Improving the lives of Tunisia’s rural women

Naima Khlif at work picking peppers in Chebika, Tunisia. © OHCHR/Moadh Grami

Chebika, Tunisia – Here in the fields of the interior, in the central Tunisian province of Kairouan, farmers – mostly women – spend eight hours a day picking olives, peppers or tomatoes, regardless of the weather.

“It is very hard work – sometimes we are so tired we fall down,” said Naima Khlif, 49, bending over to pick another handful of peppers.

Many rural farming women in Tunisia carried out this work, which entailed a multitude of risks, without a safety net for themselves or their families. Working for short periods for a variety of employers made them ineligible for social security benefits. With high unemployment rates in Tunisia, there were always plenty of other women waiting to take up available work. Despite these precarious conditions, some positive changes are slowly helping to improve the situation of these women.

Protecting rural women’s right to social security

As a result of a local scheme that is supported by the Office, many rural women are now able to access social security and pay their contributions with a simple and free phone app that requires limited technical knowledge.

The app is the brainchild of Maher Khlifi, a local mechanic whose mother, a farm worker, was refused hospital care after her cancer diagnosis. After finding out that more than 90 per cent of women didn’t have social security, Mr. Khlifi launched Ahmini, which means “protect me” in Arabic, a volunteer-based social enterprise designed to improve working conditions for rural women. “I wanted to find a way to change the lives of women like my mother and give them greater equality,” he said.

Today, women who join the scheme can register for social security on their phones, upload the required documents and pay their contributions. This simple technology has meant freedom from fear and uncertainty.

Changing attitudes, changing laws

It all started in 2016 when Eljezia Hammami, a former coordinator with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, proposed a study on rural women and access to social security. The Office helped to fund and design the study, with support from UN Women.

The final report, which identified some of the startling reasons why rural women were ineligible for social security benefits, combined with advocacy materials, including from NGOs, served as the cornerstone for a national strategy to ensure the economic and social autonomy of rural women.

“UN Human Rights was relentless in its advocacy for legal reform. Each time a representative met someone…in Tunis or Geneva, the issue of rural women was discussed and kept alive, adding a strong voice to ours,” Ms. Hammami said.

The legal reform was finally enacted in 2019, following which nearly 10,000 previously excluded rural women signed up for social security. The strategy for rural women has now been expanded to a five-year plan and many more women are expected to join.

The women are no longer refused healthcare, nor do they have to hide illnesses and pregnancies from employers. Working conditions may not yet be ideal, but the safety net for the poorest rural women is growing.

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