Twelve-year-old Amer* thought Samir, a lawyer, was his friend and that he could trust him. They first met on Facebook and other encounters followed, with promises of small gifts for the boy. Their final meeting was at a famous hotel in Tunis, where police caught Samir sexually abusing Amer.

Twelve-year-old Amer* thought Samir, a lawyer, was his friend and that he could trust him. They first met on Facebook and other encounters followed, with promises of small gifts for the boy. Their final meeting was at a famous hotel in Tunis, where police caught Samir sexually abusing Amer.

The public prosecution began an investigation, which involved checking their mobile phones and computers. Their testimonies, as well as forensic medicine reports, disclosed other incidents of abuse – once Samir sexually had abused the boy in his apartment in Ariana province in exchange for $20, another time for sunglasses.

Tunisia’s child protective services has listed 330 cases of sexual abuse of children in its 2013 annual report: eight amongst close relatives, 159 sexual harassment cases, 148 cases of sexual assault, three cases of sexual exploitation through the use of modern means of communication, and fourteen unclassified cases. 

This number, however, does reflect the real size of this phenomenon because it only documents cases filed by the Ministries of Women, Health, Justice and the Interior.  There are untold stories of similar victims, which might be double if not three times more than the officially documented number. Recent studies carried out by a group of forensic doctors at Charles Nicole Hospital from January 2010 to December 2011 show that cases reported by victims are 30 times more than the numbers mentioned in official reports, i.e., 0.4% versus 12.7% which are not reported. In fact very few cases of sexual assaults are reported compared to the number of assaults told by victims themselves or by one of their relatives or friends. “


Nine-year-old Zuhur was one of the best students in her school despite being poor and having to travel a long and risky road to school every day. 

One early morning, while on this long and dangerous mountainous road to school, a man who had been following her grabbed her arm. Zuhur shouted and cried for help, but there was no one around to save her.

“My daughter resisted, but she is young and her body is still soft and fragile,” said her mother. “She fell to the ground unconscious and he took advantage of her weakness and raped her. She woke up to find blood all over her tattered clothes. After Zuhur was absent from school for two weeks, the school administration summoned me to ask why,” he mother recalled. “I did not allow her to go to school and I also didn’t let her go to the police to report the incident because of fear of a scandal. I did not want the people who live in my area know about this incident.”

Keeping quiet

Sexual abuse of children is a crime shrouded in silence, says Anis Awnallah, representative of the child protection department in Tunis. “It is a sensitive taboo issue, which people prefer not to talk about, especially in conservative societies in order to protect themselves against what society considers a scandal.”

Tunisia’s child protection law says that “any person, even those who are required to keep the secrets of their profession, is obliged to notify the child protection department of any incident that might threaten the physical and moral safety and health of children.”

Mihyar Hammadi, the general representative of the child protection department said that despite the strictness of this law, which gives the representative of the child protection department the capacity of a judicial police and allows him to fully intervene, especially when there is sexual abuse within the family, doctors themselves get confused.

“On the one hand, they want to abide by the principle of absolute and strict secrecy of their profession and at the same time they want to notify the child protection representatives of various sexual assaults suffered by children,” said Hammadi. “Thus, they sometimes tend to keep the secrets of some sexual crimes and this is leading to a more heinous crime: covering up the identity of perpetrators.”

Blaming and even charging the victim

“There are usually four steps to be taken in such cases,” says Mahdi bin Khalil, a forensic pathologist who says his job only begins if and when it has been requested by the judiciary. “The first step is to receive the victim and to calm him down in order to get information about the sexual assault; the second is the conduction of a full body examination in order to find symptoms and signs of sexual assaults.” 

Bin Khalil said the medical examinations — which should be made within 72 hours of the sexual incident— are only conducted in ways that are acceptable to the child and only when there are no reservations expressed by the him/her, even if it requires doing some exams, especially the vaginal, rectal and anal examinations under general anaesthesia, which is the third step, followed by the drafting of the report, the fourth and final step.

An assistant at the public prosecution said it was difficult to prove sexual abuse, especially because the testimonies of children are not considered as valid evidence in the absence of medical evidence, which can lead to a conviction of the offender.

Ramzi al-Nusair, a lawyer, said “In the absence of any evidence, and according to the legislation, the defendant or the accused person has the right to ask for compensation when the judge refuses to hear the lawsuit brought by the victim.” 

Chapter 224, paragraph (4), the third section, related to ‘great sins’ (excessive acts of disobedience to God), in the Criminal Code dated 2 August, 2004, stipulates that ‘in case a decision is taken that there is no reason for further follow-up, or if a ruling is issued for not hearing the lawsuit, the defendant shall have the right to request compensation for the damage caused to him, al-Nusair pointed out. 

To make matters worse, Tunisian law also allows the defendant to prosecute the complainant for his false claim. According to chapter 248, section five, related to the disgracing of human dignity and peoples’ honour, the same code dated 4 July 1958 states that: “Any person who falsely slanders any other person / persons by any means and by filing a complaint against him / them at any judicial or administrative authority, which is authorized to follow-up on the complaint or to refer it to any other concerned authority and any person who falsely complains to the superiors of this person or his employers, shall be punished with imprisonment for a period of 2-5 years and a fine of 720 dinars.

In addition, the court may also allow the publishing of the full verdict or a summary of it in one newspaper or more and it obliges the convicted person to pay the cost of publishing it.

Legislative vacuum contributing to increased crimes

How a child is sexually abused plays a role under Tunisian law. There are sexual intercourse crimes, with and without the use of violence, and acts of “great sin”.

The term “great sin” means sexual assault by the use of “deviate” sexual intercourse. Chapter 228 stipulates that “any person who commits a great sin against a male or a female under the age of eighteen years old shall be imprisoned for 12 years.”

After speaking with some lawyers about their interpretations of this law, we were informed that the Tunisian legislator, in section two of the law distinguished between some legal terms. The term “intercourse,” means the insertion of a male’s penis into a female’s vagina as stipulated in chapter 227, which states that “any person who performs sexual intercourse with a female under the age of ten years should be sentenced to death, even if he does not use violence or weapons or threaten to use them.” 

Ramzi al-Nusair, a lawyer, said that “the absence of clear and accurate explanation of some of the terminology used in the law makes the legislator support the aggressor rather than the victim.”

To prove his point, he said that “the Tunisian legislator has repeatedly used the term “sexual intercourse” in a way which insinuates that any sexual act, regardless of the extent of its danger, and which cannot be considered “sexual intercourse” is a great sin.  Moreover, it is evident that the punishment of the person who commits a great sin is less than the punishment of the rapist, who could be sentenced to death.  

Moreover, the same legislative and legal vacuum suffered by the legal system related to the conditions of children who are victims of sexual abuse in Tunisia is leading to increased numbers of these victims. In a study prepared by Samia Dawla, a judge and the head of a unit at Legal and Judicial Studies Center, during the period extending from 28 February to March 2013, she found out that “the legislator, in the child protection law, did not provide all children with the needed protection.” According to the study, the title of chapters 20 –67 is related to “threatened” children and the title of chapter 68 – 106 is  related to “delinquent” children. The law covered issues related to children during the implementation of procedures and criminal punishment. However, it did not tackle at all the issue of victims of crimes against children in general and those who are victims of sexual abuse in particular. 

Hammadi supported her statement and confirmed that the child protection law does not contain a section on the protection of children victims of sexual assaults despite the dangers facing these children and which, in some cases, lead to incidents of suicide in the absence of full supervision. 

Yassin was nine years old when his mother sent him to fetch her shop keys from a guard at the institute where she sold snacks to the institute’s students. “He didn’t return and I started to worry about him. I went inside the institute to search for him and after searching for some time, I found him on the floor and I knew that he had been sexually assaulted. I carried him to the emergency center in the area and I told the guard what happened to him.” 

Dr. Moez al-Sharif, head of the Child Protection Society, said that “educational institutions do not take a firm stance regarding sexual assaults against children.” He added that “until now, there are no strong unions, similar to those that defend educators, to protect children and to hold the violators accountable even if they only abuse children verbally.”

Traumatized children

Amer dropped out of secondary school after being sexually abused and now lives a confused life with an uncertain future. Zuhur has tried hard to forget the incident of her rape, which she became preoccupied with for quite a long time, but (without proper therapy) she has not succeeded. She stopped going to school altogether. Yassin stopped going out to play with his friends in his neighbourhood. He stutters and he is prone to spending long amounts of time in his room and refusing to see people. Medical reports confirm that Amer suffers from thrombosis in his (lower) back and severe pain in his anus as a result of his assault.

“There are various psychological implications of this phenomenon, such as the permanent feelings of shame, humiliation and self-contempt among abused children,” said paediatrician Sami Othman. “They lose their sexual identity, have slow psychological growth and they develop learning difficulties,” he said. Some children, like Yassin, try to take their own lives.


*All names of minors have been changed for this article