced with discrimination or domestic violence, many women remain silent out of respect for family traditions and fear of reprisals. Marital rapes have for example yet to be reported to Tunisian courts although they are to be treated as other types of rape.
Islamic fundamentalism is not in a strong position in Tunisia and Islamists face strong persecution by the Tunisian government. Nevertheless, setbacks have been registered, including occasional violent attacks on women wearing Western clothes.
Conservative attitudes in society are however met by information campaigns from the government and women's rights organisations. Since 1989, a national communication strategy focusing on the youth has been operational. According to the government, this strategy aims at "attacking sexist stereotypes that still exist, particularly in the media."
The country's strategy to enact gradual change to overcome stereotypes seems to be successful. According to a recent government study regarding traditional family values, Tunisians indeed are in a process of societal change. Up to 50 percent of all households are now in a transitional phase, according to the study. 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.
Violence against women
Violence against women in Tunisia remains poorly studied. According to the government, this is not a major concern. Few comprehensive strategies to meet violence against women therefore exist. Reported instances of rape or assault by someone unknown to the victim are said to be rare.
Also domestic violence has yet to be mapped. According to 1999 government statistics, 3,600 women - representing 0.21 percent of families - instituted legal proceedings against their husbands. 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.
A study has recently been initiated by the Tunisian government to discern the real situation as far as domestic violence is concerned, because currently no statistics exist in that regard. So far, Tunisian authorities hold that "domestic violence does not exist on a wide scale in Tunisia" and that it "is not a major concern." The situation in neighbouring countries, where this is better mapped, may however indicate otherwise.
While improved statistics are waited for, the government has left non-government organisations to head counselling centres for battered and raped women, subsidising their expenditures. The National Union of Tunisian Women (UNFT) and the Tunisian Democratic Women's Association operate counselling centres in Tunis.
According to these women groups, battered women however still mostly seek help from family members. Many avoid reporting these incidents to the police as police officers and the courts tend to regard domestic violence as a problem to be handled by the family. Tunisian courts lately however reportedly have handed down heavier sentences in domestic violence cases. Those practicing marital violence are subject to two-year prison terms as well as a fine, according to new legislation.
Updated June 2004
By Elin M. Nordhagen / afrol News staff
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