The electoral law (2017) and municipal law (2018) adopted in Tunisia ensure that women are present in municipal affairs. Political parties have to present an equal number of female and male candidates for municipal elections. Municipalities are required to have a gender balance between the positions of Mayor and Deputy Mayor. Further, each municipality must create two new committees: “Women and Family” and “Equality and Equal Opportunity.” The result was that the country achieved near parity during the 2018 municipal elections, with 47% of seats on councils held by women, and a strong presence of women on municipal committees.
Their presence, however, does not directly translate into influence. Women faced the reality that many men did not accept their participation in decision-making spaces. They were often left out of closed-door meetings. They were targets of violence within and outside of the municipality. They were left out of the committees that held larger budgets and influence. They had to step up and fight for their space. The Inclusive Municipal Leadership Program (IMLP) supported these women to not just be present, but to be leaders.
Building a Network
The first step was to connect the women so that they could support each other. The National Federation of Tunisian Municipalities (FNCT) surveyed the women elected officials of the 360 municipalities to identify their needs and interests. In March 2020, FNCT held an event to officially create the Tunisian Network of Women Elected Officials. A steering committee made up of 17 women was elected. Each of these women was elected as the lead of a thematic committee, such as communication, training, and political violence against women.
The COVID-19 pandemic was declared a week after the Network was created. Though this was a setback, it did not stop the women from activating the Network. The steering committee developed a draft charter and a plan of action. The two priorities for the network were to organize training for the women elected officials and to address the growing problem of political violence against women. Throughout the pandemic, the Network gained momentum as more elected women wanted to join.
Over two years, it grew from 260 members to more than 500 members, representing nearly two thirds of all women elected officials. When it came time to elect a new steering committee, they took a regional approach to ensure the structure of the Network reflected the geographic diversity of the group. The new steering committee elected representatives from each region of the country, who would be responsible for sharing information with and reflecting the needs of the women in that area.
Isabelle Miron, Councillor of the City of Gatineau (QC), knows the power of having a support network. In addition to being a city councillor, she is involved in various networks that bring women leaders together to share, connect, or take action.
“The solidarity of women is a force that makes absolutely all the difference to me. This is the key to getting through a political career without becoming completely disillusioned.”
Throughout IMLP, Councillor Miron shared her experiences with Tunisian counterparts and the challenges she has faced being a woman on council. A key piece of advice she gave them was to surround yourself by people who can both encourage and challenge you.
“I always encourage women in politics to have the courage to have people around them who will not always agree with them. Our ideas are enriched by divergent points of view. It is also important to have people you trust around you and also people who are ready to lend a hand. Because at its base, doing politics means having the power to mobilize, and a leader knows how to surround him/herself with the right people.”
Tools to Succeed
The first priority of the Network was to provide the women elected officials with training, since for most of them it was a first experience in politics. After consulting members, the IMLP and FNCT developed a training program with four thematic modules: Inclusive Management of Public Spaces, Communication and Advocacy Techniques, Gender-Sensitive Budgeting, and Gender and Urban Management. A fifth training was later added on Inclusive Crisis Management.
The objective of the training program was to provide the elected women with tools they needed to lead. In each session, they would receive theory, discuss the difficulties they were facing, and then identify how to address them. A first cohort of women were trained in person when COVID-19 restrictions began lifting. For each module, 2 groups of 25 women participated, reaching more than 100 members of the Network. Following the election of the new steering committee, a second cohort of women were trained, using a peer-to-peer approach. The women who received training in the first round trained the new members.
In each module, Canadian municipal partners were invited to share their experiences. They gave practical examples from Canada to connect theory with practice. Their participation served to provide both inspiration and recommendations on how to tackle challenges.
Vicki-May Hamm, former Mayor of Magog (QC), was involved in trainings for Tunisian women elected officials. As the first woman mayor of Magog, she had much to share on leadership and could relate to many of the challenges the Tunisian women faced.
“Just like in Quebec, many women said to themselves, ‘Am I going to be capable? Am I going to have the skills?’ We women often feel the need to be much more trained and informed before embarking on something. We like to know what we are talking about, and we want to understand.”
During the trainings, Mrs. Hamm advised the elected women on how to present themselves, how to be confident, how to make an action plan, and how to defend their proposals and projects to municipal council. She also gave practical advice on how to take into account the needs of women, children, and other groups in planning.
“I was able to give concrete examples and to make the link with the theory.”
One success story she shared with her Tunisian peers was the adoption of a new policy on public consultation in her municipality. Historically, the municipality of Magog only consulted the public when they were obligated to by law. When Mrs. Hamm became mayor she initiated a deeper reflection about the benefits of consultation, when it should be done, and how it should be carried out differently depending on the purpose and the different target groups.
“When we consult, we usually only mobilize the people who are directly affected, who are afraid of losing something, or who have a particular interest. So how do you reach the people who do not normally come out? We really reflected, for each type of consultation, about the best path to take and how to proceed in the future.”
The women leaders who took part in the training have gained confidence, motivation, and influence. They are more active in their communities and on committees. They are leading consultations in the communities and making proposals for projects that consider the specific needs of women and children.
The women on the “Women and Family” and “Equality and Equal Opportunity” committees are having greater influence. Whereas these committees often have a small budget, the women councillors are successfully getting funding for their initiatives, either through the municipal budget or external sources. In Sidi Bourouis, for example, the Deputy Mayor identified the idea for a gender-specific project to create an inclusive municipal park that women, children, and families could enjoy together. The Deputy Mayor has convinced council to include the park project in the municipality’s Annual Investment Plan. The President of the Committee “Equality and Equal Opportunity” took the project even further by finding an association who agreed to help host cultural events, a library, and a music club in the park.
The Network has also had important results in fighting the violence against women elected officials. It established a committee on the subject to receive and respond to cases of violence against women elected officials. As it turned out, it was the President of that committee who was the first to use the reporting mechanism. She experienced violence within her own municipality. She had become a target of harassment for wanting to have an active role in the decision-making processes. She reported the case to the Network. A communique was developed and disseminated through FNCT to denounce the violence and find a solution. She was able to continue as councillor in her municipality and was later re-elected as President of the committee to fight violence against women.
Women, Politics, and Democracy Group (GFPD), a non-profit organization that promotes the participation of women in politics in Quebec, was invited to participate in IMLP.
Gaëtane Corriveau, Project Manager for GFPD, delivered a virtual training on the topic of power entitled The Games, the Issues, the Actors/Actresses, and the Strategies to the first cohort of Tunisian women elected officials. The session on empowerment helped women to reflect on power relationships, negotiation, identifying allies, and working together.
“This is the same training that I give here. It’s a universal concept. The message I wanted to convey is that you can be in a position of suggestion, of being subordinate, but you always have the possibility of regaining control over your life, or over a situation.”
Ms. Corriveau returned to Tunisia at the end of the program and witnessed the results of the work on gender equality and inclusion in the Tunisian partner municipalities. She shared her own experiences on helping municipalities in Quebec adopt gender equality policies through projects called “The Parity Challenge” and “The Parity Plus Challenge.” She shared how the municipalities can view gender and inclusion within the three axes of governance, service delivery, and the municipality as an employer. Gaëtane saw how the Tunisian municipalities were already putting into practice similar approaches through the implementation of gender-specific projects.
“When I saw what the municipalities were putting in place, the initiatives they carried out there, they are essentially equality policies, but they go by another name. When we went to city hall in Tabarka, the mayor welcomed us. Next to her was the mayor of La Nouvelle Tabarka. We understood that he was her ally. He was for gender equality.”
Paving the Way
The women elected officials are nearly done their first term on the first democratically elected council. They faced many obstacles, but they were able to carve out their space and make their mark. They have also made allies that will continue to promote gender equality. After four years of work, the PIML team sees that men have accepted that women have their place in decision-making.
There are many achievements that women elected officials can be proud of. They have built a strong Network that will continue to support elected women following the next municipal elections in May 2023. Although there is great uncertainty about the future of women in municipal government in Tunisia, the women can be proud of the historic achievements they have made. They have paved the way for those to come.
Now that the project has come to an end, Ms. Hamm is looking to the future.
“I am very proud to have been the first woman elected to lead my municipality. We are making history. I told the women in Tunisia ‘you are all making history.’ We are paving the way for all those who will follow.”