Editor’s note: This is the second in POMED’s series of short interviews with civic activists, researchers, and others in our MENA network to spotlight the pandemic’s effects on rights and governance across the region. (The first installment focused on Morocco.) In this Q&A, POMED’s Mariam Mahmoud interviews Tunisia’s Karima Brini, founder and president of the Association of Women and Citizenship (AFC), an NGO in El Kef, in northwestern Tunisia, that works to advance women’s economic, social, and political rights. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Background: The Tunisian government responded fairly quickly to the pandemic, imposing a general lockdown on March 22. Tunisians were instructed to stay home, travel between regions was banned, and only essential businesses could operate. The strict measures helped Tunisia weather the virus relatively well. As of this writing, Tunisia had a reported total 1,087 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 49 deaths. On June 11, the Ministry of Health announced that Tunisia had seen zero new infections for the eighth consecutive day. A reopening is now underway.
POMED: Last month, the government began to ease the lockdown—but excluded some women from the relaxed restrictions. Why did this cause a controversy?
Karima Brini: A May 2 decree stated that women with children under age 15 (along with pregnant women, the elderly, and people with chronic diseases) still had to stay home. The decree was a legal rubber stamp on traditional gender roles that define women as caretakers and violated our constitutional guarantee of gender equality.
There was an immediate backlash, mainly from women’s rights groups and feminist circles. Some men were also critical, because they worried about the loss of income if their wives were unable to work. Some Tunisian women, however, did not oppose the decree’s sexist language, considering it a privilege to be singled out to stay home.
The Prime Minister’s Office later claimed the language in the decree was a misprint and clarified that the restriction pertained to children under 15, not to their mothers. But many people don’t think the original wording was an error.
During the pandemic we’ve seen domestic violence rise in many countries—has this happened in Tunisia too?
Yes. The Minister of Women and Family Affairs announced that, since March, the ministry’s domestic violence hotline has received seven times as many calls as in the same period last year. Our organization has also seen an increase in women contacting us for help.
The lockdown made things even harder for domestic abuse victims. With the restrictions on movement, it was more difficult to escape dangerous situations. Hotels that had been used as temporary housing for victims were closed or turned into quarantine facilities. The government opened a new shelter, but it quickly ran out of space. Police officers have been less inclined to respond to women who report domestic violence. Hospitals stopped examining victims to provide supporting physical evidence needed for police reports. With courts closed, victims’ cases could not move forward.1
Our organization has spent much time trying to improve how government institutions respond to domestic violence cases. The pandemic has set us back.
What is Prime Minister Elyès Fakhfakh’s government doing to provide other kinds of support to women during the pandemic?
Not enough. The crisis has had a disproportionate impact on women. For example, when the courts were closed, women who are separated from their husbands could not get official divorces and thus could not claim their social benefits or child support payments. The government’s economic stimulus package barely covers basic necessities—it is not enough for female-heads of households to provide for their families. The government needs to direct more resources toward women.
Mariam Mahmoud works with POMED’s Research Program. Karima Brini is the founder and president of the Association of Women and Citizenship (AFC) in El Kef, Tunisia. Follow the organization’s work here.
1 Courts resumed normal activities on May 25.