From Kef to Kebili, a deep dive into women realizing their socioeconomic rights

Chloé Guerrini, Project Coordinator and Sahar Ferchichi, Accelerator Lab Associate

21 décembre 2023


As part of the joint UNDP-UNW-WHO project “Promoting Women’s Leadership”, funded by Denmark, UNDP is working towards increasing women’s socioeconomic resilience in the governorates of El Kef and Kebili. Beyond supporting women in their economic activities, the project aims at increasing awareness from men in communities to ensure women can be sustainably supported, both at work and at home. For the success of the project, it is important to acknowledge the challenges women often face on their path to achieving their socioeconomic rights and financial independence, including those brought about by their community and family. To better inform our project implementation, we decided to go and talk directly to the people at the heart of the matter, face to face.

In this blog, we delve into some of the key themes and obstacles encountered by women striving for financial autonomy in the regions of El Kef and Kebili. 

The insights collected during an exploratory week in Kebili and Kebili come from the discussions we had with over fifteen associations and entrepreneurship support structures in both governorates and with over 60 men and women, to gather the largest possible array of insights.

1) Exploring El Kef: From Tabula Rasa to insights galore

As we prepared for our journey, we couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed with the preparatory work ahead.

Imagine visiting a town where, to the best of your knowledge, we had not previously engaged, including on issues related to women’s empowerment. After leveraging networks of colleagues at the office, we eventually reached out to local stakeholders in El Kef and managed to set up meetings, focus groups and interviews.

We somehow knew that despite the busy schedule in El Kef, the town’s fresh air and lush greenery would undoubtedly make our intense 2-day race to meet our stakeholders unforgettable.

Adding to that, the hospitality of the people we met made us even more enthusiastic about our mission.

We engaged in discussions with a wide range of stakeholders in El Kef, and focus groups alike yielded the same emerging insights when it comes to women’s obstacles to access to their socio-economic rights.

During our meetings, stakeholders never failed to mention that the Kef Governorate is characterized by a heterogeneous demographic composition. When discussing attitudes from men towards women’s economic empowerment, we were advised to differentiate between Kef city and its surrounding municipalities. 

The rural areas stand out for their population diversity, encompassing varying mindsets and education levels. Demographically, the Kef Governorate is currently experiencing a population decline, a noticeable migration pattern among young women (under 27 years old) moving towards the Sahel regions to work in garment factories and other industries. According to data from the National Institute of Statistics (INS), El Kef has experienced a significant population decrease of 8.7%.[1] In its report on 'Regional Trends in Social Inclusion,' the Institute for Economic Competitiveness and Quantitative Studies attributes this trend to the “attractiveness of the eastern coastline for employment opportunities."[2]

We were also warned about the difficulty of reaching women for the purpose of the project’s implementation and that we had to have men’s backing first to achieve that. Indeed, a stakeholder warned us that investigating women's socio-economic empowerment in a rural area in El Kef, especially within certain dynamics, such as within couples working in agriculture, poses significant challenges. In these contexts, men tend to disproportionately retain the financial benefits while their wives share an equal, if not greater, workload. This situation underscores a complex and intricate socio-economic landscape, where gender imbalances persist despite shared responsibilities, making it a tricky field of study. This prompted us to think about the upcoming challenges we may face when approaching individuals, as we aim to convey our intent to encourage their participation in one of UNDP’s initiatives aimed at increasing men’s awareness for women's and girls' rights to employment, and financial services.



In our work at UNDP, we often want to find stories of women who have achieved gender equality as they demonstrate a profound understanding of their socio-economic rights. Such stories serve as indicators of our progress towards SDG 5. Despite what we had heard regarding men’s attitudes, the women that we talked to in the urban areas of El Kef were aware of their rights and most of them worked as a result of their desire to experience self-fulfillment and personal flourishing. At the same time, it is important to highlight that Tunisia’s socioeconomic situation and rising inflation also push women to work.

In reality, work was oftentimes an obligation, mainly linked to women’s awareness that it was essential to work to be able to support their families. For single women who envisioned getting married in the future, they also emphasized during our discussions that a sole breadwinner wouldn’t be sufficient to sustain a household.

In other instances, we found that women worked to escape their routine even if that entailed spending a considerable amount of time in public transport and earning the minimum salary, not enough to keep some savings. 

We found that job opportunities in the private sector were nearly non-existent in El Kef. Graduates from different academic disciplines had to take on jobs that do not match their skills and qualifications. If they did, wages were very low (for example, 400 TND monthly in call centers). Interestingly, we were told that women had more opportunities than men because they accepted to work with low wages.

Civil society actors said that the most common scenario for female graduates who did not work in the private sector was to venture into opening children’s daycare centers. We heard a similar testimony from a 33-year-old woman who, despite graduating with a degree in biochemistry, ended up taking out a loan to establish her own daycare center due to a lack of opportunities in her field of study.

Administrative hurdles are part of the challenges. There isn't a “Guidebook on how to become an entrepreneur” and the information to become one is not easy to find. The women entrepreneurs we talked to bravely navigated the administrative system and dodged skeptic officials as gender biases continue to permeate. One focus group participant, a 24-year-old woman, talked about her ambition to start a cow breeding business and how it was met with hurdles. Financial institutions displayed a lack of trust in her ability to repay the loan, thus reflecting gender biases within the banking sector.

When asked if men would go through a smoother process, the consensus was that men would undeniably drop mid-journey. Another participant mentioned that being accompanied by her brother helped her sail through the cumbersome processes. 

Pursuing higher education was found “sacred” for women in El Kef and was highly encouraged. However, we were told that studying in areas far from Tunisia’s Northwest could be problematic and working in the private sector was frowned upon, due to a preference for the stability that the public sector offers. 

When willing to venture into entrepreneurship, women are not only dissuaded by administrative hurdles but also by their close family, friends, and distant relatives: the support system then becomes a hindrance. Entrepreneurship is deemed risky and when it is carried out by women, their communities, families, and male partners hardly trust they will succeed. 

In some rural areas, the concept of women’s financial independence is entrenched in religious discourse and is likely to influence men. For example, one of the male stakeholders we spoke with mentioned how prior awareness-raising initiatives yielded no results because of religious discourse held by Imams that discouraged women’s work.

The question of whether women should be financially autonomous is a complex one, deeply intertwined with geographical and demographic factors. Indeed, attitudes towards female employment vary significantly between regions, as well as among different demographic groups. This diversity of perspectives highlights the evolving nature of gender roles and underscores the importance of considering the local context when discussing women's participation in the labor force.

When it comes to choosing life partners, men often preferred to marry working women. This preference is primarily rooted in the practical necessity for both partners to contribute to supporting the households. This sentiment was echoed throughout our discussions with people from diverse backgrounds.  For instance, a 22-year-old student residing in the city, a 22-year-old unemployed man, and a 27-year-old self-employed man living in a rural area, all expressed the view that a working woman contributed significantly not only to her family but also to her husband, her community, and herself. The very notion of work as a right was overshadowed by the reality of rising costs of living and the need to work to make ends meet.

Despite the awareness of the complicated economic situation, our discussions with men brought forth specific conditions for them to accept, and even allow their wives to work. A few of them mentioned that women can work, contingent on their husband's approval. However, they emphasized the importance of efficiently balancing employment with household responsibilities, even when they would prefer having a working wife. Some men expressed their opinion that men should bear the responsibility of providing for the household financially, while women should tend to domestic tasks. 

A few men have expressed their opinion that their wife working might impact their role; for instance, if a man’s future wife earned more, she would face pressure to abandon her career, or having an entrepreneur wife would undermine traditional male roles within the family structure.

A 43-year-old married man cited “low wages, exploitation within the public administration and sexual harassment” as reasons for men not to allow employment. A couple of them, including a 22-year-old student, said they would support the women in their lives in finding employment and becoming financially independent, if safety conditions are met, and the wages are decent. Talking about his mother, a 26-year-old student feared that work would be too difficult for her and would thus not support her working. 

Public transportation and being exploited at work have also been presented as elements that hinder women’s access to work. 

2) Kebili, exploring charted territory

Given that Kebili has been an area of intervention for UNDP Tunisia for several years, it was easier for us to prepare the second leg of our exploration journey.

Craftsmanship is one of the most widespread professional activities in the Kebili Governorate with a total of 10 000 artisans. As such, most women we talked to were artisans themselves with expertise ranging from threading and knitting to enhancing date derivatives. 

Opportunities in the private sector are also very scarce in Kebili with very few private businesses and a date plant where women are, unfortunately, paid less than men.

They eventually find solace in launching their own businesses to flee exploitative employers and low wages. This situation is embedded in most women’s definition of financial autonomy. One craftswoman explained that “being financially autonomous is being my own boss and not having to ask for money to go to the hairdresser and hammam”.

We observed many similar insights with El Kef. For example:

Women are aware of and value the significance of their socio-economic rights. Most of the men we talked with also showed awareness, especially in terms of women’s work, noting that society is progressively moving towards accepting women working. A few however mentioned that this was mostly the case in urban areas. In addition, they agreed that work was not seen as a luxury, it is essential to be able to sustain a household. 

The youngest participants in the focus group (18 and 19) firmly believed in the importance of women’s financial autonomy, as this can be a source of inspiration for other women, and this can lead society to give women a higher position. One of them talked about “breaking the gender bias, empowering women, and allowing men to feel less burdened”. They also showed awareness that women have more responsibilities than men, one of them linking this to education, while another said that women consequently should have more opportunities. 

Some men were not open to the idea of women working when wages are low, when there is a fear of sexual harassment, or because of slow administrative procedures. A few men mentioned that they did not want their wives to be tired and preferred them to have an office job. Others also expressed their fear that if their wives earned more money in the household, they would “rebel”. They have also mentioned that society generally prefers that women hold positions in the public sector. 

In contrast to the narrative we had heard about women in El Kef engaged in agriculture, in the Kebili Governorate, women explained that when they collaborate with their husbands, the earnings they generate are entirely their own. With this hard-earned income, they prioritize their children's necessities and fulfill their own needs.

We paid a visit to 3 women who work in date harvesting in Noueil, 12 kilometers away from the delegation of Douz, in the Kebili Governorate. Noueil’s primary economic activity is date farming. In Noueil, and across the Kebili Governorate in general, all families own parcels of date palms, and the agricultural activity is transmitted intergenerationally. While children are free to choose the studies and jobs of their liking, parents value the importance of teaching them the love of the land and agricultural activity. 

Securing loans for agricultural projects remained a daunting task, as funding institutions tend to favor financing craftsmanship initiatives over agricultural endeavors. Despite these hurdles, we sensed that the spirit of resilience and determination prevailed.


Craftsmanship in Kebili definitely deserves our attention. The governorate is home to a whopping 10 000 artisans, among whom 4 000 who hold the professional card/license, the grail to access recognition and opportunities[1]. Yet, there were 6 000 skilled artisans dispersed across the governorate who did not get to showcase their talents because information on procedures did not easily reach those living in distant delegations. 

For women artisans, the primary opportunity to put on display their talents and boost their income is participating in fairs (provided they hold the professional card) outside of their town and regions. However, engaging in these events necessitated negotiations with their partners or families, as they needed to travel to different governorates, to take public transportation and stay in hotels, away from home for several days. Oftentimes, this process could become too costly, be it financially (accommodation and transport) or emotionally (bargaining and having to justify their participation in the fair) and craftswomen gave up.  

So what’s next? 

Of course, women face several challenges that are not directly linked to behaviors or social norms, challenges that men can also face: the struggle to formalize projects, lack of information or administrative cumbersomeness, weak infrastructure, regional isolation, and scarce opportunities in the private sector for instance. 

However, if this week in Kef and Kebili showed us anything, it is that men’s role, either as support or hindrance, is not so much linked to the belief that women do not possess the right to work or own a bank account, but rather to the impact that the full realization of these rights can have on their place in society.