Tunisia is at an advantage when it comes to promoting gender equality in local municipal affairs. Gender equality is well written into law through the new constitution in 2014, the electoral law of 2017, and the municipal law (Code des Collectivités Locales) in 2018. The laws promote gender parity during the municipal election process and within the municipality’s responsibilities. The municipal law encourages the adoption of inclusive municipal practices, such as the participation of all members of civil society in the design and monitoring of local development projects.
Though the legal framework and political will are in place, the challenge is putting words into action. Historically, municipal affairs in the country have not been inclusive, and the newly elected officials (2018) had few tools and experiences to draw from. FCM’s Inclusive Municipal Leadership Program (IMLP) worked with local governments in Tunisia to develop the skills and practices to engage community members of all genders and ages into key planning processes.
One of the most important planning processes for Tunisian municipalities is the preparation of participatory Annual Investment Plans (AIP). The AIPs contain projects that will be implemented by the municipality. The IMLP team worked with local governments on strategies to increase the active participation of women and other groups in the planning and decision-making processes. This in turn would mean that women would have a stronger voice in the selection of projects to include in the AIP.
To increase the potential for sustainability, the IMLP team integrated a gender perspective into existing planning tools and processes used by local governments, rather than creating new ones. At each stage, they incorporated reflections about gender and how to consider the different needs of women and men, as well as groups of different ages and abilities. This systematic approach aimed to incrementally develop the habit of analysing gender in the daily work of local governments.
Multiplying the modules of gender integrated at different scales and stages clearly led to a better integration of gender at the local level in the end.
Calling all women
To enhance women’s participation, the IMLP team focused first on strategies to increase women’s attendance in meetings. A key element of this was inclusive communication. With the support of Canadian municipal partners, the local governments developed inclusive communication plans that identified key audiences, how to reach them, and how to tailor messages to each. The team also made the meetings more accessible, by holding consultations in the neighbourhoods where women lived.
A second element of the work was to ensure women were prepared to participate actively in the consultations. In advance of the meetings, the women were given information about the purpose of the meetings, how they could contribute, and what difference their contributions would make. The women councillors on municipal committees were also supported to take leading roles in different stages of the consultation process.
The municipality of Nabeul, for example, transformed its participatory process by developing an inclusive communication plan focused on five objectives:
- Inform citizens on the participatory budgeting process, the calendar of meetings, and how to access information.
- Raise awareness of citizens’ role in participatory budgeting.
- Encourage citizens to participate in meetings in person or online.
- Support the effective participation of civil society in participatory meetings.
- Encourage citizens to participate remotely by sending proposals through the municipality’s website, suggestions box, e-mail, or mail.
Within each objective, special emphasis was put on reaching women, youth, and people with specific needs. The municipality subsequently transformed their website and social media presence to use inclusive language throughout, including the feminine form to make sure messages speak to women as well.
Sophie Allard, Councillor at the City of Brossard (QC), went to Tunisia to work with local governments on inclusive communication. Working with other Canadians, they developed a short training on Communication Basics, including how to create a communication plan and how to reach target audiences.
“It’s important that our plan includes multiple tools to contact citizens,” Councillor Allard explained. “You have to sometimes carry out several consultations to make sure you reach young people, women, men, etc.”
M. Allard shared the following tips on how to increase engagement of women in participatory activities, based on her own municipality’s experience:
- Choose a location that is easy to access (central, accessible with public transport).
- Pick a time that respects the schedules of families.
- Make sure there is secure transportation available at the time of the meeting.
- Use various communication channels, including informal ones.
- Ensure that childcare services are available onsite.
- Make sure the message is directed to women.
The right to be heard
Municipalities were introduced to children’s rights as part of the broader inclusive approach. They were shown how to integrate a children’s rights perspective into their plans and programs. Inspired by the child’s right to participation, four of the partner municipalities (Nabeul, Sidi Bourouis, Tabarka, El Marja) decided to put into place Children’s Municipal Councils.
The four municipalities carried out elections for the Children’s Municipal Councils following international guidelines. They announced the process in all the schools in the municipality. Then elections were held at three levels: the classroom, the school, and the municipality. The result is a Children’s Municipal Council that has parity and is representative of the community. The election process introduced the children to democratic processes, civic participation, and municipal affairs.
The four Children’s Municipal Councils are active in each municipality. Each council has put together an action plan and they hold their own council meetings to debate issues. They bring their proposals to meetings of the municipal council. This in turn gives the municipal council a better understanding of the specific needs of children, and in particular girls. Members of the four Children’s Municipal Councils were also brought together in a camp to further develop leadership skills and knowledge on issues such as climate change.
The children have also brought about change in the communities. In Sidi Bourouis, they identified the need for better equipment in the local primary schools. They brought the idea first to council and continued to advocate more widely. An international organization heard of their initiative and donated the equipment to the schools. In Tabarka, members of the council initiated their own campaign for the cleanup of the local beach, which prompted the municipality to join the effort and support the campaign. The initiative also served to instill the principle of gender equality in the children. The girls and boys identified an initiative of mutual interest and worked together equally to complete it.
Julie Pressé, the Mayor of Fortierville (QC), shared her municipality’s experience of integrating children’s rights in municipal affairs. Fortierville has adopted a Charter for the Protection of Children. It is part of a larger effort led by Espace MUNI and the Federation of Quebec Municipalities (FQM) to raise awareness of children’s rights and encourage municipalities to put in place actions to protect children.
The Charter has motivated Fortierville to raise awareness about children’s rights in the local paper and local events and to contribute funds to its Youth House. The municipality also takes actions to ensure children have safe spaces for recreation. They put lights and security cameras in the parks and they offer sports equipment to ensure the right to play.
“We often want to take big actions. I prefer 10 small actions instead of a single big one. Because my 10 little actions will have an impact on youth with different interests. That way I will have reached more people and changed more things around me.”
Stephanie Watts, former councillor at the City of Montreal (QC), also had great experiences to share on engaging youth in community action. She led a project to redevelop a street in her neighbourhood and transform it into a space for play, leisure, and socialization. During the public consultation, the city made significant effort to include youth and children to design the space based on their preferences. A meeting was organized based on free play, with animators playing with the kids. Once trust was built, the animators talked with the kids about what types of games they like and what they would enjoy in a non-traditional play space. The consultative methods used also demonstrated that there are alternative ways that children and youth can be engaged and have an impact.
“There are many other ways to involve children. We wanted to illustrate a less formal way that required less time. We want to diversify what we understand as public participation with children.”