"Women-led Cooperatives. Social and Solidarity economy in Tunisia" dossier

With the dossier “Women-led Cooperatives. Social and Solidarity economy in Tunisia”, GVC publishes the stories of a group of women that have managed to build social entrepreneurship opportunities in rural areas of Tunisia, at risk of extremism and radicalization.  Not yet officially recognised by the country’s legal system, cooperatives such as “Al Wafa”, “Al Yasamine” and “Elamma” enable women to start a long and complex journey towards autonomy. Today, the legal path for the definition of the social and solidarity economy in Tunisia is about to reach a turning point. However, the draft legislation still presents some shortcomings.


“In Tallet Swyssiya, women do not have many opportunities. The most fortunate are chicken farmers or pick alfalfa, a forage crop that we use to produce objects and accessories, but due to the terrorist attacks the situation has become quite complicated and women cannot work in those areas for security reasons”. This is Hela’s testimony; she is a young woman part of the “Al Wafa” apiculture cooperative in one of the most isolated areas in Tunisia. Born in a family of ten in a small town of the Kasserine Governorate, on the border with Algeria. Hela first started working in a cable factory in Monastir, her wage, however, was very low. This is why she decided to live back home “But once I was there, I received threats from terrorists and had to leave – she says-. The same thing happened when I moved to Sbiba and Ain Zayan”. The girl, just turned twenty-six, doesn’t want to recount the details of her story but she continues: “Today I am a strong and independent woman, I am useful to society and contribute to the development of my region”. The constitution of the “Al Wafa” apiculture cooperative for the production of honey was possible thanks to a GVC project. Starting out, however, wasn’t easy. “At the beginning we didn’t have an office or shop and had to organise meetings out in the open – she explains -. When we finally found one it was so far off that selling our products was impossible”.


In Tunisia, officially, cooperatives still do not exist. To regulate their position, alongside mutual aid organisations and other forms of social entrepreneurship, a draft legislation on social and solidarity economy is being discussed. The draft, however, presents some shortcomings, especially the absence of any reference to people with special needs. Nevertheless, the draft gives way to the possibility of developing a fair and sustainable economy bottom up, which would benefit people at risk of social exclusion and poverty.


According to the Ministry of Labour, Faouzi Abderrahmane, these enterprises – that he defines as for-profit – must have “a strong tie with communities and foresee the redistribution of 50% of revenues amongst the shareholders, whilst the other 50% must be used to increase solidity of the enterprise”. There may also be the possibility of instituting a Social and Solidarity Economy Bank.


 “For a long time my life was spending the day at home to help my mother, I would do the dishes, cook meals for my brothers and sisters and take care of the cows – recounts Wided Chaabani, who works in a cooperative that produces dairy products-. I would never leave the house, if not to go to the doctor”. Then, a GVC project changed her life and enabled her and other women to create a cooperative in Mejel Abess.


For the women who have had the chance to experience work life in a cooperative, on top of family resistances many practical difficulties arise. “At the beginning, we didn’t have electricity – shares Nourhèrne Amari, of the “Al Yasamine” cooperative that produces carpets-. We had to finish working before the sun went down”. To increase sustainability of these enterprises, GVC foresees training activities that focus on the optimization of resources, as well as a wider offer of products. “After attending a workshop on wool dyeing we were able to take care of it ourselves instead of buying coloured wool”, explains Nourhèrne.


“We had several problems. One of the most serious was obtaining the sanitary permit to sell and transport dairy products. We had to put our work on hold for a long time – says Zina Chaabani, who works in the “Elamma” cooperative in Majel Bel Abbes -. It’s been hard but before starting my work here it was hard to consider myself a human being”. Zina’s past work experience was producing carpets for only 2 dinars. That is why she decided to change and work in dairy products.


For a long time, the support of INGOs has been the only concrete help for rural development groups, local cooperatives and collectives, as well as small funding institutions and microcredit entities. Alongside the draft legislation on the social and solidarity economy, the Government is thinking of creating a public bank to ensure financing to grassroot enterprises. This would represent a crucial step in a country where the social economy represents only 1% of GDP. However, creating a favourable ecosystem for the growth of women-led cooperatives, mutual aid organisations and social enterprises, especially in rural areas, certainly requires a more significant effort.


 *invented name to protect her identity


Download the dossier 



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