Tired of waiting, Tunisia's rural women are organising for change

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - A pickup truck rumbles uphill on the main road through the village of Balta Bou Aouane, which spreads over a green valley in the mountains of Jendouba province in northwest Tunisia. A dozen women stand packed together in the back, with cloth wrapped around their faces.

Stopping in the middle of the road at noon, the women get off and stride through the surrounding fields towards cinder block homes.

The women are agricultural day workers, hired in Jendouba’s villages to harvest tomatoes, potatoes and olives. They labour from 4am for as little as ten dinars (Dh13.50) per day. They all live hand-to-mouth and many are illiterate, made to drop out of school by parents who spend what little money they have to educate their sons.

On August 13, Tunisia’s President, Kais Saied, visited El Mouraidia, only a few kilometres from Balta Bou Aouane. There he met women agricultural workers and called for more consistent protection of women’s rights.

The visit came on the occasion of Tunisia’s National Women's Day, which also marked the 64th anniversary of the implementation of the country’s Personal Status Code.

The code is celebrated as a progressive milestone for women in the region. It outlawed polygamy and gave women equal rights around decisions of marriage, divorce and child custody. Yet it also enshrined limits on daughters’ property inheritance rights and stipulated that sons inherit twice as much as daughters.

Tunisia: A champion of women rights... on paper

Woman shepherds in the outskirts of Jendouba City. Pau González for The National
Woman shepherds in the outskirts of Jendouba City. Pau González for The National

Despite images abroad of Tunisia as a champion of women’s rights, especially since the Arab uprisings in 2011, the reality for women in rural regions can be brutal. They face physical and economic violence, they lack education, illiteracy is high and they have been nearly completely absent from politics.

But increasingly, these rural women are working to break out of poverty, fight oppression, and make their voices heard in Tunisia’s political sphere.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, around 32 per cent of Tunisian women – 1.8 million – live in rural areas. Forty per cent of women in rural areas are illiterate, 60 per cent say they suffer from health problems, 93 per cent of which are work-related.

In Tunisia, the state’s National Health Insurance Fund is mandated to cover all Tunisians. Yet, just 10 per cent of rural women have access to free healthcare.

Salsabil Kouki, 33, was born in Balta Bou Aouane. But unlike other women in the village, she was able to pursue a university education because her family was more financially stable.

Today, she is the president of the local branch of the Association of Community Development and the Woman Citizen, a local NGO, and is active with a host of other initiatives, like the solidarity organisation Lam Echaml (“Always Together”) and an African Union children’s rights programme.

It’s like they don’t even think about us

Salsabil Kouki, women's rights activist

As well as Tunisia’s laws to protect women, the relatively expansive national education system means there are many women well in business and the government.

But this hides the reality that for Tunisians, geography can be a major determinant of life chances.

While many women on the coastal north can often get good educations, jobs and healthcare, the rural interior lacks infrastructure and has a feeble education system. Poverty is high and it has created a vastly unequal society, effectively making rural women second-class citizens.

The struggle for change

Salsabil Kouki is a rural women and the president of the local branch of the Association of Community Development and Citizenship. Women like her are trying to get more attention from local authorities. Pau González for The National
Salsabil Kouki is a rural women and the president of the local branch of the Association of Community Development and Citizenship. Pau González for The National

Sitting outside her home in Balta Bou Aouane, Ms Kouki spoke of the resistance she and women like her are facing as they fight for greater recognition from local authorities.

“At municipal council meetings, we activists bring up issues with them like disabled women, divorced women and those who’ve never gone to school. They’re most vulnerable. But the municipality tells us, ‘I haven’t even put them in my budget for this year.’ It’s like they don’t even think about us.”

After decades of severe neglect by the state, the mistrust among rural women here runs deep. “Last year, before the elections, I held political awareness-raising sessions for rural women. They want to vote. But the question I hear most is: ‘what will these politicians bring me?’”

There have been improvements in Balta Bou Aouane, but these are basic and they have required such a struggle that Ms Kouki seems almost dispirited by the modest gains the female activists have achieved for their community.

“The road has been paved. [The municipality] has extended public water to us. But this was only after we held countless sit-ins and after we brought numerous complaints to the governor’s office,” she says.

Education is essential. There are women in the mountains who can’t read, like I couldn’t. Their eyes are closed to all possibilities

Chadlia Ayari, former candidate for MP

Chadlia Ayari is another rural woman who has broken through heavy social conventions and fights for change.

She’s a member of The Modern Woman and the Child of Tomorrow, an association which focuses on eliminating widespread domestic violence against rural women and their children in Jendouba, though the association partners with other women’s organisations in provinces around the country.

Ms Ayari grew up in poverty in Jendouba and dropped out of primary school, leaving her struggling to read. Married in her early 20s, she moved to the neighbouring rural province of Siliana, where she lived with her husband in a village without water or electricity.

But she left her husband with her two children to escape his violence. Returning to Jendouba around fifteen years ago, she became involved in the women’s struggle. She began by improving her reading and speaking skills with the help of other women’s organisations. She’s now back with her husband, but only because “he’s been taught to change, and is no longer violent.”

In 2019, Ms Ayari was a candidate in municipal elections in Jendouba and now runs initiatives to engage rural women in political participation and help them find work.

While she didn't win the municipality seat, she's gained local popularity as an activist.

“Education is essential. There are women in the mountains who can’t read, like I couldn’t. Their eyes are closed to all possibilities. And without education, they are totally dependent on their husbands. But we need to teach them so they can walk the path without their husbands.”

“Education is essential. There are women in the mountains who can’t read, like I couldn’t. Their eyes are closed to all possibilities,” says Chadlia Ayari, an activist focused on eliminating the widespread domestic violence against rural women and their children, as she herself has overcome violence. Pau González for The National
“Education is essential,” says Chadlia Ayari, an activist focused on eliminating the widespread domestic violence against rural women and their children. Pau Gonzalez for The National

Dalanda Lakti, who founded The Modern Woman and the Child of Tomorrow in 2015, said the association was inspired by women discussing common problems in the hair salon where she worked.

Among the services it provides are medical caravans that bring women’s specialists and paediatricians out to villages. They also advise women on their legal rights and run anti-domestic violence campaigns as well as encouraging women to vote and run in local elections.

The association is also tackling the widespread problem of families in rural areas sending their daughters off to the richer coastal cities to work by providing local alternatives.

“Fathers take their girls out of school and send them to live in houses in Tunis to work, where they’re exposed to dangers like rape. So we offer these girls training in painting, pottery, silk weaving – crafts that they can sell,” Ms Lakti said, adding that this helps them gain some level of financial independence.

For Faouzia Abidi, president of a branch of the Association for the Rural Woman of Jendouba in the agricultural community of Fernana, there’s been some improvement since organisations like hers began their work.

“The rural woman in Jendouba today is not like she was in 2013 or 2014. Before, if any man told her to shut up, she’d be quiet. But we in the association go out to rural communities and speak to these women. And now they understand their rights, and they’re speaking out and debating. And it’s having an effect: their husbands are asking us, ‘What have you done to our women? They don’t listen to us any more.’”

The rocky road from Tunis to the mountains

In the tiled halls of Tunisia’s parliament hundreds of kilometres away, Chedia Hafsouni, an MP from Jendouba affirms: “It’s really up to the efforts of the state. But the state doesn’t have an organised strategy to address rural women’s problems. Their strategy is failing.” Pau González for The National
In the tiled halls of Tunisia’s parliament hundreds of kilometres away, MP Chedia Hafsouni says the government’s strategy to women’s protection is failing. Pau González for The National

In the tiled halls of Tunisia’s parliament hundreds of kilometres away in Tunis, Chedia Hafsouni, an MP from Jendouba, noted that in government, rural women’s rights are on the back burner.

“State interest in the issue of exploitation of rural women is only circumstantial. When some major road accident happens that kills [women farm workers], the Ministry of Women’s Affairs gets up in arms and says they’ll give these women insurance, but the talk dies down and nothing happens.”

While Ms Hafsouni has her own organisation serving rural Tunisian women and represents one of the country’s most rural provinces, she’s not confident that simply approving laws can profoundly improve rural women’s circumstances.

“It’s all up to the ministries to implement. We the MPs are just legislators, but we can’t put laws into action,” she said citing Law 58, which was lauded as a historic ruling in 2017 to protect women against domestic violence, but which is hardly implemented, if at all, in remote rural communities.

Jannet Kaddechi, president of the Voix d’Eve women’s rights organisation in Tunisia’s central province of Sidi Bouzid, where Tunisia’s revolution first began in 2010, said that the situation of rural women is in large part by design.

“Landowners and investors know that men won’t accept the agricultural work conditions or pay imposed. And they know that if rural women were aware of their rights, or options for better work, they might leave. And these investors are indirectly very influential on politicians, which is why laws for women are not applied.”

“The road has been paved. The municipality has extended public water to us. But this was only after countless sit-ins, and after we brought numerous complaints to the governor’s office,” explains Salsabil as her eldest son runs through the fields. Pau González for The National
“The road has been paved. The municipality has extended public water to us. But this was only after countless sit-ins,” says Salsabil Kouki, her eldest son running through the fields. Pau González for The National

She noted that a labour conditions inspector in Sidi Bouzid told her that his car broke down one year ago, and his employer – the state – has so far refused to fix it. It has made it impossible for him to visit village worksites and survey labour conditions of women farm workers.

But despite the forces stacked against them, Ms Kaddechi said that since the revolution, rural women are becoming ever more visible.

“We’re seeing more rural women opening associations and training other women. In Sidi Bouzid there are protests and sit-ins demanding employment led by agricultural worker women. Local media contacts us to report on rural women. [These women] are becoming more confident with their role in public life.”

Updated: August 30, 2020 02:45 PM

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