Women play major role in Tunisia's historic election

UNDP Summer University graduate Thurayya Sithum doing door-to-door visits on the final day of campaigning, 21 October 2011. Credit: Jamel Haouas/UNDP.
UNDP Summer University graduate Thurayya Sithum doing door-to-door visits on the final day of campaigning, 21 October 2011. Credit: Jamel Haouas/UNDP.

Azza Badra was one of thousands of women in Tunisia who competed for a seat in the country’s national elections on 23 October, the first since the dramatic pro-democracy shift in January this year and since its independence in 1956.

Badra, a mother of two, ran as a Green Tunisia Party candidate in the capital Tunis for one of 217 seats in the Constituent Assembly, a national body tasked with drafting a new constitution and nominating a transitional government until new elections are held.

Highlights

  • Total number of candidates: more than 11,000 in 33 precincts
  • Seven percent of all candidate lists headed by a female candidate
  • The total budget of the support to women candidates is US$0.525 million.
  • Project result: 162 women candidates trained on campaign organization and strategies

“It’s simple statistics. We’re the majority,” said Badra, whose campaign prop was a mock Tunisian ID card featuring the number 51, the percentage of women in the country’s population.

Badra was among more than 4,000 women running in an election for their first time following May 2011 legislation requiring that party candidate lists alternate between women and men.

In spite of the lists, women’s actual representation in the new assembly will not reflect their proportion of the national population. Women headed only seven percent of the more than 1,500 candidate lists.

“The number of women will be less than Tunisians deserve,” said Bushra Balhaj Hmeida, a veteran lawyer and human rights activist, ranked top of the Al Takkatul Party candidate list in Zaghwan precinct.

“While I believe men and women in politics are the same, my conviction is that women can improve politics and restore Tunisians’ trust in the political process. Women can make politics more human.”

Some 160 women, including Badra and Hmeida, were nominated by their parties to attend a course organized by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to train female candidates in electoral campaign strategies, campaign management and communicating successfully with voters and the media.

The Summer University programme is one of three components of UNDP’s US$4.2 million electoral support project which started in March 2011 at the request of Tunisia’s interim government. It will continue electoral assistance after adoption of the new constitution.

UNDP is also providing operational and technical support to the country’s Independent High Authority for Elections on legal, organizational and logistical aspects of the election process, and working with civil society organizations on public information and citizen outreach.

“One of main gains of this election is heightened interest in politics among women,” said Soulef Guessoum, UNDP’s Regional Project Manager for Parliamentary Development. “We strive to sustain and support this interest.”

For Thurayya Sithum, a former homemaker and also graduate of the Summer University programme, participation in the process was more important than winning a seat: “Today as all Tunisians can choose between so many candidates, already we are winners.”

Sithum collaborated with other independent peers to form the movement Dustorona, Our Constitution, which developed a draft constitution and formed an electoral list on which Sithum was ranked second place, in Nable 2 precinct.

“It’s not the seat I’m after,” said Sithum. “I want to contribute to the nascent democracy in my country. Even if I lose, I still win.”

Based on the experience of the Summer University, UNDP intends to extend its support to female candidates running for seats at future elections in three regions of Tunisia.

"Tunisia's elections to create a Constituent Assembly are a milestone in the country's extraordinary democratic journey which began less than a year ago," said UNDP Administrator Helen Clark.  "I applaud the over 4,000 women who ran for the first time in an election, and I look forward to seeing more and more women take seats in the national legislature in the coming years. UNDP is committed to continuing its electoral assistance to Tunisia, including through specific initiatives to boost the number of women candidates, in the future."