Investing in Women Key to Tunisia’s Democratic Future

By Natalie Robinson and Ryan Craig

Next year, Tunisia will celebrate the tenth anniversary of the 2011 Arab Spring protests. The North African country has much to celebrate; in nearly ten years, Tunisia has held a sequence of successful democratic elections, strengthened its civil society, and enacted measures to curb the corruption of the Ben Ali era. Despite the country’s political success, the economic situation presents unique challenges for Tunisia’s stability moving forward. Stunted private sector growth combined with an inflated public sector are a few of the factors contributing to the 31% debt increase to Tunisia GDP since 2010.

Since parliamentary elections last October, the government’s cabinet has changed three times. Each of these new governments have failed to present effective economic reforms, and as a result, there is growing popular discontent.[1] Young, hopeless Tunisians have lost faith in their government to fix this economic crisis.[2] Among those affected the most are Tunisian women, as unemployment rates among women are double that of their male counterparts.[3]

Despite comprising over half of the total population, women make up only 24 percent of the total labor force.[4] In order to explore the social and economic environment that educated Tunisian women face, we interviewed three married, educated professional women in their 30s residing in three urban coastal cities: a public university professor in Tunis, an NGO employee in Sfax, and an elementary school teacher in Bizerte. Each of the interviewed women sought employment in post-revolution Tunisia. The goal is to explore their perceptions of Tunisia’s economy, education system, employment sector, and the impact of COVID-19.

Municipality building in the interior Governorate of Beja

Municipality building in the interior Governorate of Beja

Gender not Perceived as Major Obstacle for Education and Employment

In Tunisia, high-quality universities and job opportunities are largely located in coastal cities, such as Tunis, Sfax, and Sousse. To obtain high-quality education and best position oneself for employment post-graduation, young men and women across Tunisia move to coastal cities, especially Tunis. As for Tunisia’s interior, it lacks the infrastructure, transportation, and information networks that the coastal areas benefit from, making it more difficult to obtain quality education and employment options.[5]

All of the women interviewed expressed that gender does not play a role in obtaining higher education, because Tunisia’s education system operates on a merit-based ranking system. In secondary school, only students with the highest scores on the standardized Baccalaureate examination are guaranteed to be placed in their preferred subject for their university studies. When they are in their university programs, students are again ranked based on performance on final university exams. The highest student ranks at graduation are then generally offered the best opportunities for employment.  

“I graduated with the best rank so I got a job at my university, one the of the top two schools for languages and humanities,” stated the university professor in Tunis.

The most common concern of the three women was Tunisia’s weakening economic state and the belief it would only get worse. The employment sector specifically is hindered by low average salaries, a general unemployment rate near 18%,[6] and a female unemployment rate over 24%.[7] Tunisia’s economic situation has made it increasingly necessary for both husband and wife to work in order to make ends meet. However, this is not a new trend in Tunisia, as the female labor force participation has increased by just over two percent since 1990.[8]

Within this economic environment, all of the women interviewed stressed that their families supported their choice to pursue higher education and become professionals. Though it is challenging to balance work with household responsibilities and childcare, all of the women interviewed noted that their husbands play an increased role in sharing household duties.

“I am trying my best to balance between work and household responsibilities… though my husband helps me a lot, especially in the kitchen,” stated the elementary school teacher from Bizerte.

Despite receiving support from their families, women still consider family-friendly benefits to be a top priority when choosing employment.  

The old port of Bizerte

The old port of Bizerte

Public Sector Policies are More Attractive for Career Women

Highly-skilled Tunisian women are largely attracted to public sector employment following graduation because of flexible schedules, fair policies, and a steady income. In contrast, employment in the private sector was viewed by all of the women interviewed as unstable, requiring longer hours, paying less, and providing weaker benefits for family leave. According to the NGO employee in Sfax, women in non-public sector employment may be asked to travel for days irregularly away from their families.

“As a working mother, it took a lot of energy to convince people around me that I am a woman with a lot of ambition… and that I need to travel for my job,” said the NGO employee in Sfax.

All of the women interviewed noted that women generally prefer public sector jobs because they offer fair family policies. Although women face steep competition and hiring freezes with public sector employment,[9] the benefits granted to women in public sector jobs outweigh the challenges of obtaining employment.  

“I waited for 10 years to get this job, can you imagine? I worked really hard to reach my goal so giving up my career is not an option. If I get pregnant [as a public sector employee], I have the right to take maternity leave and I can get back to work whenever I want”, said the elementary school teacher in Bizerte.  

Compared to policies within the private sector, those within the public sector are better suited for working mothers due to the length and compensation of leave. In the public sector, women are entitled to 60 days fully paid maternity leave with an option to extend at partial salary. In contrast, women with jobs in the private sector are given only 30 days of partially covered maternity leave without a paid extension.[10]

The public sector’s job stability is another reason why this form of employment is preferable for women over private sector employment. All of the women interviewed highlighted the importance of job stability, especially in the current economic environment.

“The economic situation is getting worse every year, especially for new graduates who are mostly female,” said the elementary teacher in the coastal town of Bizerte. 

In 2019, 45% of the Tunisian national budget funded public sector salaries, and despite steady economic downturn, public sector employment continues to be a large percentage of the Tunisian economy.[11]

Additionally, the NGO worker in Sfax emphasized the importance of support for Tunisia in the pandemic period, saying “COVID 19 has caused the shutdown of several companies… a lot of employees have been laid off or asked to accept half pay since the lockdown… and the situation is worsening.”


Though Tunisia represents the only successful democracy in the Arab world, its failing economy may jeopardize the future of the North African country. Investing in Tunisian women is vital for long-term economic prosperity and stability going forward, therefore there needs to be increased female participation in the labor force. This growth in female participation will begin when the Tunisian government promotes an enabling environment for women. One such path is to incentivize private sector businesses to provide more family-friendly policies that compete with the public sector.

Natalie Robinson is an Analyst for the Middle East and North Africa and Ryan Craig is a Navanti Team Lead