The Inclusive Municipal Leadership Program (IMLP) aimed to enhance women’s influence in local governance in Tunisia municipalities. Project activities ran between 2018 and 2022. This story is one of a series that highlights the main results of the project and contributions of Canadian municipal partners.
In Tunisia as elsewhere in the world, municipalities were on the front lines of the COVID-19 response. The pandemic revealed how Tunisian municipalities were not prepared to manage a crisis. It was one of the first significant crises since the 2018 adoption of the municipal law (Code des Collectivités Locales), which transferred crisis management responsibilities to local governments. There was a lack of understanding and clarity about these new responsibilities and the division of roles between local and regional governments. Few municipalities had crisis management plans in place, trained staff, accurate data about the community, or mechanisms to communicate effectively with the public.
Crisis management was not initially a focus of IMLP. In the early stage of the pandemic, FCM provided support to its partner municipalities with personal protective equipment (PPE), as well as technology and guidance to transition to remote work. As the pandemic continued, it became increasingly clear that women were disproportionately affected, with a loss of employment, increased domestic violence, restricted mobility, and additional responsibilities. The IMLP team seized the opportunity to help Tunisian municipalities put women at the center of local crisis management and foster a more inclusive response.
Inclusive Crisis Management Planning
The IMLP team sought to develop tools that would help municipalities prepare for, and manage any type of crisis, not just the pandemic. Taking a participatory approach, they developed the guide for Inclusive Crisis Management Planning. They started by collecting good practices from the Tunisian municipalities and Canadian municipal partners responding to the pandemic and other emergencies. The team carried out a series of virtual consultations to further develop and validate the guide, involving national and local government representatives, civil society, and women’s associations.
The guide provides greater clarity on the legal framework and guidance for municipalities on actions to take during the three phases of a crisis (before, during, after). The guide integrates gender and inclusion throughout, highlighting actions such as:
- Identify and take census of vulnerable groups in the preparatory phase
- Ensure representation of women and other groups in the crisis management unit
- Define a communication strategy to reach different target groups (e.g., women, elderly, people with a disability)
The guide has been disseminated to all 350 municipalities in Tunisia. A series of virtual trainings were held with local administrations, elected officials, and civil society. Canadian municipal partners participated in the virtual training to share their own experience in crisis management.
Daniel Champagne, Municipal Councillor at the City of Gatineau (QC), provided technical support to the Tunisian team and partners on inclusive crisis management. Gatineau had recently gone through the process of developing its own crisis management guide. During the severe floods in 2017, there was no guide in place and the division of roles between administration and council was not clear. This created challenges when important decisions had to be made about how to prioritize assistance. Following the floods, the city developed a crisis management guide that clearly assigned roles based on positions. The guide was followed to the letter the next time the crisis management centre was convened.
Mr. Champagne drew on this experience, as well as the City’s Gender Equality Policy, to advise the Tunisian partners on inclusive crisis management.
“I took the experience of our crisis management guide, and I crossed it with our gender equality policy. When I presented the crisis management policy, I emphasized the role of elected officials, but also the need to have an equitable representation within the crisis management units.”
Women Leading in Crisis
Women make up nearly half of the seats on municipal councils in Tunisia. However, women elected officials are often given less influential roles on commissions with little budget, limited decision-making power, or are placed on committees with an exclusively social focus. IMLP continued its work to increase the influence of women in local governance by ensuring they have an important role in the COVID-19 response.
At the local level, the partner municipalities were supported to form their crisis management unit. They were urged to have at least one woman on the crisis management unit. But the team also recognized that women faced greater restrictions on mobility than men during the pandemic. Having women on the unit was important to be able to ensure that the specific needs of women were taken into consideration in the response.
Sénim Ben Abdallah is a senior expert for IMLP. His team also encouraged the active participation of women councillors in the response. The councillors on the municipal commissions of “Women and Family” and “Equality and Equal Opportunity” were tasked with distributing personal protective equipment (PPE) to vulnerable groups, prioritizing vulnerable women. The women councillors found their own ways to support the community. They helped organize the queues of people at public offices to help maintain social distancing.
“The crisis allowed these commissions to do their work. The crisis created an opportunity for the women councillors to play an important role and be more visible with the support of IMLP.”
At the national level, efforts were made to enhance women’s leadership and visibility in crisis response. Together with the CNP-EGAL (National Committee to Promote Gender Equality in local Affairs), a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) was delivered early in the pandemic on inclusive crisis management for local governments, and particularly women elected officials. The Network of Women Elected Officials, which was established just before the pandemic, took an active and vocal role. As a network, the women councillors advocated for the involvement of women in the response and in the crisis management units. They also led campaigns to raise awareness and condemn the increased domestic violence women were facing during confinement.
Henda Gafsi is the lead expert for IMLP. She knows how Tunisian women were active in the pandemic response despite the restrictions and the risks they faced. The IMLP helped to give them visibility. The team collected a series of video testimony of women leaders to document their experiences in the response, and worked with the CREDIF (Center for Research, Studies and Information on Women) to conduct research and dedicate a full issue of the journal to the contributions of Tunisian women in the pandemic and the role of local governments in inclusive crisis management.
“Women are good at crisis management, including at the municipal level. It was important that this be highlighted. We have seen that danger, emergencies, and crises have never slowed down women’s activities.”
Reaching the Most Vulnerable
As the guide was being developed, the partner municipalities were already applying practices to provide an inclusive response. The municipalities employed communication strategies to reach different vulnerable groups. To reach the illiterate population, made up largely of women, the women councillors carried out direct outreach to share information orally about the virus, protection measures, and the vaccines. The municipalities also developed audiovisual materials to communicate key messages.
They began holding community meetings virtually using the computing equipment provided to them by the project to transition to remote work. Several municipalities improved their online presence through social media and interactive websites to easily share videos, respond to comments and questions, and provide services online.
As the emergency phase subsided, local governments worked on a database of detailed information about the local population. They collected sex-disaggregated data, which will be available to anyone – government, investors, citizens. The data will help local governments improve their services to citizens and help identify the vulnerable groups within the community so that municipalities are better prepared for future crises.