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Antonia Cox: The lessons Afghanistan should learn from Tunisia on women's rights

Cox_antonia Antonia Cox is PPC for Islington South and Finsbury and a leader writer at the Evening Standard. She has just returned from Tunisia, where she was observing the role played by women in civic society.

As British soldiers face a tough summer in Helmand province, and the new Obama strategy for Afghanistan promises more development aid, it has never been more important to look for fresh approaches to reconstruction of one of the poorest countries on earth.

Our Department for International Development describes “building an effective state with a solid political base and a thriving economy” as one of its longer term objectives for Afghanistan. As the narcotics trade increases, however, it is more urgent than ever to find new ways to expand other economic activity.

Last week, I visited Tunisia as part in an informal delegation led by Fiona Hodgson, Vice-President of the National Conservative Convention. During her time as Chairman of the Conservative Women’s Organisation, Fiona highlighted the issues of the lack of rights for women in many developing and post-conflict countries and continues to work on this agenda. Also taking part in the delegation was Dr. Shazia Ovaisi, the Chairman of the Conservative Women’s Organisation’s Muslim Group, and Nicola Blackwood, the Parliamentary Candidate for Oxford West and Abingdon and a member of the Conservative Human Rights Group.    

Tunisia is one of the most advanced Muslim countries in respect of women’s rights, and the purpose of the visit was to look at what women bring to political and economic development there. The Tunisian example is little known here because, as a former French colony, Tunisia has relatively few links with Britain. 

The country is by regional standards a success story. It has hit GDP growth rates of about 5% on average since 1987, has near total enrollment in school of boys and girls, and good life expectancy, performing respectably on the Human Development Index scale. Despite having little oil, it is proud of its greater stability and better development record than neighbouring Algeria. The grip of its ruling party, President Ben Ali’s RCD, is uncompromising but the country does have 37 opposition MPs in a parliament of 189. Certainly there are questions over the country’s human rights record in handling Islamist terrorism suspects – a point which the delegation raised – but the fact is that this is a economically successful country relative to its inheritance at independence in 1956.

And, we were told by nearly everyone we met, a key part of that success was the empowerment of women. Mrs Hager Cherif, for example, is one of the two women out of five deputy general secretaries of the ruling party, responsible for external affairs. Mrs Cherif explained to us how the country’s leader at independence, President Habib Bourguiba, recognised that he was ruling a poor country with few natural resources. It could not afford to waste half its workforce. He was also committed to secular development on the model pioneered by Kemal Ataturk in Turkey. Only months after independence, therefore, the equality of women was enshrined in a “personal status code” banning polygamy, setting a minimum age for marriage and regulating divorce. This has been described (Kenneth J Perkins, A History of Modern Tunisia) as the most revolutionary legal change in the Islamic world since Ataturk’s reforms of the 1920s. Equal pay, divorce rights and sentences for violence against women have been bolstered since.

Female illiteracy was 96% in 1956 (worse than in Afghanistan now), yet today in Tunisia 60% of university students are women. Six out of 27 government ministers (albeit mostly second-tier) are women, there are women judges, senior party officials and a provincial governor. Through quotas, 23% of MPs are women, rising to 30% at the next election. And women are playing an important economic role at every level.

In poor Islamic countries, empowering women really helps – and it can be done. However, according to Tunisia’s minister for women, Mrs Salwa Tarzi, legal protection for women’s rights, as embodied in the Personal Status Code, is not enough. It is also vital to have civil society institutions and political will.  The key institution of this kind appears to have been the country’s national women’s organisation, the UNFT, ( created just before independence. This government-subsidised voluntary organisation initially focused on health and education services, including contraception, but now also provides vocational training, refuges for abused women, free legal advice and low cost nurseries.

Certainly the UNFT  is used to reinforce the RCD’s grip on power – volunteers spoke of their role in “coaching” for the forthcoming elections – but it also delivers services which were plainly valued by the students and pupils we met. The UNFT is also a small but useful conduit for microcredit, with 2,500 loans made since 2005. According to the historian quoted above, much of the credit for the fall in population growth and the rise in female literacy during the decades after independence should go to the UNFT.

The new Afghan constitution guarantees women’s rights and gives women 25% of parliamentary seats. Yet what the country lacks – along with political will - is civil society. Of course Afghanistan’s situation, remote, ravaged by war and lacking a middle class, is worse than Tunisia’s in 1956. But for that very reason Britain should not ignore the example of the UNFT. And Tunisia might be prepared to share it. The UNFT president, Mrs Aziza H’tira, when we met her en route to congratulating Kuwait’s first female MPs, responded positively to the idea. She said efforts had been made to reach out to Iraqi women before security there deteriorated.  A Foreign Ministry adviser to Mrs Cherif told us that the country would be interested in offering its expertise, reminding us of Tunisia’s contribution to UN operations in Congo.

The Department for International Development should consider drawing upon the UNFT’s experience in creating civil society institutions in an Islamic country, rather than relying solely on Western expertise. The UNFT’s Islamic background would avoid the overtones of cultural imperialism that can beset Western aid efforts, and bring greater understanding of ways to combat what Mrs H’tira called “ancestral mentalities”. At a time when the UK is heavily committed to aid for Afghanistan, our delegation would like to add to the debate this small suggestion of a new source of expertise on how it might be spent


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