Work Is Freedom: Tunisian Women Step Up

Women had always played an important role in Tunisia - Queen Didon founded Carthage in the 9th Century BC.

In 1956, Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia's first president, empowered women, giving them progressive rights compared to Arab countries and even European countries. It is important to recall that Tunisian women had from 1956 the right to divorce, abortion, and vote much before some European countries.

This empowerment was combined with Tunisian women's strong and independent personality. Starting one's own business is the least we can say challenging and Entrepreneurship was seen as a male thing, so women had to redefine their role in society and the family model.

Women's employment and entrepreneurship has an important impact as it enables women to contribute to their family wealth, launch their own businesses and create new jobs. It gives them economical but also psychological independence. Women can be a model and example for other women in their community and encourage other women to be active. Work is freedom.

In Tunisia in the last quarter of 2013 only 25.7% of women were active in the labor market compared to 74.3 % of men. While the general unemployment rate is 15.3%, it was only 12.8% for men while it was 21.9% for women. Furthermore, these rates are higher for university graduates with 31.9% unemployed - 21.7% for men and 41.9% for women.

So it becomes a real challenge for educated women in Tunisia to be active and to find jobs.

I was born in 1959, after the independence and with progressive women rights for which I didn't have to fight, at least on a legal perspective.

However, we should never take our rights for granted. That's why in Tunisia, women played a key role in the revolution and especially after, by fighting outdated ideas and legal reforms attempts: women had the most to lose.

It is true that Tunisia's new constitution promulgated in early 2014 reinforces women's rights and it safeguards the rights won by Tunisian women by referring to the Code du Statut Personnel (Personal Status Code) of 1956. But still there is a need to empower women and to strengthen their contribution in the Tunisian economy.

Women are expecting to see their economic role and their situation enhanced.

Increasing Arab women's employment/entrepreneurship improves society, business, and government. Women represent half of the society and it is essential to involve women in the economic activity especially since we face today big challenges in terms of economic development and business creation and we cannot afford to have half of the society inactive.

It is essential to provide assistance to women in rural areas through micro-credits, capacity building and technical assistance to help them launch micro-businesses and generate wealth in their community. Help women launch their own SMEs and create new jobs through building their capacity in entrepreneurship and providing them assistance to get access to funding and capital.

We can see that the employment and entrepreneurship outlook for Tunisian women changed:

  • Women in Tunisia are well educated and they are more and more willing to embark in the entrepreneurship experience and process.
  • To help women get placed in jobs, NGO's and civil society are providing capacity building programs to enhance employability. I chair the board of one such organization, Education For Employment - Tunisia (EFE-Tunisie) which is helping young women and men to be placed in jobs. Women represent 46% of the job placement program graduates.
  • Many programs are launched by International organizations and civil society to provide technical assistance and funding mechanisms to help women launch their businesses. As an example, EFE-Tunisie provided capacity building and entrepreneurship training to 52 women from different regions of Tunisia to help them launch their own businesses.
  • Women are taking advantage of business networks like "Femmes Chefs d'Entreprises" to exchange experiences and best practices as well as business opportunities.
  • More and more women are using ICT, Internet and social networks to develop their businesses and to access new markets.

Still, women in Tunisia face a lot of challenges entering the workforce or starting a business. The biggest challenge that I faced in my life was to open my own law firm. My models were my parents who always worked so hard, and who always encouraged me. Being a daughter of a diplomat, it was essential to work in an international environment and I decided for that reason to open my firm and to specialize in foreign investments in Tunisia.

And it was not, and it is not, always easy. It takes perseverance, and years to build. When you start your own business, it is hard to have people's trust. And you never know what tomorrow will be made of. It is one of the biggest challenges of Entrepreneurship: manage to maintain your business until you are known and experiment enough to make it work. And for that, you need strong managing skills, and a lot of other skills that you do not have when you finish school and academic education, where you're not always ready for the "real" world. That's why I found it really important to adapt your skills to the job you want. To learn how to manage and expand your business, to learn soft skills etc...

As I always say, there is no difference between men and women, there are only competences. However, as a woman, it can be harder to balance between family and work. Especially in Arab countries, where women are, or I would be tempted to say, were expected to take care of their home before their career. I used the past tense, because you can see the change; you see a lot of women who can make it all work. When I opened my firm I was 27, and had two children.

We can help other women make it too. I have seen several heartwarming and encouraging stories with EFE-Tunisie, with women who had finished their education but would have never imagined finding a job in a first place, and would have never thought of launching their own business. And they learned how to manage it.

And the best reward is to hear them say "this changed my life."