"Taboos can only be broken by dialogue and exchange"
Some 60 percent of women in Tunisia have been victims of domestic violence, approximately half have experienced sexual assaults and other forms of violence committed in the public domain. The United Nations and the Centre de Recherches, d'Etudes, de Documentation et d'Information sur la Femme (CREDIF) published these figures in a recent study. Sabine Hartwig, the State Chairwoman of the Weisser Ring in Berlin, addressed the issue "violence against women" during her lecture tour to Tunisia. This tour coincided with the parliamentary debate taking place in Tunisia on the legislative bill to counter violence against women. Sabine Hartwig focused on the role of dialogue and the exchange of experiences in combating violence against women. In Tunisia, we spoke about the different situations women face in Germany and Tunisia.
The interview was conducted by Karin Bračko
ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen): Can you tell us about the most important impressions you gained from conversations and the events in Tunisia?
Sabine Hartwig: The most important impression is the huge commitment of the women dealing with this issue, whether they are active at CREDIF or in other organisations or as members of parliament. The women work with great enthusiasm. They perceive themselves as activists, and I am starting to feel some concern that they may eventually "burn out". The friendliness and openness of the Tunisians impressed me. This friendliness extends so far that even those with a critical position on the law express their discontent politely. But, as expected, I also took the impression with me that the police harbour certain reservations against this issue. I was delighted that I was able to kick-start a lively debate at the very first event because I believe that taboos can only be broken by talking and exchanging views.
ifa: How would you judge the legal and political situation in Tunisia in comparison to Germany?
Hartwig: In my opinion, a comparison of both countries is not possible. However, I do think that Tunisia does not lag as far behind as it may believe it does. I attempted to explain that it took until the end of the 70s of the last millennium for us to include these changes in the German Civil Code; for example, eliminating the male prerogative for deciding if a woman was to exercise a profession, or which profession she was to choose. There was a major parliamentary debate on marital rape at the end of the 1990s. There was also a female member of parliament who was opposed to the law that aimed to secure the right to sexual self-determination for women. She burst out in tears during the debate in parliament because she thought that there would be charges brought against a huge number of men.
ifa: Did that actually happen?
Hartwig: None of this occurred. In fact, quite the contrary happened. In my experience, when a woman finally musters the resolve to report her husband to the authorities, it is the final step in the separation period. Usually, rapes had been committed before, which remained unreported. Today, 14 years since the enactment of the Gewaltschutzgesetz [Protection Against Violence Act], most people in Germany know the Act's scope of application, even though they may not be informed about all details concerning the range of offences covered by this law. The legal development took as long as some 40 years in Germany. Taking the first step is important, and in Tunisia the time seems to have come, as some parts of society have made sufficient progress. According to activists, Tunisian women have managed to improve their level of education, and this development will continue in the future. Germany witnessed the same development: Suddenly, all women were graduating from secondary schools with qualifications for higher education. Subsequently, they studied and obtained better qualifications then men. Acquiring a certain level of education and the individual's knowledge of his/her own rights are correlated. If I am educated, then I can consult assistance from a diverse range of sources.
ifa: Which phase of social development has Tunisia reached?
Hartwig: I think Tunisians have exceeded the initial phase. But I think the whole system is still very fragile. They talk about the "Arab Revolution" a lot, the onset of which, however, was only in 2010/11. And this makes me shudder a little, as I have seen many systems collapse in the meantime. My wish for the Tunisians is that they are able to maintain what has been achieved - the foundation for future prosperity.
ifa: Do you see any potential for improving the legal situation of victims in Tunisia? How would you judge the success of the discussed law?
Hartwig: I think people in Tunisia should form networks. The law just by itself is theory and does not give real help. What we have started, for example going to the police, must be placed on a more solid basis. That is what they have to establish as a standard. They must try to change police training in order to sensitize them to the situation of women and of victims in general. If the state treats the victims who have filed criminal charges well and supports them, then this will generate good, admissible statements in court because the victims are mentally stable. This will entail swift and enforceable judgments, which will not only affect the convicted perpetrator individually, but also act as a deterrent to others. However, this can only work if the police, the prosecution agencies and the NGOs are all in one boat. NGOs need to increase their collaboration with each other. It will not be easy to establish networks, but it is possible - give-and-take relationships must be cultivated.
ifa: In your presentations, you have mentioned that victims in Germany are badly informed about their rights. What is the situation in Tunisia?
Hartwig: Generally, victims of crimes, in Germany as well as in Tunisia, are not knowledgeable about their rights. That has something to do with the way we were raised, but not with the level of education. We are prepared for all kinds of situations, but not for the consequences when you have become a victim of a crime. Particularly in Germany, people tend to insure themselves against any conceivable risk. And when something happens, you have the feeling that you failed to take sufficient precautions. Life itself is a risk, and it ends with death. I am under the impression that people are no longer aware of this fact. We are not able to minimise risk per se. The need for safety is a rather distinct need in Germany.
ifa: Which specific actions do you take to increase the legal protection for at-risk groups? Which advice can you give to Tunisia?
Hartwig: We know which laws are being discussed, and when I hear of something interesting, which I feel the desire to comment upon, I approach the advisory committee on criminal law of the Weisser Ring. It consists of eight distinguished experts from all parts of the republic, who have been appointed for four-year tenures. The members of our advisory committees provide consultation to the board. This is how legal policy demands on the German state are developed. I address the chairman with regard to such an issue and ask him for his assessment. In the event that there is little potential for success, we may not take any action. You need detailed knowledge and a realistic judgement of what might be possible and what will be to no avail. If the right thing happens at the right time and the right person is taking care of it, a great deal can be achieved.
ifa: You place a lot of value on training and additional training measures, also as the Chairwoman for the Weisse Ring's Committee for Training and Additional Training. Your lecture tour included events at police academies. What impression did you gain of the status of police training concerning violence against women?
Hartwig: I would say that we would have to invest further efforts, also in Germany. A police officer receives universal training: He must regulate traffic in a crossroads and facilitate traffic routing, he must be prepared for everything in an emergency situation, and he must always bear thousands of things in mind. It is clear that it cannot be taken for granted, and in particular not in Tunisia, that a police officer knows how domestic violence unfolds. Thus, training seminars are necessary, also about the psychological processes. A policewoman told me that she was frustrated because she accompanied a woman to court and her husband was to be convicted, but husband and wife reconciled. It must be made clear to the police officers that when something like this happens, it is not them who are to blame. It is normal that external actions make no difference when the personal ties between the victim and the perpetrator are so strong. Training for the police officers is essential. CREDIF must offer seminars, in particular due to their very good position and connections to the Ministry of Women and Family Affairs.
ifa: Which mechanisms are most important for sensitisation and prevention? In your experience, what do you think can be done even better in Tunisia?
Hartwig: Prevention is always linked to education. An idea has just been developed in Tunisia to visit schools to provide information. A concept must be derived that determines how to interact with infant victims. The Weisser Ring does not provide victim counselling for children due to the volunteer status of its staff. However, we have a cooperation partner who goes to schools and works together with the local youth authorities and teachers. The victims are counselled individually and in a manner suitable to their age. An awareness has to be developed how to work with children, in particular because children can be easily influenced as witnesses, which can cause the success or failure of the entire court proceedings. This is particularly important as perpetrators are by and large serial offenders, whose actions affect or have affected other children. Such perpetrators should not escape conviction due to procedural errors. For this reason, it is important to proceed very diligently and to work with professionals. One could also develop TV spots which explain that the state protects the victims of violence and how damaging violence is to children. TV would also be very helpful to reach illiterate persons and, for example, to inform people of emergency numbers. Implementing a central hotline for victims would be a good measure.
ifa: Which kind of cooperation could you imagine between Germany and Tunisia?
Hartwig: Germans could support Tunisians with additional training. The Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation in Tunisia would be fantastic for providing this assistance. If needed, the Weisser Ring could offer support by sending people who could provide training in Tunisia. Once a year, a 10-day seminar could be organised, providing training for 60 persons.
ifa: When you are abroad, whether on holiday or on a business trip, you often subconsciously become an ambassador representing your own country. The lecture programme of the German federal government provides a platform for the speaker to put positions from Germany up for discussion. How did you percieve this role?
Hartwig: I consciously accepted this role in Tunisia. But I tried not to present myself as a "know-all", and reported from my range of experiences, inviting people to apply one or the other idea to their own situation - for example, to form networks. Furthermore, I made a great effort to strengthen the existing structures that I witnessed there. I saw that the activists dedicate themselves with a glowing passion to act against violence inflicted on women, which also poses a risk, as something that burns can also burn out. I see this risk here. I have concerns about what is, in parts, too great a commitment. These activists do not take good care of themselves and of their energy, which can cause burnout. And that would be a pity because it would lead to a loss of know-how and networks. Therefore, my personal advice would be: They should be more mindful and should not forget their successes. I have observed that women in Tunisia often focus on the negative, which is not conducive to success. You need to appreciate your success, in order to be able to continue this successful work. I would wish that they were more eager to experiment - they often say: "You can't do that here in Tunisia." Trust, time and contacts are necessary to form a network.
ifa: An important concern of the lecture programme is knowledge transfer and the presentation of a contemporary and diverse image of Germany abroad. Were you under the impression that you were being confronted with a preconceived image of Germany?
Hartwig: Unfortunately, the image of Germany is distorted to the extent that it resembles a fairytale. They do not see that we also have to work hard for success. I felt that they were reluctant to believe what I told them about the difficulties in Germany. I want favourable living conditions here in Tunisia for each Tunisian. I am deeply convinced that they, due to their culture, their language and other things, know best how to use their country's resources and to be successful. I always made an effort to provide examples of the developments in Germany so they are able to apply interesting examples to themselves.
ifa: Entering into dialogue and putting ideas up for discussion instead of merely giving lectures is an important yet also a difficult task. Did you succeed in facilitating an exchange of ideas in Tunisia?
Hartwig: First of all, I would like to say that I feel very honoured to have travelled to Tunisia for the Federal Republic of Germany. The trip was very interesting for me and, in some way, it is a reflection of my life's work. I think as a woman, a former police officer and currently as a volunteer worker for the Weisser Ring, I was able to connect with the audience. I wanted to give the Tunisian women some food for thought and did not settle for simple answers. Certainly, men were also impressed when they heard of the diverse elements within me. Thus, I do believe that I inspired a cultural exchange and reached my goal.
ifa: One final question: Which personal or professional inspiration did this lecture tour to Tunisia yield?
Hartwig: As elsewhere, people in Tunisia also only function like humans - that is a very interesting aspect. Even though the culture, the language and life are completely different, it is interesting to see that the same things inspire people to talk, argue or listen. I thought it was good to see that people are essentially the same everywhere. With this feeling I go home as a satisfied person.
ifa: Ms Hartwig, I would like to thank you for this conversation.