Unlocking the potential of women

Labour migration, inclusive development, and gender equality: unlocking the potential of women as agents of change in Tunisia’s interior regions

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December 2020​

By ​Hendrik von Schlieben, Cities Alliance, Tunisia

Internal labour migration is a major phenomenon in Tunisia. It is directly linked to the socio-economic disparities between lagging regions of the interior and the dynamic coastal regions. The interior regions have high levels of unemployment and poverty (both at around 30%), with lower standards of living and limited access to basic services.

Many youths from secondary cities in the interior, especially the highly skilled, are attracted to the large metropolitan areas in search of employment and opportunities for a better life. Meanwhile, secondary cities such as Jendouba and Kairouan are receiving rural migrants for the same reasons. Local authorities thus face the dual challenge of integrating young labour migrants fro​m rural areas while remaining attractive for their original residents.

Reducing regional disparities means reduci​ng gender inequalities


 “A man can easily make the decision of leaving for opportunities elsewhere, he can even be encouraged by his family. The opposite is true for a woman, this decision does not belong to her."Rim from Jendouba


Tunisian women are the backbone of their communities – as mothers, caretakers, sisters, family heads, and mediators – but much less so as visible agents of change and development. Social norms and institutional factors prevent women from fully participating in economic, socio-cultural, and public life. [1] Women face substantially more obstacles than men in accessing jobs, credit, and property;  they earn 20-40% less and do not a have sufficient voice in household and political decision making.[2] They suffer from a highly gendered division of labour in which most of their time is dedicated to household tasks.[3] In Medenine, three out of four women require authorisation from a man to carry out trips outside their home.[4]

The degree of gender equality determines to what extent a society is able to fully capitalise on the potential of all its members. Reducing socio-economic disparities across regions is hardly possible without reducing gender inequalities. Women's engagement and leadership in entrepreneurial, economic, socio-cultural, and political affairs may be Tunisia's single most important untapped potential for inclusive development, and even more so in the interior regions. For Najeh, co-founder of Ousleytia Trip Tours, women entrepreneurship is “about equal opportunities, that a woman can manage her own project and be an actor for economic and social development."

Thus, the discourse on unlocking the territorial potential of Tunisia's interior regions must be linked to a discourse and action for unlocking the potential of their women.

A new generation of Tunisian women is sparking transformative change

But things are changing. More and more young women follow their own way. For Masrour from Kairouan seeking a job is important, “but I encourage young women to realise your dreams, express your passions and live the adventure of contributing to the development of your region and change your own living conditions, side by side with men … Let's change the traditions and social norms in favour of the equality between men and women."

A new generation of women is emerging that are all too familiar with the challenges they face. These women deliberately refuse to feel paralysed by challenges and are instead determined to surmount them. As Ibtihel, founder of the platform Machmoom, says: “Being a female entrepreneur is a challenge in itself, being a start-up is a challenge on another level, and being an entrepreneur in a disadvantaged city make things even more complicated a​nd requires perseverance and extra effort with regards to networking, mobility, market access, and support services (…) but I want to help craftspeople commercialise their products and preserve the region's artisanal heritage."

This can-do culture, paired with a strong will and feelings of responsibility towards the region and the next generations, are the essence of an entrepreneurial mindset that is shared by this new generation of women entrepreneurs across the country's interior regions.

Partnering with cities for transformative change​

With the support of SDC, Cities Alliance is partnering with civil society, local and regional authorities and the private sector to foster transformative change in Jendouba and Kairouan by collaboratively developing mechanisms and opportunities to receive, manage and integrate labour migrants and potential ones based on three interlinked areas of interventions:

    1. Creating livelihood opportunities for current and future young labour migrants through the development of tourism products and concomitant training and financial support for tourism-related entrepreneurship;
    2. Designing strategies to promote these products and raise the profile of Jendouba and Kairouan's territorial assets; and
    3. Advocating and building capacity among regional and local authorities for citywide, gender-responsive approaches to integrating labour migration into local policies and institutionalising the multi-stakeholder partnerships developed through project activities (the steering committee, city forum, training, awareness-raising campaigns and dialogues at the regional and national level) that consider the voices and sex-specific concerns of both women and men. 


Young women have already participated enthusiastically in the training cycle, demonstrating how important support programmes are in fostering greater female labour market participation and women entrepreneurship. For Sonia from Kairouan “being a women entrepreneur means independence, without someone imposing orders on me; it means cultivating the fruits of my work. It gives me so much pleasure to see every day grow my project, my 'baby'. I know it's not easy, but so what, I will bring value to myself and my beautiful Tunisia."​​

For these entrepreneurs, this project is an opportunity to enable women “to contribute to local development by supporting the concretisation of my project through training and coaching in marketing and value chain enhancement and by providing access to new markets and sound financing schemes." – Sonia from Kairouan.


[1] At the national level, female labor market participation is at 29%, compared to 71% for men. Women earn between 20-40% less than men in both the formal and informal sectors. In the agricultural and fishing sector, fewer than one in 4 workers are women. In non-manufacturing industries, only 1.5% of workers are women. (National Institute for Statistics - Note sur l'enquête nationale de l'emploi, Q1 2017). In Q2 of 2020, unemployment increased to 15% for men and 25% for women (National Institute for Statistics – Figures for Q2 2020). These figures are at odds with the fact that more than twice as many women as men (38.3% vs. 19.1%) among the working age population have a higher education degree, and about two thirds of university graduates across Tunisia are women. However, Tunisia's university graduates experience the highest level of unemployment, and illiteracy is twice as prevalent among women as it is among men (25% vs. 12.4%).

[2] Regarding public decision making, one in five of the mayors elected in 2018 is female, and almost half of municipal councillors are women. Beyond these numbers, qualitative findings from the recent gender analysis in Béja and Medenine found that although women sit on the city council, they rarely make decisions. Also, city planning and management instruments and tools do not contain sex-disaggregated data and are not sensitive to gender considerations, which typically translates into policies that are not adapted to the needs and situations of women and girls as they are to those of men and boys.

[3] A recent gender analysis supported by Cities Alliance in the southern city of Medenine found that women spend about half of their day on household tasks and have little free time.

[4] Cities Alliance (2020) Gender analysis in Medenine and Béja: https://www.citiesalliance.org/resources/knowledge/publications/gender-analysis-medenine-and-beja-tunisia​