October 23rd, 2011 - Tunisia helped inspire change across the political landscape of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Now it approaches its next historic milestone on the path forward with Constituent Assembly elections on October 23 to elect the men and women who will write the new constitution and establish the rights and freedoms of all citizens.
Speaking at a workshop in Tunis organized by the World Bank to discuss gender and attended by about 55 civil society representatives and media, Abdelhamid Triki, Minister of Plan and International Cooperation of the outgoing interim government, said economic empowerment of women is an essential ingredient to development and growth. He said challenges of illiteracy remained in some parts of the Northwest and central regions of Tunisia, that women only represent a quarter of total labor force participation, and that unemployment rates are higher among women.
The workshop was a joint World Development Report 2012 (WDR) dissemination and consultation on the forthcoming MENA regional gender report. Lead Economist Tara Vishwanath, who is writing the MENA report, challenged Tunisia’s early progress in granting women legal rights arguing that despite the advances for women in the country compared to others in the Arab world, labor force participation rates in Tunisia are at an equal level to the rest of the region at only 25% and at half of the world average. Consultations on the initial findings of the regional report Gender Equality and Development: Capabilities, Opportunities and Participation, will help identify the core issues and shape the policy priorities for Tunisia and the region, said Vishwanath. The Tunisian revolution offers a unique opportunity to enhance gender equality, she said. However, the political and economic uncertainty of the path ahead may pose some risks to gains already made.
Aline Coudouel, World Bank Senior Economist, said the global WDR described the evolution of gender equality across and within countries and sought to explain the driving force behind gender equality and its affect on economic growth. Coudouel said the report helped to enhance the understanding of the role of public action in promoting this important issue.
>> Aline's presentation in French (pdf)
Civil society representatives at the event agreed that Tunisia faces significant gender challenges. They pointed out that, ironically, during this time of change, women were losing ground on their rights. A journalist gave an example of the four year maternity leave proposed by the party Ennahdha: while some women may find this proposal tempting, the impact this could have on women’s employment capabilities is alarming. Many participants also expressed uncertainty about whether the progress on women’s rights will be maintained. Some participants said there was little clarity on how effective the removal of all Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) restrictions will be in terms of legal equality for women.
Lilia Laabidi, Minister of Women’s Affairs, raised concerns about regional disparities, the great gap between the rich and poor, urban and rural, and how badly this dichotomy divided Tunisian society. She also highlighted the low number of women participating in the October 23rd constituent assembly elections, 11 women out of a total of 220 members. Her ministry had launched a nationwide campaign to encourage women to vote under the motto, “I Have to Vote!” It also encouraged women’s entrepreneurship as part of a “solidarity based economy.” Moreover, the ministry helped Tunisia to become one of the first Arab countries to agree on CEDAW. Laabidi welcomed the post-revolution growth of civil society in Tunisia, recognizing its great value to the society for its ability to raise awareness and bring about change.
Among the 55 participants attending the event were civil society activists, private sector representatives, political party members, public administration counterparts, journalists, academics, bilateral institutions and donors. The event was broadcasted on the main channel of the national television.
The WDR and MENA gender regional report team were represented by Ana Revenga, Sector Director and Aline Coudouel, Sr Economist; Tara Vishwanath, Lead Economist, Nandini Krishnan, Economist and Thomas Walker, Economist. The report is the Poverty Reduction and Economic Management (PREM) Network’s regional flagship with the support from the Chief Economist.