UW Women’s Center Program Manager, Johnna White participated in a State Department sponsored cultural exchange to Tunis, Tunisia to learn and share experiences with groups working on women’s inclusion, women’s empowerment, and economic development through a gender lens.
Words from Johnna:
From July 17-June 30th, 2013 I was hosted by the Center for Arab Women Training and Research (CAWTAR), which is an organization based in Tunis, Tunisia whose mission is to “eradicate discrimination against Arab women and reduce gender gaps by promoting research, education, training and advocacy in all areas of life that affect the status of women, and to carry [their] message to policy makers, researchers, activists and local communities alike”.
Throughout the two week period, my fellow colleagues and I met with various groups and individuals such as: NGOs committed to women’s inclusion and empowerment, government offices with jurisdiction over “women’s issues”, media outlets, and rural women beneficiaries of an agricultural development project called the “the Regional Economic Empowerment of Women Project (REEWP)”.
In the village of Web Sbaihia and many other rural villages around the world, women are the first victims of poverty. This particular village suffers from hard economic conditions, lack of basic services, a high volume of unemployment, very limited and difficult access to water resources and no infrastructure to list only a few obstacles. On the second day of my trip, we were taken to Web Sbaihia. Through the REEWP project, which is managed by Oxfam-Quebec and CAWTAR, and the vision of one local and pioneering woman, nearly 60 women in Web Sbaihia have been trained and provided tools to use the natural resources of the region and the skills to develop a strategic vision to enhance their economic and social impact. As a result, for the past three years, the members of this grouping have successfully managed aromatic herbs extraction, packaging, and commercialization.
For half a day, we toured their center and sat with the beneficiaries of REEWP simply chatting about their lives. The experiences they shared with us were inspiring and empowering stories of a lifetime of feminism and determination. I left Web Sbaihia feeling deeply touched and proud to be a woman.
During the rest of my stay, I spent my days and nights discussing every facet of women’s lives in Tunisia and the political atmosphere I had time for. I was so pleased with most people’s openness and willingness to share the good, the bad, and the in-between. I was so impressed by the country’s history (dating back to the 1950’s) protecting women’s right to health, education, divorce and granting women free access to reproductive health services, including abortion and birth control. Like in all societies, there sometimes seemed to be a disconnect between legislation and practice, but it was clear that what wasn’t fair in practice was strongly being advocated for improvement.
One of the most beneficial aspects of this program was the variance in opinion and opportunities for quality and candid conversations. I was so grateful that each individual we met with was so willing to express their interpretation of the status quo and their hopes and concerns for the future. I left feeling like I gained a well-rounded perspective of the climate of women’s rights and needs. I personally began my trip a little nervous for the future of women’s rights in Tunisia, especially after reading the first draft of their new Constitution included a line branding women” complementary” to men (which was successfully removed from the following drafts). However, I left feeling much more hopeful. I have confidence in the Tunisian women’s movement–the Tunisian women we met with have a spirit about them that makes you feel empowered just being in their proximity.
The Professional Fellows Program for Egypt and Tunisia was funded by the US Department of State’s Legislative Fellows Initiative and coordinated by Hands Along the Nile Development Services (HANDS).