The United Nations Working Group on discrimination against women in law and in practice today called on the new Tunisian Government to take all necessary steps to safeguard the country's achievements in equality, non-discrimination and women's human rights, in accordance with its international human rights obligations.
"The Working Group is concerned that in the drafting of a new constitution, in particular, its article 28, gains on equality and women's human rights and women's status in society achieved in the last five decades risk being rolled back," said Kamala Chandrakirana, who currently heads the UN expert panel.
Made up of five independent experts, the Working Group's focus is to identify, promote and exchange views, in consultation with States and other actors, on good practices related to the elimination of laws that discriminate against women. At the time of its establishment by the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, in September 2010, it was hailed as a milestone on the road towards women's equality with men.
Demanding democracy and freedom, the people of Tunisia were at the vanguard last year of a wave of popular uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East, which became known collectively as the Arab Spring. These movements have led to changes in government in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and to uprisings elsewhere. Tunisia's political transition started in January last year, and in December, an interim Government was appointed.
According to a news release from the Office for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Tunisia's new draft constitution places women on unequal footing with men and does not consider them as independent, full individuals. It also delineates their role as 'complementary to the one of the men in the family' and fails to ensure that this provision is reciprocal.
"Rights are guaranteed to women not on the basis of them being entitled to human rights by virtue of the fact that they are human, but rather, them being complementary to men," Ms. Chandrakirana said.
"Although the text refers to women's role in nation-building, it conditions this on women being 'complementary to men,' thereby failing to establish the basis for full independence and empowerment of women, and their participation as active citizens for change," she added.
According to the Working Group, women in Tunisia have long enjoyed an admired position in a region where much remains to be done to protect and promote women's human rights, thanks in part to previous efforts by the women's movement and the Government's adoption in 1956 of the Code of Personal Status, which contained progressive laws on equality between men and women.
"The current Government has an obligation and responsibility to build on these achievements," Ms. Chandrakirana said. "While Governments change, international human rights obligations remain binding."
The Government of Tunisia has accepted a visit of the Working Group in November.