Tunisian Women Mean Business

As the cradle of democracy in the Middle East, many eyes are on Tunisia, as we have now seen six years since the revolution of Freedom and Dignity. The only remaining free government following the Arab Awakening, Tunisia, serves as a beacon of light and hope for our neighbors still living under repressive regimes, reminding them that their struggles for freedom are not in vain.

While Tunisians appreciate the kind words from the international community about our successes, we are aware that there is much work still to do. As many focus on our need to keep our people safe, and it is indeed the fundamental duty of any government, our top priority must be shared economic growth and job opportunities to give our people hope. We push to meet our ambitious goal of 5 percent economic growth by 2020, and we will need the help of all Tunisians - women and men, young and old - to meet this goal.

With a strong push from Ennahdha, Tunisia has passed a law against human trafficking, a plight which would target women from rural areas who often end up on servitude. Today, Ennahdha is moving forward on a law to strengthen legislation on violence against women. Without the guarantee of safety for our women, our country cannot maintain its democratic progress and certainly cannot prosper economically.

Women are already moving ahead. Women currently hold 32 percent of our seats in parliament, higher than many Western countries. Even U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama noted that Middle Eastern women need the right to education, work, ownership of property and political participation in politics. Tunisia is leading the way in this. “We cannot address our girls' education crisis until we address the cultural norms and practices that devalue women's intelligence, that silence their voices, that limit their ambitions," she said in a 2015 speech in Doha.

Ennahdha has declared that progress must begin in the schools and home, continue to the shops and stores and offices and achieve growth that benefits all Tunisians. This is why the proposed law to prevent violence against women includes protections against “economic harm,” such as unequal pay and biased treatment against women in the workplace.

With my colleagues in Parliament and in Government, we are on the front-lines on behalf of women who know that we need equal treatment for women if we are to succeed. It is rare enough in the Arab world to see a country that is protecting women from violence, but Ennahdha is leading Tunisia to go further. We must protect the economic rights of the women to ensure women play a central role in growing our economy, which in turn will sustain and strengthen Tunisia’s democracy.

This will help achieve gender parity in the business world, as we have seen in the electorate, that has a tangible impact. The participation of women in the Tunisian economy could be improved. The number of Tunisian women active in economy is estimated to be 25 percent, which is very low. Although men make up 95 percent of investors, which means male entrepreneurs are more likely to find funding for their projects, women have demonstrated that they can also run profitable companies. Data shows that companies which hire a higher proportion of women have a competitive advantage in the marketplace. Women are not just consumers, but hard-working employees, business leaders and owners, contributing to and sparking economic success.

Our commitment is not just to fairness. It is about tangible economic growth that benefits us all by providing stability, opportunity for upward mobility and a sense of optimism for the future.

A 2015 report from the McKinsey Global Institute found that if women in the Middle East had the same economic opportunities as men, the region would see a 4 percent boost each year. Given Tunisia’s growth of less than 1 percent last year and 2 percent target for 2016, this would be a drastic improvement. It is a good thing that, for Ennahdha at least, this is both a strategic objective as well as a deep conviction.

Around the globe, many countries and sectors benefit from a strong role of women in their economies. Studies show that companies led by female tech entrepreneurs outperform male counterparts, with those companies achieving 35 percent higher return on investment. Additionally, companies with women in senior leadership have better financial performance than companies with lower female representation. Coming in a country that has seen economic setbacks as a result of terrorism and still aims to double growth over the next four years, we must continue on our path towards full participation of all our citizens.

Other countries might ignore these statistics, relying upon oil or other natural resources to sustain them while failing to utilize half of their populations. We do not have that luxury in Tunisia. Our biggest assets are our people, and our desire to see a democracy flourish with a strong economy.

Having solidified our democracy with three free and fair elections since 2011, we are now doing the same with our economy. Women have been on the forefront of needed reforms, from the constitution to growing economic opportunities and training programs. But it has not just been women. Men, particularly from Ennahdha, are fighting for these much needed reforms in our region that will ensure a stronger Tunisia. When people see jobs, they see opportunity. When they see opportunity, they see hope. When they see hope, they want to build. When they want to build a better Tunisia, we become stronger together and ensure tyranny and terror are behind us.

Our women have embraced these challenges in politics and government. For the growth of our economy and businesses, again, women can and will be the solution.