Deep divisions over spluttering sex industry
Publish date: 07 October 2019
Issue Number: 844
Diary: IBA Legalbrief Africa
State-regulated brothels have existed in Tunisia for decades but pressure from women's rights activists and religious conservatives has forced most of them to close. The regulation of sex work, largely to protect clients from sexually transmitted infections tightened with the French occupation of Tunisia in the 19th century. The current laws on legal sex work were introduced in the 1940s, and survived Tunisia's independence in 1958. Before the 2010 uprising, there were an estimated 300 legal sex workers in a dozen or so sites across Tunisia. The country has a two-tier system for sex workers. One is made up of government-registered brothels. The other involves illegal freelance sex work, where the people involved risk up to two years in prison if convicted. Today, only two cities – Tunis and Sfax – are home to a handful of legal brothels. They are found in tiny houses tucked away in the twisty lanes of the medina, the cities' historical heart. Wahid Ferchichi, a law professor at Carthage University told the BBC that the issue has divided rights activists. ‘There are many in politics and civil society who support the closure (of the legal brothels) because they consider that sex work is a new kind of slavery, or human trafficking,’ he said. ‘But if we close all these places and the Tunisian penal code is applied, we will put all these women in prison, so what is the solution?’ A recent draft law proposes a $175 fine instead of jail time. ‘It's not reasonable, in an economic situation where the country has no money and there are no jobs,’ said Bouthayna Aouissaoui, who runs an association for sex workers in Sfax.