Tunisia is a constitutional republic with a multiparty, unicameral parliamentary system and a president with powers specified in the constitution. In 2019 the country held parliamentary and presidential elections in the first transition of power since its first democratic elections in 2014. In October 2019 the country held free and fair parliamentary elections that resulted in the Nahda Party winning a plurality of the votes, granting the party the opportunity to form a new government. President Kais Saied, an independent candidate without a political party, came to office on October 23, 2019, after winning the country’s second democratic presidential elections. Three months prior to the elections, President Caid Essebsi died of natural causes, and power transferred to Speaker of Parliament Mohamed Ennaceur as acting president until President Saied took office. On February 20, parliament approved Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh’s cabinet. Prime Minister Fakhfakh resigned from his position on July 15 ahead of a parliamentary vote of no confidence responding to allegations of a conflict of interest. On July 25, President Saied named Interior Minister Hichem Mechichi prime minister-designate. On September 2, parliament approved Mechichi’s cabinet.
The Ministry of Interior holds legal authority and responsibility for law enforcement. The ministry oversees the National Police, which has primary responsibility for law enforcement in the major cities, and the National Guard (gendarmerie), which oversees border security and patrols smaller towns and rural areas. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Security forces committed periodic abuses.
Significant human rights issues included: reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, primarily by terrorist groups; allegations of torture by government agents; arbitrary arrests and detentions of suspects under antiterrorism or emergency laws; undue restrictions on freedom of expression and the press, including criminalization of libel; widespread corruption, although the government took steps to combat it; societal violence and threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual conduct that resulted in arrests and abuse by security forces; and the worst forms of child labor.
The government took steps to investigate officials who allegedly committed abuses, but investigations into police, security force, and detention center abuses lacked transparency and frequently encountered long delays and procedural obstacles.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law broadly defines violence against women as “any restriction denying women equality in the civil, political, economic, social, or cultural domains.” The 2018 law criminalizing gender-based violence adds or updates articles in the penal code to meet international best practices. It criminalizes rape, incest, sexual harassment of women in public places, and gender discrimination.
The amended law also eliminates the possibility for a rapist to avoid prosecution by marrying the victim. Rape remained a taboo subject, and cultural pressures often dissuaded victims from reporting sexual assault. There were no government public education programs on domestic violence, including rape. Victims received services at two dozen social centers throughout the country, in addition to five centers dedicated to victims of gender-based violence.
The Ministry of Justice tracked gender-based violence cases, gathering information on cases in each court. The government did not, however, systematically track the number of rape cases. Civil society representatives reported anecdotally that few cases have resulted in a conviction under the new law.
On January 31, the First Instance Court of Gafsa sentenced a 40-year-old man to life in prison for raping a three-year-old girl, under the 2018 law.
Laws prohibiting domestic violence provide penalties for assault committed by a spouse or family member that are double those of an unrelated individual for the same crime, but enforcement was rare, and domestic violence remained a serious problem. The law provides penalties for domestic violence and allows women to seek restraining orders against their abusers without filing a criminal case or filing for divorce.
The Ministry of Women, Family, Childhood, and Senior Citizens monitored complaints of domestic violence and worked with civil society to increase awareness about the law and connect women with available support services. The ministry operated a national hotline for victims of violence. On May 5, Minister Asma Sehiri stated the number of cases of violence against women, children, and the elderly increased seven times during the COVID-19 confinement period of March 22 to May 4, compared with the same period last year.
There were five centers dedicated to providing assistance to women victims of violence, one managed by the ministry and four by civil society organizations. Minister Sehiri stated the ministry dedicated a new shelter for 30 women victims of violence to help protect them from the spread of the coronavirus.
Sexual Harassment: The 2018 gender-based violence law includes a revised article related to sexual harassment. It allows up to a two-year sentence for the harasser and a 5,000-dinar ($1,840) fine, instead of the previous one year in prison. The law further clarifies that sexual harassment can include any act, gesture, or words with sexual connotation. It also expanded the definition of sexual harassment to include harassment in the street. The punishment is doubled if the victim is a child or the perpetrator has authority over the victim.
Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing, and timing of their children and to manage their reproductive health. They had access to the means and information to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) reported that during the year, 22 of the 24 governorates in country provided reproductive health services, including skilled health attendance during pregnancy and childbirth, but the quality of care varied by region. Several centers were temporarily closed during the national COVID-19 lockdown from April through June. A survey of midwives revealed that approximately 50 percent of centers for sexual and reproductive health services reduced or suspended their operations after the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. The UNFPA reported that in 2019 a skilled birth attendant facilitated approximately 99 percent of births.
The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence through the Ministry of Justice, although services were often delayed.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
Discrimination: The constitution and law explicitly prohibit discrimination based on race, gender, disability, language, or social status, and the government generally enforced these prohibitions. Women faced societal rather than statutory barriers to their economic and political participation. Codified civil law is based on the Napoleonic code, although on occasion, judges drew upon interpretations of sharia (Islamic law) as a basis for customary law in family and inheritance disputes.
Newly married couples must state explicitly in the marriage contract whether they elect to combine their possessions or to keep them separate. Sharia inheritance law in some instances provides men with a larger share of an inheritance. Some families avoided the application of sharia by executing sales contracts between parents and children to ensure that daughters received shares of property equal to those given sons. Non-Muslim women and their Muslim husbands may not inherit from each other, unless they seek a legal judgment based on the rights enshrined in the constitution. The government considers all children of those marriages to be Muslim and forbids those children from inheriting from their mothers. Spouses may, however, freely give up to one-third of their estate to whomever they designate in their will.
Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived by birth from one’s parents, and the law provides for a period of 10 days to register a newborn. Thereafter, parents have 30 days to explain why they failed to register a newborn and complete the registration. Female citizens can transmit citizenship on an equal basis with male citizens, and there is no discrimination between a mother and father regarding passport application and authorization to leave the country.
On July 16, the then minister of local affairs, Lotfi Zitoun, canceled a 1965 circular that prohibited the registration of a newborn under a non-Arabic first name.
Child Abuse: In 2019 UNICEF reported that 88 percent of children ages one to 14 were subjected to physical, verbal, or psychological violence in their homes and at school. In October 2019 the Ministry of Women, Family, Childhood, and Senior Citizens reported it received approximately 17,000 notifications related to child abuse cases, which the ministry attributed to “growing awareness among citizens about the need to denounce perpetrators of violence.” In May the ministry reported it had received 448 notifications regarding cases of children at risk during COVID-19 related shutdowns.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum age for marriage for both sexes is 18, but the courts may, in certain situations, authorize the marriage of persons younger than 18 upon the request and approval of both parents.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: Anyone who has sexual relations with a child younger than age 16 is subject to 20 years in prison with the possibility of a life sentence if there were aggravating circumstances, such as incest or the use of violence (see section 6, Women). The court may drop the charges of sex with a minor if the perpetrator agrees to marry the victim, with the approval of her parents.
The law prohibits child pornography.
In January 2019 authorities closed an unlicensed, privately run Quranic school in Regueb, Sidi Bouzid governorate, and arrested its director and administrators on charges of human trafficking, polygamy, and suspicion of belonging to a terrorist organization. Authorities reported many of the children were mistreated and were the victims of economic and sexual abuse. The public prosecutor initiated an investigation into the allegations of child exploitation, and a family judge ordered the transfer of the children to a state-run center in Tunis specializing in caring for children who were victims of abuse. In July 2019 the court sentenced one adult male who was affiliated with the school to 20 years in prison on charges of child sexual abuse. In February the 33 students from the Quranic school resumed their education in public schools. The president of the National Authority against Trafficking in Persons, Raoudha Laabidi, told media the students received medical, social, and psychological care prior to resuming their studies.
In March 2019 the Ministry of Women, Family, Childhood, and Senior Citizens reported that a teacher in Sfax was accused of sexually abusing 20 elementary school students. The ministry announced it would provide the children with psychological support. Subsequent to these allegations, the Ministry of Education indicated the initial investigation revealed these crimes took place outside the school and that, as a result, the ministry would suspend any teacher providing private classes outside of the educational framework. Media later reported that authorities issued an arrest warrant against the teacher, although as of December there were no updates to the investigation.
International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at .
An estimated 1,400 Jews lived in the country. There were no reports of anti-Semitic events.
Since 1991 the law requires all new public buildings to be accessible to persons with physical disabilities, and the government generally enforced the law. Persons with physical disabilities did not have access to most buildings built before 1991. The government did not ensure information and communications were accessible for persons with disabilities.
The Ministry of Social Affairs is charged with protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. The government issued cards to persons with disabilities for benefits such as unrestricted parking, free and priority medical services, free and preferential seating on public transportation, and consumer discounts. In general public buses and trains were ill suited and not easily accessible to persons with disabilities. As of July 2019, authorities permitted persons with disabilities to obtain a driver’s license from their area of residence rather than the capital.
The government provided tax incentives to companies to encourage the hiring of persons with physical disabilities. The government administered approximately 310 schools for children with disabilities, at least five schools for blind pupils, one higher-education school, and one vocational training institution. These special education centers served individuals ages six to 30. The Ministry of Social Affairs managed centers that provided short- and long-term accommodation and medical services to persons with disabilities who lacked other means of support. During the year the ministry announced it had increased the hiring of persons with disabilities by 2 percent in the public sector.
The Ibsar Association, which worked to promote rights for all persons with disabilities, estimated that fewer than one-third of persons with disabilities held a government-issued disability card, which entitles the holder to a monthly government stipend of 120 dinars ($44). The Ministry of Social Affairs stated that during the year, families that included persons with disabilities received 180 dinars ($66) per month and an additional 20 dinars (seven dollars) per school-aged child.
One of the greatest challenges for persons with disabilities, according to Ibsar, was a lack of access to information through education, media, or government agencies. There were very limited education options or public-sector accommodations for persons with hearing or visual disabilities. There were no schools for children with hearing disabilities, and Ibsar estimated that more than 90 percent of persons with hearing disabilities were illiterate. The Ministry of Social Affairs stated that during the year, in coordination with the Ministry of Health, the government provided hearing aids to families with hearing disabilities. For children with physical disabilities, infrastructure remained a major hurdle to their social inclusion, as few buildings or cities were accessible to persons with physical disabilities or reduced mobility.
For the 2019 national elections, Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) worked with civil society organizations to prepare electoral handbooks in braille and to develop elections-related materials in sign language, including a mobile application that standardizes signed vocabulary and phrases related to elections. Civil society observer groups noted ISIE increased its efforts to ensure accessibility to persons with disabilities but that there continued to be a need for effective, timely voter education programs targeted at persons with disabilities and their families.
In 2018 parliament adopted a law against all forms of racial discrimination, including “all distinction, exclusion, restriction, or preference based on race, color, origin, heritage, or all other forms of racial obstruction, obstacle, or deprivation of rights and liberties or their exercise.” The law penalizes acts of racial discrimination with up to three years in prison and a substantial fine for an individual and a larger fine for a legal entity.
On September 20, a video circulated on social media of a Tunisian assaulting two Ivorian nationals. It was revealed later that the assaulter was their boss, a cafe owner in Sousse governorate. The president of the Association of Ivorians in Sousse, who filmed the video, told media, “the two young men went to their boss to claim their two months of unpaid wages. The latter assaulted them and accused them of stealing his coffee machine, to evade payment of wages, when surveillance camera videos show he was the one who took the machine. On their first day of work, he confiscated their passports and later requisitioned their cell phones.” The spokesperson for the First Instance Court of Sousse said the video was authentic, and a judicial investigation was initiated.
In 2018 Falikou Coulibaly, president of the Association of Ivoirians in Tunisia, was killed during a robbery in a suburb of Tunis. Hundreds of Ivorian nationals demonstrated in Tunis to protest Coulibaly’s murder in what they characterized as a racist attack. Then minister in charge of relations with constitutional bodies, civil society, and human rights Mohamed Fadhel Mahfoudh told media, “It is not clear yet if this is a racist criminal act, but an investigation is ongoing. We are against any act of racism.” The court case remained underway.
On October 14, the Court of First Instance of Medenine issued a verdict in favor of Hamden Atig Dali, allowing him to drop Atig, a reference to slavery, from his name on all official documents. This was the first-ever court decision to permit a legal name change on the basis of racial discrimination.
Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
The law criminalizes sodomy. Convictions carry up to a three-year prison sentence. According to NGOs, authorities occasionally used the law against sodomy to detain and question persons about their sexual activities and sexual orientation, reportedly at times based on appearance alone. NGOs reported that in some instances lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals were targeted under the penal code article that criminalizes “infringement of morality or public morals,” which carries a penalty of six months in prison and a fine of 1,000 dinars ($369).
LGBTI individuals continued to face discrimination and violence, including death and rape threats, although societal stigma and fear of prosecution under sodomy laws discouraged individuals from reporting problems.
On January 13, an officer from the Seventh Police Station in downtown Tunis and two accomplices allegedly assaulted three transgender women, using Tasers and their fists. They left one individual, nicknamed Frifta, with serious injuries, including internal bleeding and a skull fracture, according to the LGBTI-rights organization Damj. Damj, in partnership with Lawyers without Borders (ASF), assisted Frifta in seeking medical care and legal recourse. According to Damj, Frifta filed a complaint against an officer on January 11 for harassment of sex workers and encountered the same officer while walking in Tunis two days later with friends. The officer, accompanied by two others, attacked her in retaliation for her earlier complaint. The Ministry of Interior suspended the primary officer involved and opened an internal investigation, while the Ministry of Justice General Prosecutors’ Office, initiated a separate criminal investigation. Both investigations remained underway. On June 17, Damj said the court in El Kef issued prison sentences in three cases under Article 230, which criminalizes same-sex relations. In one case an individual who filed a complaint of police abuse was charged under articles criminalizing homosexuality and offending a police officer.
On July 28, the appeals court upheld the conviction of two men accused of sodomy but reduced their sentence to one year in prison. The First Instance Court of El Kef initially sentenced the two men on June 3 to two years in prison for homosexuality. A lawyer provided by ASF assisted the defendants and led the appeal process.
According to Damj and ASF, 121 individuals were convicted under Article 230 in 2019, with anal examinations used as the basis for the majority of these convictions. In March-September, Damj registered 21 cases of violence against transgender individuals in public places, 10 cases of torture, and two cases of bullying by security forces in detention facilities. Authorities also issued 12 prison sentences against transgender individuals and gay men under Articles 230, 226, and 125 of the criminal code, which criminalize, respectively, “sodomy,” “deliberately declaring immorality,” and “insulting a public official.” Human rights organizations and LGBTI-focused NGOs stated that since judges often assumed guilt of individuals who refused to submit voluntarily to an exam, individuals felt coerced to submit to anal examinations. On May 17, a coalition of NGOs, the Civil Collective for Individual Liberties, called on the government to accelerate the establishment of the Constitutional Court as a guarantor of rights, decriminalize consensual same-sex conduct, end forced or coerced anal examinations, recognize the rights of transgender individuals, and end harassment of LGBTI-rights organizations. The collective noted, “despite the commitment by Tunisian authorities since 2017 not to resort to the use of anal examinations, courts continue to order this practice.”
No laws restrict freedom of expression, association, or peaceful assembly for those speaking out about LGBTI issues. Nevertheless, in February 2019 the government appealed a 2016 court ruling overturning the government’s complaint that the Shams Association’s charter did not allow it to advocate explicitly for gay rights. Adding to its 2016 case, the government stated, “the Tunisian society rejects homosexuality culturally and legally,” and that the Shams Association violated Article 3 of Decree Law 3 “by conducting activities that contradict Tunisia’s laws and culture.” In May 2019 the Tunis Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Shams Association, noting that Shams did not violate the law by advocating for LGBTI rights. On February 21, the Supreme Court of Appeals issued a final sentence affirming legal status as a civil society organization to the LGBTI-rights Shams Association and rejected the state’s argument that Shams violated the law of associations by advocating for the rights of homosexuals.
There continued to be no information on official discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing, access to education, or health care.