Dozens of Tunisians gathered before parliament this week to denounce the enforced marriage of a 13 year-old girl to an elderly relative who, it is alleged, raped her and made her pregnant. Public outrage at the legalisation of the marriage by a court in the north-west of the country included allegations that the “marriage” was simply a way for the attacker to avoid prosecution.
According to a spokesman for the court, however, the ruling was given after ensuring that the girl had not been raped. ”We heard from the girl,” explained Chokri Mejri, “and after checking all the details, we considered that she was fit for marriage.” As both families asked for the marriage it does not make it a scandal, he insisted.
The head of child welfare in the Kef region contested the court’s findings. “When it is a child of 13 years, one cannot speak about sex with consent,” said Houda Abboudi. “This is rape.”
Human rights groups have criticised article 227 of the Tunisian Penal Code adopted in 1958, which punishes anyone who rapes or sexually abuses a female younger than 15 years of age with six years in prison if it is “without violence.” The relevant article goes on to explain that if the guilty person marries the victim, the prosecution will stop. The repeal of this article has been a recurrent demand of women’s rights organisations for decades. They condemn the very notion that sex can take place with a minor “without violence”.
A lawyer and activist for the rights of women and girls pointed out that this law has never been repealed because it is not part of the political agenda. “There is also the desire to protect a patriarchal and conservative society in which women and girls continue to be sacrificed on the altar of family honour,” concluded Alya Cherif Chammari.
Since the fall of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, several bills on the comprehensive reform of the Penal Code as part of the struggle to stop violence against women and girls have failed to become law.
Chammari hopes that this latest case can prompt the outrage needed beyond the traditional circles. “Tunisian society is ready for these changes. In general, it is necessary to harmonise laws with the Constitution, which affirms equality between men and women and the fight against all forms of violence against women. The State scanner passes laws in the light of these constitutional principles.”
Since the outcry, the Attorney General has demanded the cancellation of the court decision to allow the marriage. Women’s rights organisations are asking for a formal annulment in the case.