The law is seen by many as a landmark step to protect women’s rights because it criminalises sexual harassment in public places and the employment of children as domestic workers.
After years of “manipulation” by her husband, mother of two Sameh is filing for divorce, thanks to a new Tunisian law broadening the definition of violence against women.
The law, passed in July, entered into force on February 1, finally providing Sameh with the tool she needs to divorce her husband who she says has been psychologically and financially abusing her.
For the past 15 years, Sameh, a teacher and 45-year-old mother of two teenage girls, has been forced to hand over her entire salary to her husband.
She told AFP it took her that long to realise that he had been “manipulating” her, but when she woke up to the reality she decided to act.
But since then, her husband has started provoking her, she said during a meeting at a help centre for women victims of violence set up by the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (AFTD).
“He wants to drive me crazy,” said Sameh, who declined to give her full name.
Her husband would whisper insults into her ear to try to make her snap in front of their teenage daughters.
Her eldest daughter has sensed the tensions and lately began to hurt herself by lacerating her skin.
“I am psychologically exhausted,” said Sameh, adding that she has been taking anti-depressants.
Sameh said she had tried to file for divorce two years ago but her husband refused, and she was afraid of being separated from her daughters and of ending up penniless out on the street.
“It’s very difficult to prove psychological abuse and even then, there was a risk it would not be accepted,” as a cause for divorce by the authorities, she said.
But the new law has changed all that for Sameh, and other victims of domestic abuse.
“When I heard about this law I said to myself, ‘This will bring me justice’,” she said, adding she would file for divorce on moral and financial grounds.
The law considerably widens the definition of unacceptable violence against women.
It recognises physical, moral and sexual abuse as well as abuse in the form of financial exploitation.
“It is real progress… that could change lives,” said Ahlef Belhadj of the AFTD association.
She said the July law was the result of 25 years of campaigning by Tunisian human rights activists.
Tunisia is seen as a pioneer of women’s rights in the Arab world.
The North African country, the birthplace of the Arab Spring protests that ousted several autocratic rulers, adopted a new constitution in 2014 which guarantees equality between men and women.
Article 21 of the constitution states: “All citizens, male and female, have equal rights and duties, and are equal before the law without any discrimination.”
A Personal Status Code adopted in 1956 abolished polygamy, by which a Muslim man can have up to four wives, and repudiation, or the man’s right to terminate a marriage unilaterally.
‘Tip of the iceberg’
Nevertheless, in Tunisia, one woman out of two has been the victim of abuse, according to official estimates.
“This is only the tip of the iceberg,” said Belhadj.
The new law is seen by many as a landmark step to protect women’s rights because it criminalises sexual harassment in public places and the employment of children as domestic workers.
It also slaps fine on employers who pay women less than their male counterparts.
However, Belhadj said there is still a lot left to be done and that more funding needs to be allocated to carry it through.
“It’s not enough to pass laws, we must make sure of the conditions of their implementation.”
Human Rights Watch said the law stipulates the creation of shelters for women victims of violence but does not provide for a mechanism to fund them.
Meanwhile, Tunisia’s interior ministry has set up two units tasked with investigating violence against women.
Radhia Jerbi, president of the National Union of Tunisian Women, said the next steps were to spread the word about the new law across the country and to persuade sceptics.
“The problem is our mentality,” she said.