“A dream come true”: Salha paves the way for women’s economic empowerment in Tunisia

Salha is a 45-year-old woman living in Tlalet, a rural area in the south of Tunisia. She is a single woman, caring for her blind mother, as her father works abroad. She used to be very successful in her studies, but because of urgent family matters she had to drop out to support her loved ones. She wanted to make sure that her sisters had the opportunity to complete their education. Due to her sacrifice, all of her younger sisters graduated and got their dream jobs.

Despite this, she still regrets her decision to leave school early and wishes she had had the same opportunity to thrive. She had been the first girl in the region to attend secondary school. Many girls were deterred from going to school as the bus provision was for male students only. At the time, Salha’s father was able to provide a driver for his daughters and three other girls to attend school. Salha’s secondary school attendance led the way for other girls to enrol, and within two years, school bus provision was granted for all students.

Salha struggled to find a job after staying at home for a period of time. She was only able to find available training in weaving, but it wasn’t her dream.

After the revolution in Tunisia in 2011, Salha took the initiative to create a local women’s group. She aimed to support the region with seasonal projects (such as Ramadan food packs, a winter campaign and health support) whilst providing women the opportunity to keep active in the community. Salha quickly became well known in the region. Now, whenever the local authorities need to nominate someone for a governmental support, they get in touch with Salha because of her strong community presence.

When Islamic Relief contacted the regional directorate of agriculture to create a women’s empowerment group (known as a GDA) it was no wonder that Salha’s name turned up. She was nominated to mobilise the community and recruit female members. This proved difficult at times, as many women struggle with chronic illness or varying forms of disability. Nevertheless, their trust in Salha resulted in the group’s broad and diverse membership.

Salha has an individual work plan for every group member, meaning she has to prepare the activities in advance and ensure the group income is steady. The group structure is designed like an NGO meaning members cannot engage in profits, and often have to think of creative solutions for cash flow. This means Salha often has to think on her feet, which has included collecting and selling plastic bottles or making cheese out of the milk from the resident goat in the project. Her calm and active presence has helped reduce the anxiety many women felt when arranging to meet with a government representative.

Her success became widespread through word of mouth and social media. She is even getting milk and cheese requests from outside Tunisia, such as from Algeria and France! To show how excited she is, Salha said that “This GDA is a dream come true.”

Tataouine’s directorate of agriculture noticed the group was flourishing and proposed that Salha should lead a union of GDAs, known as a SMSA, to encourage internal trade. This model is more profitable than a single GDA and will ensure that more members can participate in the economic market.

Salha is determined to make change in her municipality. She said, “I will do my best to make men in this region realise that even women can do something good in the community.”