Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 January 2018, 13:56 GMT

Women's Rights in the Middle East and North Africa - Algeria

Publisher Freedom House
Author Caroline Sakina Brac de la Perrière
Publication Date 14 October 2005
Cite as Freedom House, Women's Rights in the Middle East and North Africa - Algeria, 14 October 2005, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47387b6a0.html [accessed 16 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Population: 31,700,000
GDP Per Capita (PPP): $5,760
Economy: Statist
Ranking on UN HDI: 108 out of 177
Polity: Dominant party (military-influenced)
Literacy: Male 78.0% / Female 59.6%
Percent Women Economically Active: 30.9%
Date of Women's Suffrage: 1962
Women's Fertility Rate: 2.8
Percent Urban/Rural: Urban 49% / Rural 51%

COUNTRY RATINGS FOR ALGERIA

Nondiscrimination and Access to Justice: 3.0
Autonomy, Security, and Freedom of the Person: 2.4
Economic Rights and Equal Opportunity: 2.8
Political Rights and Civic Voice: 3.0
Social and Cultural Rights: 2.9

(Scale of 1 to 5: 1 represents the lowest and 5 the highest level of freedom women have to exercise their rights)

INTRODUCTION

Algeria has been a military-backed republic since it achieved independence from France in 1962. Since 1989, the country has taken some steps towards democratic reform, though the process has been difficult and faltering. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, elected in flawed elections in 1999 and re-elected in 2004, is the nominal head of state. In practice, however, power is shared by various forces, elected and unelected.

Algeria was a virtual one-party regime until the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) permitted the formation of independent political parties in 1989. This opening allowed the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), a fundamentalist party, to position itself to win the national elections in 1992. In response, the army cancelled the elections and banned the FIS, triggering the start of a bloody civil war between armed groups of Islamist extremists and the government that has claimed more than 100,000 lives.

Although radical groups have been responsible for the majority of the civil war massacres and assassinations, international human rights organizations have accused Algerian security forces of being responsible for thousands of "disappearances." Thousands of Algerian women who refuse to follow FIS calls for the Islamization of Algerian society have also faced violence, displacement, and exile. Many Islamist fighters surrendered following the government's introduction of the "Civil Harmony" law in 1999 that granted leniency to rebels who renounced violence. However, some armed groups have maintained their resistance, continuing to cause at least 100 deaths each month. Algeria currently clings to a tenuous peace and remains under a declared state of emergency.

Algeria is the second largest country in Africa; 91 percent of the population lives along the Mediterranean coast on 12 percent of the country's total land mass; 49 percent of the population is urban. The country's population of 31,700,000 is young, with over 64 percent of inhabitants under 30 years of age. The Algerian constitution declares Islam to be the state religion, and over 99 per cent of Algerians are Sunni Muslim.

Algeria depends heavily on its oil and natural gas reserves. Since the 1980s, the country has attempted to move from a socialist to a market economy, although free market reforms have proceeded haltingly. Current GDP per capita is $5,760. The country continues to face a number of challenges including an unemployment rate of 30 percent, an overall illiteracy rate of 30 percent, a shortage of housing, and ethnic conflict. Those living under the poverty line account for 23 percent of the population.

Rights of assembly and association have been sharply curtailed since the state of emergency was declared in 1992. While the government has denied registration to certain political parties and organizations due to security considerations, an estimated 50,000 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) of all kinds are active in Algeria.

Algeria's private press is vibrant, though authorities impose restrictions and strict defamation laws on journalists and media outlets. A lack of respect for due process is reflected in the prevalence of torture and lack of investigations into human rights abuses. Recently, however, the issue of human rights has entered the public debate, and the government has shown itself amenable to improving the overall human rights situation and resolving questions about the issue of disappearances.

While the constitution guarantees equality between genders, the 1984 family code, a set of laws based largely on Islamic law interpretations, treats women as minors under the legal guardianship of their husbands and fathers. The restriction of women's personal freedoms under the law has served to reinforce women's inferior status within society. A large number of women's NGOs work to promote women's rights in Algeria; however, the movement's strength declined in the 1990s due to death threats from fundamentalist groups.

NONDISCRIMINATION AND ACCESS TO JUSTICE

Algeria's constitution was adopted in 1976 and has since been amended several times, with the latest revisions signed into law in December 1996. The country's legal system is mostly founded on French legislation, while nationality, citizenship, and the family code are based on the country's interpretation of Shari'a (Islamic law). The government has made significant efforts to bring legislation in line with international conventions on human rights and women's rights in the public sphere, but as far as the application of texts is concerned, these efforts are largely inadequate. Many citizens continue to be victims of arbitrary decisions by authorities.

Algerian women are subject to the family code, a retrograde and patriarchal interpretation of Islamic law passed in 1984 by the Popular National Assembly, under the pressure of religious and conservative representatives. On the whole, laws under the family code serve to reinforce the domination of men over women, contradicting Article 29 of the Algerian constitution, which declares, "All citizens are equal before the law. No discrimination shall prevail because of birth, race, sex, opinion or any other personal or social condition or circumstance." However, the relationship between Article 29 and Article 2 of the constitution, which declares Islam as the state religion, is often a point of contention in debates between different constituencies and groups – some using Article 2 as a pretext to implement and maintain discriminatory practices against women.

Most national legislation ensures women some form of protection from discrimination; and women are treated equally in legislation governing employment, education, health, and the judicial system. However, women are treated unequally in Algeria's nationality code as well as in the family code, in which they are treated as legal minors. According to the nationality code, unlike Algerian men, Algerian women are permitted to confer citizenship on their children only if the father is unknown or stateless or if the child is born to an Algerian mother and a foreign father who was born in Algeria.

The family code discriminates against women in matters of marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody and guardianship. According to family law, a wife has a legal obligation to obey her husband. A husband can freely divorce his wife without justification, but a wife must meet very specific conditions in order to initiate a divorce. Moreover, women do not have guardianship over their children under the family code, and they inherit only half of what men inherit. Women's rights groups and human rights lawyers have proposed several amendments to the existing family law, some of which are being debated at the government level and among progressive politicians.

According to the penal code, a woman is considered equal to a man before the courts whether she is the plaintiff or the defendant. While a woman's testimony is considered equal to that of a man, a 1984 Ministry of Justice directive on the requirements for notarized deeds deems the value of two women witnesses equal to that of only one male witness; Algerian notaries actively apply this directive in practice.

Women are judged – by both male and female judges – with more or less severity based on the degree to which their behavior conforms to the traditional role expected of Algerian women. The prejudices and conservative attitudes of judges and lawyers, therefore, can lead to discrimination in practice that does not exist in the legal texts. Most Algerian women's access to justice is further restricted by their lack of financial resources (men continue to maintain strong control over finances in most families), lack of confidence in the public sphere, and lack of knowledge of their legal rights. To date, the government has not taken any specific action to improve this situation for women.

Men and women are treated equally under the penal code except in cases of adultery and the abduction or rape of minors. Article 339 of the penal code punishes those who commit adultery with one to two years' imprisonment, with no discrimination between genders. However, unmarried men who commit adultery with a married woman will not be punished if they were unaware that the woman was married. An unmarried woman, on the other hand, who commits adultery with a married man, will receive the punishment of one to two years' imprisonment whether or not she was aware that the man was married. As for the abduction or rape of minors, the penal code allows for the guilty party to escape all forms of punishment if he marries his victim.

Protections against arbitrary arrest and detention are afforded both men and women under the constitution of 1996, the 2001 amended Algerian penal code, and the National Consultative Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, established in 2001. Nevertheless, such laws and protections are not often fully implemented. In reality, most citizens do not feel fully protected from arbitrary arrest and detentions. Most of the cases of arbitrary detentions reported by human rights organizations tend to involve men, but some organizations are beginning to examine the challenges that women face in this area.

Algeria ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1997, with reservations on Articles 2, 9 (2), 15 (4), 16 and 29 (1). Most of these reservations are based on the Algerian family code and are supported by arguments based on Islam and the status of woman in the family. Algeria has undertaken some efforts to comply with CEDAW, including creating a Ministry of Women's Affairs in 2003 and proposing amendments to the family code. However, the impact of these initiatives is limited by a lack of political will to change societal attitudes that enforce the continuation of gender discrimination in both the public and private spheres. Algeria has also failed to ratify the Optional Protocol to CEDAW.

Top political leaders rarely demonstrate strong support for advancing women's rights. Only after winning the presidential elections in April 2004 did President Bouteflika make a speech in favor of women's rights. In theory, Algerian women's rights defenders and women's NGOs have the freedom to advocate for the advancement of women's human rights and status. However, in practice, they receive no assistance from the state, and their work is often hindered by lack of resources, administrative obstacles, social resistance to change, and the state of emergency laws that limit demonstrations and free association.

RECOMMENDATIONS

  1. The government should amend the laws in order to bring all legislation in conformity with the principles of non-discrimination established in the constitution.
  2. The government should initiate a country-wide effort to educate the public on legal provisions that protect women's rights.
  3. The government should remove all reservations to CEDAW and take steps to implement it locally by bringing national laws in conformity with CEDAW.

AUTONOMY, SECURITY AND FREEDOM OF THE PERSON

Current legal protections for women's security and freedom of the person are overly general and insufficient. Two major obstacles work to limit women's autonomy and individual freedoms; the first is the authority the family code confers on male family members; and the second is the Islamist extremist element in Algerian society. Nevertheless, women's rights defenders have had some success in stirring up debate over the need for reforms in the family code and the need for increased protections against violence.

The Algerian constitution declares Islam the state religion but also prohibits discrimination based on religious belief. The government generally respects this right in practice. Small communities of Christians and Jews are free to practice their religions without government interference. Muslim extremists, however, still manage to influence and intimidate Algerians and act to restrict their abilities to express their beliefs and opinions freely.

The constitution allows for the freedom of movement of all citizens. However, Article 39 of the family code stipulates, "The duty of the wife is to obey her husband," therefore providing the husband with full authority over his wife in law and in practice. Most Algerian policemen and court officials consider it standard social practice for a husband to forbid his wife to travel without his permission. Women's freedom of movement is further restricted by social traditions that support the belief that a woman's social role is to "remain at home." In some cases, a woman is required to seek the authorization of her father, brother, or husband in order to leave the home, and upon failing to do so, can expect to face physical violence at the hands of family members or be confined to the home. The state does not intervene in such family matters. On rare occasions, a woman may find an open-minded government official to help alleviate restrictions on her freedom of movement, or she may go to the court to file a complaint; but, it is very uncommon for a woman to seek official assistance in these situations due to the social pressure placed on women to obey their fathers and husbands and the stigma attached to women who seek legal action against male family members.

The Algerian family code discriminates against women in several ways. Most of the articles in the family code concerning marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance ensure men's domination of women. Algerian women's rights groups have been advocating for changes to the family code for decades, and as a result, a draft reform introducing the concept of equality between spouses in certain articles is to be presented by the government to the National Assembly in 2005. However, many women's rights advocates believe that the new draft remains non-egalitarian, and they continue to advocate for additional reforms to the code.

The current family code forbids an Algerian woman, no matter what her age, from marrying without the consent of a male guardian. If she does not have a male guardian, the court will appoint one for her. However, a woman's male guardian is not allowed to force her to marry someone against her will. According to the family code, the minimum age for marriage for men is 21 and for women 18. In practice, however, early marriage of girls is common in rural areas of Algeria where village girls are married by their families in religious ceremonies.

Women are legally permitted to insert certain stipulations into their marriage contract, as long as the stipulations do not contradict the provisions of the family code. Nevertheless, a woman still cannot refuse the "duty to obey her husband." Unlike Muslim Algerian men, Muslim Algerian women are not permitted to marry non-Muslims. Non-Muslim women married to Algerian men must comply with the family code, except in cases involving inheritance, in which case a non-Muslim woman may not inherit from her husband.

The draft family code under consideration introduces measures that would eliminate the requirement for a woman to obtain permission from a male guardian to marry, increase the minimum marriage age for women from 18 to 19, and allow women to stipulate in their marriage contract the right to work. The revised family code would also provide women with additional (but not equal) grounds to initiate divorce proceedings, limit the conditions under which polygamy would be allowed, and give divorced women and women with husbands who are out of the country or ill the opportunity to obtain guardianship of their children.

While the proposed reforms to the family code would improve the status of women in Algeria, women would still not be afforded equal rights with men. The suggested changes to the family code do not nullify the requirement for a woman to obey her husband and do not treat women equally in matters of inheritance.

According to the Algerian government, slavery in Algeria does not exist. However, cases of slavery-like practices have been reported, including the abduction of women and girls by armed groups for the purposes of sexual and domestic services. Little data is available on the trafficking of women for the sex industry, and information is scarce on the possible continued existence of some traditional slavery in southern Algeria. Some researchers and journalists have pointed to the emergence of a new form of slavery involving domestic workers from neighboring countries.

Article 34 of the constitution declares, "[A]ll forms of physical or moral violence or of breaches of dignity are forbidden," and in 1989, Algeria ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. In practice, however, torture continues to be used against opponents of the political regime. While recent human rights reports do not address the torture of women by agents of the state, many cases of the cruel treatment of women by armed groups of religious extremists have been recorded over the past decade.

During the decade of internal conflict and violence, a large number of women fell victim to abduction, rape, and murder by fundamentalist armed groups. While such attacks have decreased significantly since 1999, they continue to take place at the hands of non-state actors. One prominent example occurred in 2001, when several hundred citizens, spurred on by an imam at a local mosque, beat and tortured about 50 women in Hassi Messaoud. Algeria's president, along with the Ministry of Solidarity and other institutions, rallied and supported these women after the press called attention to the case, but police and security forces were slow to intervene and investigate the attacks. Some 40 men were arrested, but those who were actually sentenced (up to three years' imprisonment) were not convicted of rape. Apparently the women victims were not able to provide the required medical evidence to support their claims of rape and violent sexual assault. Women's rights groups in Algeria have been active in demanding justice for the victims, and a coalition of advocates is preparing legal cases to demand reparations.

Algerian women have little or no protection against violence in the family and in the public sphere, and there is very little awareness of this issue at the institutional or societal level. In 2003, under pressure from women's associations and health practitioners, the Ministry of Health ordered a national inquiry into violence against women, with the assistance of the judiciary, the police, and pathologists. The initial study found that only 11 percent of attacks on women are committed by strangers. Algerian women's rights groups, however, estimate that the Ministry of Health survey is likely to understate the nature and extent of the problem, considering that few women register their complaints of violence and rape.

Although women can invoke articles on assault and battery in the penal code in order to initiate legal action against abusive husbands, the grounds for divorce under the family code do not include marital violence. Currently, there are no laws in Algeria that declare domestic violence a criminal offense. According to Article 336 of the penal code, punishment for rape is 5 to 10 years in prison; the punishment is 10 to 20 years if the victim is a minor. Algerian women's groups have observed that as most reported cases of rape have involved mass rapes of women by armed groups, Algerian institutions have become more prepared to help women victims of this type of crime. However, state authorities have not paid the same attention to documenting or addressing the problem of rape and sexual violence within the family. Marital rape is not considered a crime.

Algerian women's rights groups working to combat violence against women have achieved tangible results in recent years. Some civil society groups are working to increase protections for women victims of violence – establishing shelters for women and holding awareness – raising programs on women's rights. Women's rights defenders have also worked with female judges to lobby the government to criminalize sexual harassment in the penal code. Some sources have reported that the government has recently adopted a new provision concerning sexual harassment and included it in the penal code; however, the Algerian public has not been informed about these new changes at this time.

The Algerian women's NGO campaign to reform the family code received strong media coverage during the last year, as well as support from international women's networks. The advances of women under Morocco's new family code in 2004 further encouraged women's rights activists in Algeria. Nevertheless, the role of the government in raising societal awareness around women's issues remains very limited, such as discreetly providing information on national radio.

RECOMMENDATIONS

  1. The government should eliminate Article 39 of the Family Code, which requires a wife to obey her husband.
  2. The government should revise the existing Family Code in order to ensure women's equality and non-discrimination under the law.
  3. The government should enact a law that criminalizes domestic violence.
  4. The government, in cooperation with civil society organizations, should initiate long-term national public awareness campaigns on the problem of violence against women and the protection mechanisms available to women victims.

ECONOMIC RIGHTS AND EQUAL OPPORTUNITY

The Algerian constitution guarantees women the right to own land and property freely, and Article 38 of the family code states, "The wife has the right to freely dispose of her goods." However, Article 39 of the family code, which requires a wife to obey her husband, serves to restrict the right of women to dispose of their incomes and assets independently.

Algerian legal provisions related to inheritance generally suggest that women should inherit a portion equivalent to half of the portion left to a man with the same degree of kinship. However, many Algerian families do not accept or follow such laws in practice. Various studies carried out by women's associations demonstrate that parents and families adopt different strategies to circumvent the current laws in order to distribute inheritance equally between girls and boys; some families resort to donations or fictitious sales in order to provide positive compensation for girls. These practices reveal that Algerian society is beginning to adopt more egalitarian values, even if the laws remain unchanged.

Women have access to all levels of the education system. Article 53 of the constitution and Order 76-31 declare basic education obligatory from the age of 6 to 16; however, the implementation of this legal provision is inadequate, lacking supervision and sufficient financial support. The illiteracy rate of Algerian women aged 15 and above is 40.4 percent, which is almost twice the rate of men at 22 percent. However, women's illiteracy rate falls to 14.4 percent in the age group of 15 to 24 year olds, although this rate is higher in rural areas and sections of southern Algeria.

According to official statistics, 92 percent of girls aged 6 to 14 years attended school in 2003. Girls represent 49 percent of those enrolled in primary school and 53 percent of the population at the university level. Half of all teachers are women. Women are still underrepresented, however, at upper level decision-making positions in education; no woman holds the position of director of education in the wilayas (provinces), and less than 10 percent of head teachers are women.

Algerian women are free to negotiate business contracts and financial contracts, as well as work at all levels of employment on an equal status with men. The past few years have witnessed a spectacular increase in the number of female employees and independent women workers; women now represent more than 27 percent of the labor force. In the public sector, women are present in important economic decision-making posts in organizations such as the Bank of Algeria, the Council of Currency and Credit, and the commercial sector of Sonatrach, the largest state-owned company. Nevertheless, while more than 20 percent of women workers fill mid-level executive and manager positions, senior posts remain largely occupied by men.

Algerian women have no legal restrictions on their right to choose a profession. However, a woman's right to work can be revoked by her husband with the family code's "duty of obedience" clause if he does not agree with her choice of career or her decision to work outside the home. Most women who enter the workforce tend to pursue so-called feminine professions in the health and education sectors, which are considered more socially acceptable. Many women make their career choices based on the amount of free time their job will leave them for family life, as child care and family help are difficult to find and domestic chores are a burden that falls mostly on women. In fact, most work performed by women is in the informal sector, ranging from work carried out in the home to illegal work. Little reliable data exists on the extent of this form of employment among women.

Act 90-11 of the employment code (April 1990) states that men and women must receive equal pay for work requiring an equal level of qualifications and performance. Women are further protected from gender discrimination within the labor field by Article 17 of the employment code, which stipulates, "Any provision in a convention or collective agreement or in an employment contract which establishes any kind of discrimination between workers & based on gender & is null and void." Articles 142 and 143 lay down sanctions in cases of discrimination. These measures are applied in the public sector, and labor inspectors monitor the private sector for compliance.

The labor law provides gender-specific rights for women, such as maternity leave (Article 55), exemption from night work (Article 29), and special retirement provisions (Article 6). Both state employers and private companies are required to provide such benefits, including two hours a day for breast-feeding and three months of paid maternity leave with benefits. While child-care services are offered only in the largest state companies, public and private child-care centers are increasing in number.

In 2002, the National Committee of Working Women, a section of Algeria's largest labor union, established a center to assist victims of sexual harassment in the workplace. Furthermore, women employees of the National Institute for Public Health and women unionists have been actively campaigning for a law to protect women from sexual harassment in the workplace for some time.

RECOMMENDATIONS

  1. The government should address the problem of illiteracy, institute checks on the absenteeism of girls from school, work with women's NGOs to change the negative images and stereotypes of women in school textbooks, and train teachers to promote values of gender equality.
  2. The government should provide financial support and facilitate the efforts of women who want to launch businesses.
  3. The government should collaborate with social researchers and labor statisticians to improve survey methods and data collection on female work in the home and in rural areas in order to better understand and evaluate the status of all working women.
  4. The government should work to ensure that women are represented in senior level positions in the public and private sectors and labor unions.

POLITICAL RIGHTS AND CIVIC VOICE

The right of Algerians to change their government is heavily restricted. Although the president and the lower house of parliament (National People's Assembly) are elected by popular vote, and two-thirds of the upper house (Council of Nations) is chosen by elected municipal and provincial councils, these institutions are heavily influenced by members of the old ruling class, consisting of military officers and veterans of the FLN. Algerian legislation recognizes the equal political rights of women, and women are active in civil society and generally take part in politics. However, women remain underrepresented in senior political and government positions.

Articles 41 and 43 of the constitution guarantee freedom of expression, association, and assembly. However, amendments to the penal code in 2001 increased penalties for defamation of any "authority of public order." Freedom of assembly and association are subject to authorization from the Ministry of the Interior for reasons of security and for the purposes of legalization. Requests for permission to hold meetings or establish new organizations often receive no response from the government, therefore obliging groups, such as women's rights defenders, to suspend their plans or to carry on their activities without authorization. Most human rights demonstrations are tolerated, but human rights organizations that focus on investigating the fate of an estimated 4,000 Algerians who have disappeared since 1993 are severely restricted and denied legal registration. Female relatives of the disappeared are prominent activists in this movement.

Algerian women are well represented in the judiciary, particularly at high levels: 34 percent of magistrates are women. In the Council of State, one of the highest institutions of judicial power, 15 of the 38 magistrates are women, and the Council of State's president is a woman.

Algerian women gained suffrage rights in 1962. These rights are guaranteed under Article 50 of the constitution and Order 97-07 (March 1997) relating to the electoral system, which ensures women's right to vote and run for elected office. Eligibility requirements for voting and running for office are the same for men and women. Women have been both appointed and elected to local and legislative positions. In 2004, a woman stood for election to the presidency but was unsuccessful.

Through an informal arrangement, opposition parties reserved 20 percent of their electoral lists for female candidates in the 2002 Algerian legislative elections. Women gained 24 out of 389 seats in the National People's Assembly after the 2002 elections (6.3 percent); and women now hold 28 of the 144 seats in the upper house of parliament (19.4 percent) as a result of the December 2003 elections.

Women are not as well represented in the higher grades of the civil service, filling only 4 percent of available positions. In addition, Algeria has only four female ambassadors, one minister, and three secretaries of state. However, several women have been appointed to executive posts such as wali (governor), prefect (the administrative head of a region), or deputy prefect (the administrative head for a subdivision of a region).

In 1999, the government legalized political parties, allowing a few new parties to emerge, including some based on religious politics; however, the FIS remains banned. Article 42 of the constitution guarantees and recognizes the right to create political parties but stipulates, "This right cannot be invoked to attack fundamental freedoms, or values and fundamental components of national identity&. Out of respect for the provisions of the present Constitution, political parties cannot be founded on a religious, linguistic, racial, gender, corporatist, or regional basis."

In theory, there are no restrictions on the participation of Algerian women in politics, but women who attempt to gain positions of higher power within political parties may often face resistance from male members. Just two parties have women serving as president (The Party of Workers and the Party of the Youth Movement) out of Algeria's estimated 40 political parties. To address women's low representation in politics, female members of political parties have presented a manifesto to the government recommending a quota system that would set aside 35 percent of the slots for women in local, prefectoral, and national elections.

Despite wide-ranging access to audiovisual sources of information (90 percent of Algerian households have a television or radio), women still do not gain enough information to be autonomous in their civil or political lives. According to a national study, only 9 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 49 read the newspaper every day. Most women still do not actively participate in political life (93 percent). Some factors that may interfere with women's participation in politics include control exercised by male family members, and an absence of information and communications specifically targeted toward women.

RECOMMENDATIONS

  1. The government should allow all political parties that are committed to democracy to participate in the political process, and should facilitate free and competitive elections in the country.
  2. The government, in consultation with Algerian civil society groups, should work to prepare effective and clear policies and programs to encourage women's participation in political life, including a proposed measure to set a quota of 35 percent of seats for women in political parties, political elections, and senior government positions.
  3. The government should provide leadership training and opportunities for women in the public sector.
  4. The government should work with the media and NGOs to educate the general public about women's political rights.

SOCIAL AND CULTURAL RIGHTS

In theory, Algerian women are provided the same social and cultural rights as men, but in reality, women do not have equal access to or ability to exercise these rights. Restrictions on women's social and cultural rights are partly due to women's inferior legal status under the Algerian family code, which places women under the guardianship of men, and partly due to the social influence of the country's religious extremist movements. In addition, societal expectations that restrict women's activities to the domestic sphere further limit their abilities to make independent decisions about their health and reproductive rights, or influence community life and social development at the local level.

The state has made considerable efforts to provide family planning for Algerians. Women's fertility rate in 2003 was reported at 2.8 children, as compared to 7 children per woman in the early 1970s; the rate of population growth has dropped to 1.53 percent. The social security system reimburses the purchase of contraceptives, which are distributed throughout the country. An estimated 80 percent of Algerian married women have used contraception at least once in their lives, and 52 percent use modern methods. In 2002, close to 90 percent of births took place in a public-health facility.

Abortion is forbidden and criminalized in Algeria. Article 309 of the penal code stipulates, "Any woman who has intentionally had an abortion carried out or who has attempted to do so shall be punished with 6 months to one year of imprisonment." A fatwa, a ruling on Islamic law, issued by the High Islamic Council in 1998, however, allows abortion in cases in which pregnancy resulted from rape by terrorists or armed groups.

Article 54 of the constitution guarantees Algerians the right to health care. However, as a share of gross domestic product, health care expenditure has dropped in recent years to just 3.1 percent. Moreover, disparities exist between certain regions of the country and certain social groups concerning equal access to health services. Poverty and lack of financial resources constitute the major obstacles. An additional factor is the influence of religious extremist teachings that preach that women's social behavior is an assertion of a group's religious and political identity. Algerian civil society groups have observed that this line of thought has a strong impact on women's autonomy and their access to social and cultural rights, particularly in rural communities. For example, a number of Algerian males continue to prohibit women from making independent decisions about their health, restrict women from leaving the home, and forbid their female family members from being examined by a male doctor.

Many Algerian women endure considerable social pressures to use the veil as part of their dress code. For some women, the veil is a precondition to their freedom of movement. This practice has increased, over the past 15 years in particular, due to the influence of religious extremist groups in Algeria. Certain regions of the country are more conservative than others, and women are more often seen covering themselves from head to toe in poorer and more conservative regions of the south. The Algerian government has not taken any public position on the veil issue. Many women employed in state institutions such as public schools wear the hijab – a veil that covers only the head and hair; but it is very rare to see a woman employed in government offices veiled from head to toe.

Some Algerian women and girls are subjected to the harmful traditional practice of virginity tests, in which a woman's family asks a doctor to perform an examination to verify whether or not a woman's hymen is intact before she is married. In some cases, if a woman's hymen is not found intact, doctors will perform an operation to reconstruct it.

Women have equal rights with men to own property, but women's right to housing is not equally recognized in practice or in the legal texts. Article 52 of the family code provides that if there is only one family home, it should go to the husband in the case of divorce because he is considered the head of the family. Since 1984, thousands of divorced women – many of whom are victims of Articles 48 and 52 of the family code, which permit a man to divorce his wife verbally and evict his wife and children from the home – have found themselves homeless, without any resources to provide for their children. While a husband is legally obligated to provide for his children after a divorce, government enforcement mechanisms are weak, and many men fail to fulfill this obligation. In situations in which the court system works to address this problem, the financial compensation rarely meets basic living costs.

Moreover, in cases in which housing is allocated by municipal authorities, women are systematically penalized under the pretext that they can be taken in by their families. Few women take legal action in housing discrimination cases. Women's organizations argue that as traditional patriarchal protection has now disappeared with the rise of poverty and increasing housing problems, it is time for the state to introduce new initiatives to protect women's housing rights, particularly those of divorced, widowed, and single women.

The last decade has witnessed a gradual feminization of poverty in Algeria. Since 1992, thousands of women have lost male family members to murder or abduction by armed Islamic extremist groups or the state's security forces. Many of these women have found themselves as heads of household, even though they may have little knowledge of the public sphere or any education or outside work experience. Families of those abducted who request a declaration of absence from the authorities must wait four years before obtaining a declaration of death. During this period, women heads of household are not able to gain access to pensions or any savings or property held in the name of the abducted family member. There are no special programs for widows other than the help of their families, but poor women can sometimes benefit from social care provided by the state.

An additional group of women currently suffering from poverty and social marginalization is made up of the hundreds of female survivors of abductions and rapes carried out by various fundamentalist armed groups from 1992 to 1999. Many families have rejected these women and refused to accept them back into their homes – a woman who has been sexually assaulted is often considered a dishonor to the family – and a majority of these women now live on the streets. The government has provided some assistance to these women, but state personnel are not fully trained or prepared to handle such cases. Women survivors of rape at the hands of armed groups are excluded from economic state benefits, which are available to victims of other armed group abuses who have suffered physical injury or material loss. It took several years after the first cases of mass rapes for psychologists and physicians to provide effective assistance to the victims of these crimes, but the state's ability to provide psychological or economic support remains limited, and the needs of these destitute women remain critical.

Government agencies concerned with development and social welfare programs do not fully recognize the societal gender biases and cultural obstacles that prevent women from enjoying the same opportunities as men. Consequently, state agencies have not been able to establish government action plans to enable women to benefit fully from development programs or gain access to resources at all levels.

More than 50 percent of the state-owned and private print media employees in Algeria are women. While some women journalists write culture and society columns, others contribute political articles, editorials, and economic surveys. Women also constitute close to 50 percent of the journalists employed in national radio stations, and two-thirds of the writers and reporters in television news. Female journalists usually show strong solidarity with women's rights defenders and their agendas, but the influence of women in the media remains limited at the higher level decision-making posts. However, the recent removal from television of a sexist advertisement indicates that the protests formulated by women's rights activists concerning the image of women in the media are beginning to have some impact on content decisions.

Although Algerian women's rights groups have contributed to important recent advances in women's status, women's NGOs are not fully able to operate or advocate for their rights. While women's rights activists are legally permitted to carry out public activities without being subjected to government restrictions, these groups still face a number of obstacles in their work. NGOs working to advance women's rights face especially strong resistance from extremist religious groups and conservative elements of the government. Additional challenges for women's NGOs include the socially and legally ingrained stereotypes and discrimination of women in Algerian society and a prejudice against work surrounding women's equality and rights issues, as well as significant security problems and threats received for engaging in such work in Algeria. Finally, many Algerian NGOs working to advance women's rights lack sufficient financial backing and are in desperate need of national and international funding and support.

RECOMMENDATIONS

  1. Government agencies should encourage women to assume leadership positions in development programs.
  2. The government should introduce public information campaigns to inform the public about women's rights and services available for women.
  3. The government should create policies to address women's housing needs and unemployment, with a special focus on the needs of rural women, widows, and victims of violence.

AUTHOR: Caroline Sakina Brac de la Perrière lives and works in Algeria and France. She is a social and human science researcher and has written extensively on women's rights and the women's movement in North Africa, with a specific focus on Algeria. She is one of the founders of the network New Ways International Alliance for Social Innovation and a member of Collectif 95 Maghreb Egalité and "20 ans barakat." She holds a PhD in History and an MA in Psychology.


NOTES

[Refworld note: source files did not contain inline references to these notes; they have been included to enable further reading and research.]

1. "2003 World Population Data Sheet" (Washington, D.C.: Population Reference Bureau, 2003).

2. Constitution of the Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria, Referendum of 28th November 1996 (Algiers: Ministry of Justice, 1996), Article 29.

3. "Order No. 70-86 of 15th December 1970 setting out the Nationality Code" (Ministry of Justice), Article 6.

4. Women's Human Rights-Algeria: Steps Towards Change or Empty Promise? (New York: Amnesty International [AI], 15 September 2003),

5. Constitution ... of Algeria, Article 44: "A citizen entitled to his civil and political rights has the right to choose his place of residence and to move about on the national territory. He is guaranteed the right of entry and the right to leave the territory."

6. A study on the degree of attachment to egalitarian values among the Algerian population shows that this is the major taboo mentioned by women. Degré d'adhésion aux valeurs égalitaires au sein de la population algérienne, "Synopsis" (Algiers: UNIFEM and Collectif 95 Maghreb Egalité, 2002), 15.

7. Family code, Article 39: "The wife is required to: 1) obey her husband and show him the respect due to him as head of the family&"

8. "Consideration of Reports Submitted By States Parties Under Article 18 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Initial reports of States parties, Algeria" (New York: UN CEDAW/C/DZA/, 1 September 1998), http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/cedaw20/algeria.htm.

9. Rassemblement Contre la Hogra et Pour les Droits des Algériennes [RACHDA], Femmes contre l'oubli (New York: UN Population Fund [UNFPA], 2002), 15.

10. Algeria: Steps Towards Change ... ? (AI).

11. There are no reliable statistics on the number of women subjected to rape, abduction, and murder during the internal conflict.

12. Femmes contre l'oubli (UNFPA), 37.

13. "Algeria: Briefing to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women" (AI, December 2004).

14. Rapport sur l'Enquête nationale. Violence à l'encontre des femmes (Algiers: Ministry of Health, Population and Hospital Reform, Institut nationale de la Santé publique, and UNFPA-UNIFEM, 2004), to be published.

15. Ibid.

16. Family code, Article 53.

17. Family code, Articles 126 to 183. There is an exception however, for paternal grandparents, who inherit equal parts.

18. Degré d'adhésion aux valeurs égalitaires au sein de la population algérienne, "Synopsis" (Algiers: UNIFEM and Collectif 95 Maghreb Egalité, 2002), 12.

19. Table 26, "Gender inequality in education," in Human Development Report 2004: Cultural Liberty in Today's Diverse World (New York: United Nations Development Programme [UNDP], 2004), 225-228. http://hdr.undp.org/reports/global/2004/.

20. Enquête qualitative sur la santé de la famille-2002, Rapport principal (Algiers: Ministry of Health, Population and Hospital Reform and National Statistics Office, July 2004).

21. Statistical data (Ministry of National Education, 2000), in Algerian Union of Democratic Women, Masculin/Féminin, égalité et mixité à l'école (Algiers: UNFPA, 2003).

22. Stratégies visant à renforcer le statut social, économique et politique des femmes dans le processus de développement: Rapport relatif à l'état des lieux. Vol. 2 (Algiers: UNDP Ministry of Foreign Affairs [MAE], July 2002).

23. Société nationale des hydrocarbures: the largest state-owned company.

24. Violence, salariat, socialization: trois facettes du destin social féminin (Algiers: UNFPA and Algerian Union of Democratic Women, 2003), 42.

25. Stratégies visant à renforcer le statut.... Rapport relatif à l'état des lieux, Vol. 2 (UNDP MAE, July 2002), 123.

26. Electoral Law, Article 5.

27. "Women in Parliament in the Arab World" (New York: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace).

28. In August 2004, out of 40 ministers the Minister for Culture, the Secretary of State for Emigration, the Secretary of State for Research, and the Secretary of State for Women's Affairs were women.

29. Fatima Zohra Sai, "Les Algériennes dans les espaces politiques, quelle perspective?" Revue Algérienne des sciences juridiques, économiques et politiques (Université d'Alger Faculté de Droit, 2003), and interview with Maître Nadia Aït Zaï, Algiers, August 2004.

30. According to l'Enquête qualitative sur la santé de la famille-2002.

31. Degré d'adhésion ... (UNIFEM), 7.

32. "Algeria's Reply to the Questionnaire to Governments on Implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action (1995) and the Outcome of the Twenty-third Special Session of the General Assembly" (New York: United Nations, 2000).

33. "Algeria: Briefing to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women" (AI, December 2004).

34. According to "Algeria: Steps Towards Change ... ?" (AI), since 1992 more than 100,000 people have been killed in murders, fighting, massacres, and bombings. About 7,000 people are reported as missing.

35. Cherifa Bouatta, "La pratique psychologique au temps du trauma, L'expérience traumatique," NAQD (Revue d'Etudes et de Critique Sociale) 18 (Algiers, winter 2003): 98.

36. "Algeria: Briefing to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women" (AI, December 2004).

37. Ibid.

38. "Algeria's Reply to the Questionnaire to Governments on Implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action (1995) and the Outcome of the Twenty-third Special Session of the General Assembly" (New York: United Nations, 2000).

39. "Stratégies visant à renforcer le statut ..." (UNDP MAE), 103.

40. This is an advertisement for Danone in which a young girl is slapped by her younger brother, who then takes away her yogurt (August 2004).

41. According to "Algeria: Steps Towards Change ... ?" (AI), around 8,000 members of armed groups are still operating in the country.

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