Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

In North Africa, A Lot Remains to be Done to Protect Women from Domestic Violence

Specials- Domestic violence
A woman holds up a placard as she takes part in a rally against domestic violence. Photo AFP

In September 2018, Morocco joined Algeria and Tunisia in adopting a new law to punish domestic violence (DV). Despite these laws, which were adopted between 2015 and 2018, the three countries have a long way to go to protect women from DV.

In Morocco, a judgment made history in December 2018 with the sentencing to two years in jail of a husband who raped his wife, causing her severe depression. He was also ordered to pay a MAD 2,000 ($211) fine and MAD 3,000 ($317) in compensation to his wife. The court’s decision was based on Articles 485 and 400 of the Penal Code. Article 400 states: ‘Any act of violence or assault, even if it caused no disability or illness, is punishable by imprisonment from one month to one year in addition to a fine of MAD 200 to 500.’

However, the newly adopted Law 103-13 to eliminate violence against women that took effect in September 2018 does not list marital rape as a punishable crime. The bill imposes tougher penalties on perpetrators of various types of violence committed both in the private and public spheres, including rape, sexual harassment and domestic abuse, and includes a definition of sexual harassment, including unsolicited acts and statements or signals of a sexual nature, delivered in person, online or via telephone.

“It is the second-worst [law against domestic violence in North Africa],” Rothna Begum, Human Rights Watch (HRW) women’s rights researcher for the MENA region, told Fanack. “What is annoying is that, considering the over ten years that NGOs have been working very hard to push for such a law, the result is not that effective. It establishes prevention of violence, protection of women, criminalizes certain forms of DV like forced marriage and sexual harassment, raises penalties for forms of violence such as assault by family members, and establishes specialized units for women and children in courts as well as a national committee.

“But it doesn’t provide funding for the reform or for women’s shelters [there only ten in the country, with limited resources], and protection orders can only be issued if the woman prosecutes and launches a criminal case,” she added. “Also, the police might refuse to take a [statement] or send the victim to the prosecutor to obtain an arrest order she has to give to the police. Neither the police nor the judiciary members are obliged to provide assistance to her.”

Begum recalled the testimony of a survivor who was abused by her husband for seven years, who said she never sought divorce because she had nowhere to go, and when she eventually decided to take a legal step, she could stay in a shelter for only two months and then had to go back home. “The law doesn’t effectively protect women because it’s not designed to,” Begum said. “It’s a start but will only affect a few women who are able to go through the whole process of prosecution.”

According to Begum, governments have to take four steps to effectively fight DV: prevention, protection of survivors, psychological, medical and financial assistance and prosecution of abusers. In addition, she says an understanding of the full range of DV, socially and legally, is needed.

With that in mind, Algeria’s Law 15-19, adopted in December 2015 and amending the Penal Code to specifically criminalize some forms of domestic violence and increase penalties for those responsible, is not much better. It makes assault against a spouse or former spouse punishable by up to 20 years in prison and by a life sentence if the attack results in death, and criminalizes other forms of DV, including psychological and some economic abuse.

However, says Begum, “This is the worst law because it is very limited.  There is no definition of what DV is, the abuser can be pardoned by his victim in order to drop the sentence, and the level of the sentence relies on the degree of incapacitation of the victim. For example, a woman we call Hassiba got her left right leg paralyzed for life after a beating by her husband caused brain damage. But he got only two months in jail because the doctor who examined her said she would be incapacitated for only 13 days. [The law] also doesn’t mention shelters or assistance to the victims.”

According to HRW, even though Algerian survivors of DV have serious injuries, their relatives often encourage them to reconcile with their husbands, and the police often tell them it is a ‘private matter’. Several lawyers told HRW that because of these and other hurdles, most survivors either do not press charges or drop their complaints at the investigation stage.

Tunisia is an exception in North Africa, with the most effective law so far: Law 2017-58, adopted in August 2017, was the result of 25-year struggle by a few civil society organizations. It repeals the right of a rapist to avoid prosecution by marrying his victim, increases existing penalties and introduces new ones, establishes awareness measures, obliges the authorities to provide legal, financial and psychological assistance, allows women to get protection orders without a criminal case and makes rape punishable ‘whatever the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim’, which includes de facto marital rape. Although advanced, the law does not provide funding for shelters, nor does it tackle discriminatory laws allowing DV to happen in the first place.

“But it changes slowly, and organizations are trying to make sure this law is implemented,” Begum said. “It is for now a much better version than the other countries in the region and should be looked up to as a model.”

Tunisian human rights lawyer Hayet Jazzer told Time magazine in July 2018 that changes have been visible since the law’s adoption: “Now the procedures are in place, it is a little better, and victims are much more vocal and willing to come forward,” he said, but added that there is still a long way to go before the judiciary is ready to respond appropriately to the new law.

Despite efforts to better protect women victims of DV, a lot remains to be done in North Africa. However, these laws can be considered a sign of better things to come.

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