Empowering women



Empowering women by providing loans for starting up small businesses may weaken the lure of militants among poor communities, writes Mark Huband:

By Mark Huband in Tunis

Financial Times, 24 November 1999

Souad Ghazouani laughs at the suggestion that the second-hand clothes business she started four years ago has brought a revolution both in her family, and in the poor district of Tunis where she lives.

“I never believed I would ever end up like this, running a business. Before this started, I would go out of the house perhaps once a year, other than to the public baths. “But the business has brought me into contact with people. They ask me for advice, and I have joined the ruling party,” said Mrs Ghazouani, proudly displaying the party badge she keeps in a drawer beneath her shop counter.

Four years ago Mrs Ghazouani and five neighbours took up the offer of micro-credit from Enda Inter-Arabe, a non-governmental organisation.  With loans of TD900 she set up her clothes business and a small grocery shop. Her neighbour, Keraidi Zohra, opened another shop.

The six grouped together to provide mutual guarantees that the loans would be repaid. Two later fell into arrears, but the other four do not appear to resent paying their share.

Their effort has transformed the atmosphere of their dusty street in the poor M’nihla district, inhabited mainly by unemployed immigrants from rural areas. The shops are modest, but they mark a shift towards the economic empowerment of the poor and the encouragement of women in particular to take on the main economic role once jealously guarded by men.

“At first my husband refused to allow me to go the market to buy the clothes I would repair and sell. Now he comes to the market with me,” Mrs Ghazouani said. “If he wasn’t happy with all this, then I would do it on my own.”

Since 1995, Enda has disbursed TD1.43m of loans of between TD200 to TD500, to 1,266 clients. Just over half the recipients are women. In four years, 98 per cent of the loans have been repaid. The government has subsequently established the Banque Tunisienne de Solidarite, to provide micro-credit to individuals lacking the collateral to secure bank credit.

The need to satisfy the hopes of the poor has intensified pressure on government and NGOs to find ways to remedy the dire social conditions regarded by political analysts as having created support for Tunisia’s Islamist movement in the 1980s.

“This area was the fief of the Islamists,” said Essma Ben Hamida, founder of Enda, speaking of the Hay Ettadhamen district in which the NGO started with aid from the European Union and other foreign sources as well as Tunisia’s Ministry for Women’s and Family Affairs.  “The Islamists bought people, and the Islamist movement came from the economic problems,” said Ms Ben Hamida.

However, the principles behind Tunisia’s tradition of secular politics and the defence of women’s rights have been severely tested by the state’s draconian measures to crush Islamist and other political opposition. The security measures have been accompanied by the creation of a centralised police state, which has until now prevented the emergence of effective NGOs and other aspects of civil society.

“The problem in Tunisia is that the state is too strong. It is omnipresent. It does everything, at least until recently,” said a political analyst.

Despite 5 per cent economic growth in recent years, Tunisia’s economy is fragile. Unemployment stands at 16 per cent, but is much higher among the young. A free health service and free education up to university level have not ended the poverty regarded as the breeding ground of political extremism.

© Financial Times