Despite Legal Reforms, Child Abuse is Widespread in Tunisia

A detail from page 26 of a November, 2017 UNICEF report entitled “Familiar Faces: Violence in the lives of children and adolescents.”

This October, Tunisia became the first non-member state to sign the Council of Europe’s convention protecting children from sexual abuse. The so-called Lanzarote convention, which will come into force in Tunisia in February 2020, includes stipulations for signatory countries to introduce wide-ranging legislation and other measures to prevent such abuse.

“Now, our work to criminalise sexual offenses against children, support victims and prosecute perpetrators expands beyond Europe,” Gabriella Battaini-Dragoni, Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe, said in a press release following Tunisia’s signing of the convention and a ceremony with Naziha Laabidi, the Minister of Women, Family, and Children.

But while the signing is the latest commitment to international tools aimed at stopping child abuse, abusive practices in general remain very widespread according to recent official statistics.

A survey of nearly 12,000 households conducted in 2018 by the state’s National Institute of Statistics (INS) on the condition of mothers and children found that 88.1 percent of children between the ages of 1 and 14 were subjects to one form or another of violent punishment at home.

According to a 2017 UNICEF report using earlier but comparable official numbers, Tunisia ranks second highest in the world in terms of what percentage of children experience violent  discipline at home. The same report found Tunisia ranked highest in the world in terms of how many younger children—those aged two to four years—are subjected to physical punishment compared to older counterparts.

Meanwhile, a recent social media campaign entitled #EnaZeda, or #MeToo in Tunisian dialect, has seen dozens sharing stories publicly, although often anonymously, of sexual abuse experienced as children.

All forms of child abuse suffered are not just personal traumas but also have wider consequences for society, according to researchers who work on tackling the phenomenon in Tunisia.

“Violence against children might cause some major developmental problems, and this might manifest in their adolescence years where they could experience school failure and eventually drop out,” Nesrine Ajimi, a clinical psychologist specializing in childhood and adolescence, told Meshkal.

The high numbers of abuse in Tunisia come even though it is amongst a handful of countries where the violent punishment of children at home is prohibited by law. Tunisia ratified the International Covenant on the Rights of the Child (ICRC) in 1991 and established a special legal code addressing the rights of children in 1995.

Before 2010, article 319 of the Penal Code included a stipulation that read “a [violent] correction inflicted on a child by individuals having authority over him is not punishable.”  This was subsequently removed.

The 2014 constitution also reiterated the obligation of the state to protect children. According to Article 47 of the constitution, “children are guaranteed the rights to dignity, health, care and education from their parents and the state. The state must provide all types of protection to all children without discrimination and in accordance with their best interest.”

Despite existing laws and treaties, many in society rationalize violence against children and perceive it as necessary for the discipline of children, according to specialists.

“As Tunisians we were raised on the principle of fear. We were taught that fear equals respect and that itself is an issue,” Marwen Dridi, a sociology master’s student with a research background in child abuse, told Meshkal. “Relationships with our parents and teachers were based on our fear of punishment instead of our respect towards them.”

School violence is one aspect of the violence perpetrated against children in Tunisia. UNICEF noted in its same report that violence in schools significantly hinders attendance, contributes to lower academic results, and leads to higher drop-out rates. In Tunisia, the school dropout rate has been growing, with more than 100,000 reported cases each year.

Victims of all forms of child abuse are also more likely to experience drug addiction and suffer from several mental health issues such as depression and anxiety disorders if the problem is not tackled in young age, explained Ajimi.

Tunisia’s state Childhood Protection Commission has not yet invested in a sustainable effort to oversee the status of children in Tunisia, argues Dridi. The state has taken exceptional measures in certain cases that received massive media attention, such as the Regueb school case. However, other important incidents are generally overlooked, added Dridi.

Popularly known as “The Quranic Regueb School Affair”, a press release by the Interior Ministry on February 3rd, 2019 revealed that 42 children aged 10 to 18 in a Quranic boarding school in Regueb, Sidi Bouzid were subjected to negligence as well as physical and sexual abuse.

“In Tunisia, we raise our children to feel entitled to use violence. If you are subjected to violence in your neighbourhood or your school, your parents would beat you up when you go back home because you didn’t ‘fight back.’ We also have an ethical system that considers it a sin to disobey your parents and speak up against their physical abuse,” Dridi told Meshkal.

“We also have a complicit legal system, where the police would look down upon you and be patronizing to you if you reach out or plead that your parents are beating you up. So, in that sense the police are facilitating the social norm,” Dridi said.

Speaking from her professional perspective, Ajimi identifies the lack of communication and rigid relationships between children and their parents as a leading cause of this phenomenon.

“Children are often taught that violence equals love, to the extent where it becomes the norm,” she said.

Moez Cherif, a paediatrician and the president of the Tunisian Association for the Defense of Children, said it’s not only the state that is not paying enough attention to the issue of child abuse. He says civil society and media are also ignoring the issue.

“When you notice that 70 percent of sexual assault cases tackled by the Tunisian Forensic Medicine Department are children cases, one may deduce the alarming situation in Tunisia,” he said, citing figures he said are public, but which Meshkal was unable to find online.

According to Cherif, sexual abuse cases against children only have a 1 percent conviction rate in courts of law, though this statistic could not be independently verified by Meshkal. He believes that this is due to the conservative nature of the Tunisian judicial system, and the socially conservative views of many Tunisian judges.

Cherif told Meshkal that the state has not invested in a serious awareness-raising campaign against child abuse and more importantly, that Tunisian law does not recognize children who are the victims of domestic violence as victims, something he sees as necessary in order to provide both protection and psychological follow up for abused children.

“Children are often told to bring a parent whenever they try to report cases of violence, which is ridiculous since in most cases, parents are often identified as the parties inflicting the violence,” Cherif told Meshkal.