Arne Hoel/World Bank

World News


Tunisia’s Strive for Gender Equality

From the Sahara desert to white sandy beaches, from its Roman ruins to the Arab Spring, Tunisia is known for many things, but did you know that the struggle for gender equality is one of them? Tunisia granted women the right to vote earlier than did Switzerland, and nearly half of its locally elected government officials are women. From equal citizenship to divorce rights, Tunisia has one of the most progressive personal status codes in the region –but the road towards gender equality remains a long one.

In terms of legislation, Tunisia adopted equal labor rights in 1966, ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women in 1985, and reformed its Constitution to highlight gender equality in 2014. In terms of education, 99% of females are enrolled in primary school and 78% complete secondary school. At the university level, 67% of graduates in 2017 were female. Despite progress in legislation and education, policies to promote social inclusivity in the workforce and women’s economic empowerment are still necessary.

Tunisia should adopt a new wave of gender equality policies. They should include mandatory paid maternity leave in the private sector, countrywide childcare services, transparent hiring procedure, and pay schemes, and greater access to credit. As the number of women seeking employment in Tunisia rises, tackling these barriers will facilitate female participation in the workforce.

(Arne Hoel/World Bank)

Empowering women economically can increase both productivity and diversity in the workforce. Currently, there are clear discrepancies between men and women in the labor market in terms of entry, income, and seniority. In 2015, the female unemployment rate was 22% in comparison to the male average of 12%. Women spend a longer time seeking employment and earn on average 15% less than what their male counterparts do. The percentage of women holding senior positions is only 16% in the private sector and 11% in the public sector. By providing women with equal opportunities in the workforce, organizations reap the benefits of having a larger pool of candidates to select from. Increased competitiveness, innovation, and diversity contribute to organizational effectiveness and increased revenue.

Women’s economic empowerment benefits not only women but also Tunisia’s overall economy. According to the IMF, closing the economic gender gap in Tunisia has the potential to increase GDP by over 25%. In 2018, the World Economic Forum ranked Tunisia 135 out of 149 in its Gender Gap report on Economic Opportunity and Participation. In order for social policy reforms and advancement in education to yield economic returns, the government must adopt policies promoting economic opportunity and participation in parallel. With the existing skilled pool of talent available, increased inclusivity in the labor market is key in bridging the gap between social and economic development.

Financial empowerment reduces gender-based violence when promoted in a manner that aligns with a community’s norms and beliefs. While reforms promoting social inclusivity can empower women economically, the relationship between the two spheres is reciprocal. Policies empowering women’s financial independence trickle down into the social sphere and work to eliminate toxic power dynamics both at work and in homes. As these power dynamics break down, economic empowerment, social inclusivity, and economic growth are further reinforced.

It is true that Islamism in Tunisia has been on the rise since the 2011 overthrow of the Ben Ali government. Nonetheless, the most popular Islamist political party in the country, Ennahdha, is moderate. It has been described as “the mildest and most democratic Islamist party in history.” The party’s leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, has been advocating for policies that improve women’s rights. If religious-political leaders are on board with women’s economic empowerment, it is difficult to argue that progressive and secular political parties will oppose such policies.

Attracting and retaining great talent is not a walk in the park. Achieving significant economic growth is a challenge even for developed countries. Promoting social inclusivity in the workforce and women’s economic empowerment? Well, that’s another battlefield of its own. By leveraging Tunisia’s existing talent pool and progressive values to empower women economically, we can set off a domino effect for increased prosperity and human capabilities. Let’s reform the labor market. Let’s enable women to achieve their full potential. Let’s keep Tunisia at the forefront of gender equality.