Woman holding signs against gender violence at a protest to denounce violence against women in Tunis, Tunisia. November 30, 2019. Photo: Mohamed Krit / Shutterstock.
This essay is published in collaboration with Public Services International
How do women and gender equality measures advance in a context of conflict, climate change, high unemployment, low labor force participation, limited democratization and a pandemic? These are challenges facing the Arab region as many citizens, women’s rights organizations, some governments and external partners seek wide-ranging institutional changes and an improved environment for women’s participation and rights.
Surveys show public support for some — but not all — proposals for gender equality. Equal inheritance rights for women, for example, remain off the table, even in progressive Tunisia. Family laws that confer most privileges to men and place women under the guardianship of male kin or the spouse are difficult to change. In most countries, secular feminist demands for gender equality are opposed by those associated with Islamist parties and even by many ordinary citizens. This is where women trade unionists can make a difference, by bridging such divides through class-based as well as gender-based arguments for women’s equality.
The 2011 Arab Uprisings — triggered by socio-economic as well as political grievances – were expected to result in significant social change, but only Tunisia emerged with a procedural democratic transition. Governments did respond to women’s visible participation in the protests, adopting quotas for increased female parliamentary representation, strengthening laws protecting women and girls from domestic violence, rape and sexual harassment, and in some cases removing reservations to the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Morocco and Tunisia saw the most comprehensive reforms, but elsewhere legal and policy changes were offset by a return to authoritarianism — like in Egypt — or the onset of internationalized civil conflict — as in Libya and Syria. A new protest wave emerged across the region in 2019.
The economic fallout and public health crisis resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic has hit countries and citizens hard. In 2020, many international organizations were predicting increases in domestic violence due to frustrations around job losses, company closures, curfews and problems exacerbated by crowded living spaces for large families, reduced services and difficulties reporting violence in lockdown conditions. These problems were experienced in the Arab region as elsewhere. A January, 2021 UN Women-World Bank survey in Lebanon found that the number of calls over hot-lines had increased by 53 percent compared with 2020. In Jordan, according to Arab Barometer survey data from March 2021, some 50 percent of respondents said gender-based violence had increased.
The health sector employs women as physicians, administrators, nurses, aides, social workers, cooks and cleaners. Like their male counterparts, women workers in the healthcare and social services sectors have been at risk of infection. Yet Arab governments’ funding for healthcare has been declining for some years, resulting in high out-of-pocket spending for citizens, overcrowded public hospitals and additional burdens on healthcare staff. By March 2021, some 69 percent of Tunisian citizens, according to the Arab Barometer, reported being “completely dissatisfied” and “dissatisfied” with their country’s healthcare system.
In addition to their work in the healthcare and social service sectors, women also carry out care work at home: cooking, cleaning and caring for their children and elderly relatives. As with the economic crises in the 1980s and the implementation of structural adjustment policies, the pandemic has intensified working women’s “reproductive labor,” compelling some to leave the labor force altogether.
Arab countries are heterogeneous, differentiated by income and wealth, natural resources, political institutions, women’s status and the strength of civil society. Trade unions and women’s rights organizations are similarly varied in capacity, but Tunisia is among the few countries where both are significant. It is at the intersection of class and gender interests that Tunisian activists could craft strategies to overcome the current healthcare, economic and political crises while also addressing the remaining inequalities in women’s legal status and social positions.
The Gender Landscape
The labor-force participation rates of Arab women are low by international standards: between 17 and 26 percent, although these numbers are considerably higher for university-educated women. Women who seek jobs prefer public sector employment as labor law is in place, unionization is strongest and pay gaps are narrower. Their presence across the civil service has grown to one-third or more, though not necessarily in leadership positions, and they generally remain underrepresented in political institutions like national governments and parliaments and local municipalities.
Women from less-educated, working-class and lower-income households are less likely to seek employment, given conservative social norms in their communities or unattractive working conditions in the private sector. Such women are often found in the “unpaid family workers” category of labor statistics, if they are counted at all. For all these reasons, MENA women’s reported labor-force shares are the lowest among world-regions.
Some social security laws are discriminatory, providing welfare benefits to male workers and civil servants but not to women workers and employees. Male employees can receive compensation for non-working wives, whereas female employees can only do so in case their husbands are deceased or suffer from an illness that does not allow them to work. Such legislation considers women as dependents rather than responsible for their families. Women workers in agriculture and especially in domestic service are exempt from labor legislation.
In recent decades, international organizations have promoted women’s entrepreneurship as a way out of poverty and into economic empowerment, but this has been less successful in most MENA countries, even where the law allows women to sign a contract or register a business in the same way that a man does. Low-income women appear unable to access bank credits and loans, and family laws that limit women’s access to family wealth or deny equal inheritance prevents the start-up capital that women could use for a business venture. In Tunisia, for example, only about 10 percent of the total female labor force is classified as “employers” and “own-account workers,” according to a 2017 survey, and as reported on the most recent ILO database. This is a proportion that could be augmented with better access to bank credits and family wealth.
The legal and policy gains mentioned above are the result of years — if not decades — of feminist mobilizations. Arab women’s rights organizations have a long history, although their influence has varied. Where trade unions are active in the region, their involvement in the ILO’s annual International Labour Conference and affiliations with global union federations like Public Services International (PSI) encourages the adoption of equality norms and quotas for female representation on union boards. Such norms could diffuse across societal divides through the interventions of women trade unionists. As a PSI document reports, “Women are active leaders in public services trade unions across the Arab world.”
PSI and its regional affiliates are working to strengthen the organizational capacities of women trade unionists so that they might be able to help expand awareness, organizing and mobilizing for increased gender equality. The challenges raised at the start of this essay are formidable, but a crucial advantage is the presence of a fairly robust organizational infrastructure that includes trade unions, feminist and human rights organizations, unions of unemployed youth and other grassroots networks and social movements. Such organizational strength is most visible in Tunisia, where a sound legal foundation for women’s rights is present, and where notable female syndicalists are active in the women’s rights movement.
Tunisia: Organizational Opportunities
Tunisia has been a regional leader in many ways. Its 1956 family law (Code du Statut Personnelle) was the most liberal in the Arab region, and additional amendments in the 1990s strengthened it further. The 2014 Constitution declares the equality of male and female citizens and obligates the state to guarantee political parity and protect women from all forms of violence; this was accompanied by removal of reservations to the UN’s CEDAW.
The major trade union, the UGTT, has a large membership, includes many activists across its federations and enjoys widespread legitimacy. In 2013, during a political crisis caused by two assassinations, the UGTT organized what came to be called the National Dialogue Quartet. Joined by the Bar Association, the Human Rights League and the employers’ association UTICA, the UGTT mediated between the government and the opposition to resolve the crisis. The year 2014 saw ratification of key ILO conventions regarding labor relations in the public service sector and collective bargaining rights. In 2017, the UGTT and UTICA jointly produced a “decent work” program, which addressed industrial relations and decent working conditions, employment policies and vocational training, social security, income and wage policy, collective bargaining and regional development policy.
In line with decades of “state feminism,” women’s rights gains after 2011 were impressive: improved protection of women at work through legislation and criminal penalties for sexual harassment; legislation protecting women from domestic violence; repeal of penal code article 227 regarding rape; repeal of a 1973 directive barring Tunisian women from marrying a non-Muslim man without proof of conversion to Islam. These laws were enacted to further the spirit of the 2014 Constitution and to harmonize national laws with the global women’s rights agenda, given that Tunisia lifted reservations to CEDAW.
In 2017, then President Essebsi formed a commission — known by its French acronym COLIBE — to investigate further expansion of rights and liberties. The commission issued its report in 2018, and among its recommendations were gender equality in inheritance, along with decriminalization of homosexuality. The COLIBE report was put on the backburner due to public opposition, the death of the supportive president, parliamentary disputes, the country’s persistent and growing economic travails and renewed protests.
Decades of state-led development which had expanded the public sector also had generated high expectations for improved socio-economic rights. In turn, this motivated teachers, health care workers and civil servants to be at the forefront of public protests and, in combination with other sectors of the population — such as industrial workers, the marginalized poor and precarious workers — to exert pressure on government. Indeed, Arab Barometer survey data shows that citizens in Tunisia — as in other Arab countries — generally associate democracy with economic and social rights as well as with civil and political rights. In June 2020, healthcare workers went on strike to protest cutbacks and reduced salaries and to demand better working conditions. When a young doctor lost his life in a malfunctioning elevator at a regional hospital in early December 2020, the UGTT organized protests. When the new president, Kais Saied, dissolved parliament and assumed vast executive powers in June 2021, the public response was muted if not supportive. Since late 2021, however, protests have filled the streets, opposing the president’s call for a new constitution.
Tunisia’s organizational infrastructure, the population’s attachment to democracy, expectations of socio-economic rights and the pro-women’s rights articles of the 2014 Constitution offer opportunities for public sector trade unionists — and especially the women syndicalists — to help consolidate Tunisia’s democratic and women’s rights achievements. This calls for a concerted effort on the part of the UGTT to promote women’s presence on executive boards, and on the part of women trade union leaders to expand women’s rights through culturally resonant messaging that combines class- and gender-based arguments.
PSI has been working with its public sector affiliates in Tunisia — specifically in the sectors of justice, agriculture, finances, municipalities, water, electricity, health and public work and housing — to promote social dialogue as well as increased women’s representation on union boards.
Women syndicalists for gender equality
Women Committees are active across the UGTT’s sectors, and a quota was adopted in 2017 to increase women’s presence on executive boards, but the results were initially underwhelming, ranging from zero to just one or two women out of nine members. In this regard, Tunisia compared badly with unions in Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Palestine, according to PSI documents. Yet, the women trade unionists remained committed to improving not only their status within the union sectors but also laws and policies for gender equality. Their perseverance, and the quota, paid off. At the February 2022 elections, of the 15-member Executive Board, three women were elected: Amira Monem, Hadia Al-Arfawi and Siham Bou Sitta.
Tunisia is one of only five MENA countries — the others being Algeria, Iran, Jordan and Morocco — where paid maternity leave is covered through the social security/social insurance system. Tunisian women, however, are fully covered only in the public sector; income replacement in the private sector is 66 percent. Public sector workers enjoy just two months paid maternity leave, which is less than the ILO’s recommended 14 weeks, and private sector workers just one month. Feminist trade unionists have been waging a campaign for ratification of ILO C183 on maternity protection, but at this writing it still has not been ratified.
Research shows that the absence or presence of institutional supports for working mothers has been identified as a key driver of female labor force participation, and this is especially pertinent to women from working-class and low-income families who need such support to enter and remain in the work force. Samia Bouslama Letaief, a leading member of the UGTT health sector and a longtime women’s rights activist, explained the conditions of women workers in the private sector in 2017: “By law, women workers should have good work conditions, but the reality is otherwise, especially in the private sector and in agriculture. In effect, no social insurance, 10-12 hour days, bad transport conditions, no paid maternity leave, no job security, work stoppage at any time, continued exploitation.” She also mentioned a campaign to increase maternity leave to three months in both public and private sectors and introduce a parental leave of six months.
Emna Aoudi, teacher and feminist trade unionist, expressed satisfaction with the constitutional provisions but felt that more work was needed:
The constitution has to be translated into laws, especially for the private sector. Now that CEDAW reservations have been removed, the next step is to insist on adoption of ILO Convention 183 on maternity protection. … We need to have a strategic campaign drawn from the constitution to make a convincing case for the people and also to compel the government to adopt progressive legislation that would make it possible for more women to enter the workforce and to stay there.
Although the remarks of Emna Aoudi date back to 2015, her comments remain relevant today, given that ILO C183 has yet to be adopted and women’s employment rates have not risen. For that to occur, the progressive legislation that Aoudi referred to should be predicated on increasing access to good jobs for women from working-class and low-income households.
Surveys conducted by Tunisia’s women’s policy agency CREDIF and by the National Democratic Institute, and interviews I conducted with Tunisian women’s rights advocates, all point to the following policy needs: development plans and budgets that focus on good jobs for marginalized women in the country’s interior; longer paid maternity leaves covered by general revenue; affirmative action plans to enhance women’s employment; incentives to allow women to establish their own enterprises. Improving working women’s lives could increase support for wider gender equality measures
Ratification of ILO convention 183 on maternity protection would be a first step toward improving the environment for working mothers and raising participation rates among low-income women. Indeed, a survey cited in a PSI document showed that Tunisians are more likely to cite structural rather than cultural barriers to women’s entry into the work force: lack of transportation (76 percent), lack of childcare options (71 percent) and low wages (69 percent); 57 percent said it was because men are given priority in hiring. In contrast, just a quarter of respondents said that mixed workplaces were a barrier. These findings echo my own during interviews in Tunis in March 2015 and June 2017.
Another important step would be ratification of the 2019 ILO convention 190 on Violence and Harassment. Fear of workplace sexual harassment keeps many women from seeking jobs, especially in the private sector. Ending violence against women in all its forms has been the focus of feminist activism for many years, as Khedija Arfaoui and I discuss in a recent paper (PDF). The Tunisian women’s policy agency CREDIF made it one of five priority areas for its 2016-2020 work plan.
Along with the women’s rights organizations and PSI affiliates in the UGTT, CREDIF was a major contributor to the 2017 legislation (Organic Law No. 58) that strengthened legislation to protect women from domestic violence and workplace sexual harassment. Enforcement of this legislation to keep women safe on public transport, workplaces and all public spaces will provide the added incentive for women’s labor-force attachment.
Women’s economic empowerment is linked to the upgrading and expansion of public services, along with increasing women’s access to credits and family assets. Training more women for good jobs in pre-school facilities, as well as in schools generally, as teachers, nurses, social workers, cooks, cleaners and bus drivers would increase the supply of job-seeking women and reduce the female unemployment rate while also helping to improve healthcare delivery and outcomes. Statutory paid maternity leave of at least 14 weeks should be regarded as both a labor right and an employment incentive.
Equality of access to family wealth is important for women’s business development, land acquisition or purchase of equipment, especially for women from lower-income households. Yet, Arab Barometer surveys show that equal inheritance rights are neither prioritized nor popular among Tunisian citizens. Could women trade unionists help convince their constituencies that the issue is important both for the achievement of gender equality and for the realization of social justice?
The role of trade union women leaders
Women in Arab countries face serious challenges: gender biases, political dysfunction, limited job opportunities, high unemployment, deteriorating public services, violence and limited labor rights. Freedom of association and the right to strike are not respected throughout the region; independent unions and autonomous women’s rights organizations are strongest in Tunisia and Morocco.
PSI activities in the region could help change the power imbalances; the adoption of quotas for women’s inclusion on union boards is a notable achievement. Developing the trade union leadership skills of women workers for more effective campaigning against gender discrimination — for example, by promoting ILO conventions 183 and 190 — would serve several objectives. It would provide role models for the larger female population; help change attitudes toward women’s leadership; contribute to the necessary legal and policy reforms for gender equality; improve women’s working conditions; help improve public services and the status and quality of the public sector; and encourage more women to enter the labor force under safe and dignified conditions.
Embodying the intersection of gender and class, trade union women leaders are essential to the goal of ending violence against women in all its forms, and of empowering women economically and politically.
In partnership with ROAR, this article has been commissioned by Public Services International (PSI) and supported by Union to Union and the Swedish affiliate Fackförbundet ST, under the project “Strengthening organizational capacities of women trade unionists.”
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