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Middle East

TV host's rape comments highlight problem of sexual violence in Tunisia

A TV host in Tunisia has sparked anger after telling a 17-year-old she should marry the man accused of raping her. The incident comes amid efforts to fight sexual violence against women in the largely-Muslim country.

The incident occurred during the broadcast of the popular talk show "Andi Mankolek," or "I've Got Something to Tell You." Appearing alongside her brother, the pregnant girl, named Hajar, explained to host Ala Chebbi that several family members had sexually abused her. She also claimed that one of the men was the father of her child.

If the tearful Hajar thought her story would evoke sympathy from the host, she was wrong. Chebbi chided his guest, gesturing to her estranged father - who had also appeared on the show - and telling her that she should ask him for forgiveness. Chebbi then suggested that her alleged abuser should marry her in order to put the matter to rest.

The host's comments have outraged many in Tunisia, known for being one of the more progressive countries in the Arab world when it comes to women's rights. Not long after the episode aired, members of the public created a Facebook page in protest. The page, called "'Marry her rapist,' he said. 'See you in court,' we answer," garnered more than 3,500 likes as of Wednesday. Last week, the country's media regulator announced it had taken the show off the air temporarily.

Screenshot von der Facebookseite von Andi Mankolek (https://www.facebook.com)

A Facebook page protesting the TV host's comments has garnered thousands of likes

An ongoing problem

Yasmine Hammami, a 21-year-old university student in Tunisia, said she was dismayed by the incident. "I think it was absolutely wrong for him to say what he said with that certain tone. And I am pretty sure that everyone else thinks the same," she told DW.

The episode highlights the ongoing problems with sexual violence in the democratic country, which is viewed as the rare success story to emerge from the Arab Spring, the period of upheaval that began in December 2010 and led to the toppling of numerous autocratic regimes across the region, including that of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. In 2014, the country adopted a new constitution enshrining more rights for women, including a rule that ensures political parties will have significant female representation in parliament.

"Tunisia has kind of led the way in terms of women's rights [in the Arab world], but that doesn't mean there aren't still problems," Amnesty International researcher Mouna Elkekhia told DW. "It might have led the way legally but there are still problems in practice."

Tunesien Frauen Alltag (Getty Images/F.Belaid)

Tunisian women protest during "International Day of the Mini Skirt"

Calls for more accountability

Last year, Amnesty International released a report detailing Tunisia's widespread problem of sexual violence against women and other groups. According to a national survey conducted in 2010, nearly 50 percent of women in the country have experienced some form of violence, and of those cases, about one in six was of a sexual nature. However, according to Amnesty's report, many of the surviving victims are blamed for the crimes they have suffered and their abusers are never brought to justice.

One of the most controversial laws pertaining to sexual violence is Article 227, a law that states charges against a rapist can be dropped if the victim is under the age of 20 and she agrees to marry her abuser. Since the Andi Mankolek incident, many Tunisians have called for an end to the law.

Hammami is among them. "I know that a lot of activists are taking advantage of this whole story to put an end to the abuse that is endorsed by the constitution," she said. "Since the story has gone viral, I feel like the government that prides itself for supporting women's rights will find that it is contradicting itself by regulating such a senseless law."

Watch video 02:53

Tunisia: the rights of women remain in question

New legislation

Oumaima Tayari, a 24-year-old English teacher living in the capital of Tunis, also said it was time for serious reforms. "The abuser must be punished and the law that suggests that a woman can marry her abuser must be stopped," she told DW.

Civil society groups and lawmakers are currently at work trying to push through a new draft piece of legislation intended to take a stronger stand against gender-based violence (significantly, the legislation will do away with Article 227). Elkekhia said she hopes the indignation over the TV host's comments will help push through the new bill, but she also acknowledged that more still needs to be done.

"It's very important to pass laws that will help women, but it's also equally important to apply those laws in practice," she said.

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