Tunisia Opens Its First Domestic Violence Shelter

Picture 10Sihem Badi, Tunisia’s minister of women’s affairs, admits there’s something wrong, at this date, in talking about the country’s first public shelter for victims of domestic violence.

“We’re late,” she says. “Look at Morocco. They have tens of shelters for women. Here it’s the civil society who used to deal with victims and it’s the first time the state is taking over this problem.”

From its 1957 law granting women the right to divorce to its legalization of contraception and abortion in the 1960s, Tunisia has long served as a beacon of women’s progress in North Africa.

But when it comes to domestic violence the country’s shining reputation is missing polish.

Resistance to confronting the problem is deeply rooted in Tunisian culture, says Badi, whose hold on her post could change as the government, which has been undergoing turmoil, restructures. “Some people,” the minister says, “are afraid to see women gain autonomy; they fear it’s going to break families.”

The shelter opened in December 2012 on a large grassy plot on the outskirts of the capital city of Tunis, about 12 miles away. Inside there is brand new furniture, a nursery and computer room.

It can accommodate 50 women and their children and offers legal and psychological assistance.

About 47 percent of Tunisian women aged 18 to 64 have been the victim of violence (ranging from harassment to physical violence) at least once in their lifetime, according to the last survey by the National Office of Family and Population, published in late 2010. In most cases, the survey says, assaults occur in a domestic setting.

So far, the shelter is still empty. Its location was supposed to remain secret, to protect victims, but images of the site were broadcast on several Tunisian TV channels the day of its inauguration.

“It’s a first step but I hope it won’t be just a facade,” says Dorra Mahfoudh, a sociologist now retired from the University of Tunis and the former president of the Tunisian Women’s Association for Research and Development in Tunis.

“This one [the shelter] is far from Tunis, it requires heavy logistics to reach it,” adds Mahfouz. “There is a risk that no one will go there. We need several, in different areas, in the South, where the rate of violence against women is higher.” The new shelter is about 12 miles from Tunis.

Mahfouz hopes the shelters will be accompanied by prevention campaigns to raise public awareness and “to change mentalities.”

Until now, the only help for victims came from independent advocacy associations, such as the Tunis-based Tunisian Association of Democratic Women. Authorized under the deposed president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the group created its own center dedicated to women in 1993. It provides listening, orientation and free legal assistance, but no housing.

A pilot national center was created in the late 1990s, the first of its kind, but it closed soon after, apparently due to administrative difficulties.

The national strategy around that time, led by the former regime around 2000, in favor of women, didn’t help much. Minister Badi says the regime didn’t act in the area of domestic violence because it wanted to hide the country’s reality, so that Tunisia would continue to be held as an example of women’s progress in the region.

Excerpted from Women’s eNews. Read the full article at womensenews.org.

Photo of Sihem Badi courtesy of PGA via Creative Commons 2.0.


  1. They are not “late” opening up a refugee camp for battered women and children. Women and children should NOT have to FLEE their homes, leaving behind families, friends, pets, work, school, etc. to stay safe from abusive husbands (or other family members). When we use that kind of language (“we’re late”), we allowing ourselves to be made to feel responsible for ending the violent acts of men. We should embrace/demand a new response to gender-based violence, one that is based on communities coming together to tell violent men that their abuse will NOT be tolerated. A new, more appropriate alternative to the shelter system was created in the late 1990s in Tel Aviv, Israel. It’s called Beit Noam. The citizens of Tel Aviv decided that forcing women and children to run and hide was re-victimizing the victims and giving a green light to abusers, so they opened up a residential treatment facility for the ABUSERS to go to while the women and children stay home. We don’t have a program like that yet in the US, but hopefully, some community somewhere in this country will try it.

    • I agree with everything that you said. I think that it would be a great concept to establish residential treatment facilities in the US too. I always also felt that removing the women and children from the household was not fair because they were the victims. I am also happy that Tunisian women have somewhere to turn to .

    • How right you are, Kit!

  2. I truly understand the frustration, but I’m very proud of the fact that you opened this much needed safe haven against all odds. Please don’t give up! Continue to make know the services that you provide. There is purpose in everything that we do. Continue to be the beacon of light for the victims that are in need of your services. Just hold on they will come! Continue to creat that safe and confidential place where they can come to receive the much needed services…..

    Many Blessings

  3. Maaike Voorhoeve says:

    A large problem with domestic violence in Tunisia also concerns the judges in the divorce case. While women have a right to divorce, they have to pay the husband and forfeit all their financial rights. This would be different is they proved that their husband is to blame for the divorce, but this is impossible as judges do not except medical certificate and police reports as evidence. This prevents women from leaving their husbands. For those interested, I wrote an article in the academic journal Hawwa on how family judges deal with victims of domestic violence (2012).

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