International Development Law Organization

Tunisia Minister: On Women's Rights, Path is Chosen

Today, November 25th, the world marks the International Day for the Eliminate of Violence Against Women. In many Arab nations – some of whose women endure high levels of violence and discrimination  women’s rights are a crucial battleground: they encapsulate the polarization between modernity and tradition, a crossroads of mutually exclusive development paths.

Tunisia, a regional trailblazer for social and political reform, has passed a Constitution which consolidates and advances women’s rights. It has also held two sets of peaceful, pluralistic elections. IDLO has been helping the country strengthen judicial structures for combating fraud, and may soon expand cooperation in other fields, including women’s access to justice.

Tunisia’s Secretary of State for Women’s Rights, Neila Chaabane, is a law professor by training; she serves in government as an independent. IDLO’s Andre Vornic caught up with Ms. Chaabane in Rome.

Andre Vornic: You have spoken of ‘retrograde voices’ and ‘medieval demands’ heard in your country after the Revolution…

Neila Chaabane: Yes, just after the Revolution it was claimed that we should rescind the ban on polygamy, for example. This was a demand that was made loud and clear. It was claimed that we should have strict application of Sharia law, that we should abolish the Personal Status Code [the 1950s legislative package on women’s equality]… These were extremely strange things to hear in a country that had lived under progressive social laws for more than half a century. For us, this meant a return to the Middle Ages, pure and simple. So to see these things resurrected – things that we thought dead and buried – was a shock to society.

AV: Have those voices been silenced?

NC: Fortunately, civil society mobilized. The political class too – or a large section of it – was stunned by these demands, and it opposed them. Are those retrograde voices still audible today? Much less so, because of the new Constitution, and because of the majority that it garnered. Tunisians voted massively for a democratic Tunisia, one that respects human rights, so the path has been chosen. So those voices may still be out there, but they are in a clear minority.

AV: How direct is the link between women’s rights and national development?

NC: Very. […] The results of the 2014 census have come through: women are 50.2 percent of the Tunisian population. They make a considerable contribution to the economy. But for some of them – especially those women who work in the countryside – this work goes unrecognized and is not captured by the public accounts. So development that ignores women and their participation is not real development. […] In public employment, women are 37 percent of staff, but don’t occupy even one percent of senior positions. This is a terrible waste of talent. Another example: the activity rate for women does not exceed 25 percent. There is an enormous potential that remains untapped. If we really want the country to develop, women must know their rights and claim them – while also fulfilling their obligations […] of which they are fully aware.

AV: How can IDLO help a country like yours?

NC: At such a crucial point in our institutional development, IDLO’s role can be very important. Practically all of our institutions, including the justice ones, are being reviewed and remade. And that is the core of IDLO’s work – developing the rule of law, access to justice, big institutional reforms… That will be our grand project for the next five years. The Constitution is in place, but is not enough in itself: we must translate constitutional provisions into practice through laws and institutions – but also, and even more crucially, through specific implementing measures. We’ve had enough of laws that remain unapplied and unobserved. We need applicable laws that protect the rights of all citizens, men and women.

AV: You came into government from civil society, and at some point you may go back there. Does the rule of law look the same from both angles?

NC [LAUGHS]: I want to be an optimist and tell you that my vision is the same. I brought my conception of the rule of law with me. In any case, this government, in its daily work, is strongly attached to the rule of law. And there are not a whole bunch of rules of law – there is one rule of law for all, regardless of our position.