Blog post by Professor Emma Murphy. Tunis June 2019

Women’s mobility in Tunisia: early project results high-light insecurity

“Everyday, a pick-up truck comes to pick me up with 7 other women. We get in the back of the truck, dealing with the early morning cold. We don’t get paid enough. We spend fifteen minutes on the road. I don’t feel safe. I’m worried the whole way. And sometimes it rains on us. I leave my house at seven and sometimes I wait till eight for the pick-up truck to show up. Sometimes the driver doesn’t come and he asks us to figure things out ourselves. The driver avoids police check-points so he will not get fined for carrying people in his truck. One time, oil was spilled on the road. The truck started slipping and we thought we were going to die” (28- year- old woman,  Arroussia).

On the 27th April a pick-up truck collided with a minivan carrying poultry in the Sabala district of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia. Traffic accidents are common here: the country suffers from long-neglected road infrastructure, especially in central rural areas like Sidi Bouzid. Road safety and driving standards are poor, there is inadequate vehicle and  traffic regulation and enforcement, and there is a chronic lack of public transport which suffers from historic under-investment and over-centralisation. Not surprisingly then, national statistics indicate an average of 239 deaths per 100,000 citizens compared to 36 per 100,000 in the UK.

But this accident high-lighted a particular and gendered aspect of Tunisian transport. Of the 12 people killed, seven were women. Like many women living in rural areas, they were employed as cheap agricultural labour. Such women, working long hours with no social protection, poor working conditions, and for very low wages, comprise 58% of the rural workforce according to the United Nations. 32% of all Tunisian women live in rural areas and  17% of are employed in the agricultural sector but with a female rural unemployment rate of 35% they have little collective leverage in battling for improvements in their working status despite making a massive contribution to national food production and security.

So each day, farmers can take their pick of women seeking work, cramming them into the back of unregulated pick-up trucks to drive them often very long distances to precarious work on the farms. Accidents are common: just before the April 27th event, 9 farm workers fell from a lorry and were injured  in the Ragada region of Kairouan and another two died in an accident in Zaghouan. On this occasion, however, a social media campaign quickly picked up demanding that the government step in to stop farmers treating their low-paid, mostly female workforce “like cattle”. Demonstrations and protests broke out in Sidi Bouzid and other rural towns, and opposition parties and trade unions were quick to join forces in condemning government failures to regulate the work and transport conditions of agricultural labour.

In fact, the problems had already made it onto the government’s “to do” list. Just a  month before the government had announced a series of measures designed to support women in work, optimistically labelled the National Strategy for Economic and Social Empowerment of Women and Girls in Rural Areas Initiative. The first measure, called Ahmini (‘protect me’) is a digital app. which allows female agricultural workers to register on-line with the public health system, without the need for an employer’s sponsorship and at very low cost to themselves. It is unfortunate that many women are unlikely to benefit from this given low digital skills in rural areas and poor internet service. The second measure which aims to enhance women’s mobility is to authorise public transport systems to offer transport services to agricultural workers outside their currently authorised operational zones. Again, the efficacy of this will be limited by the already inadequate fleet sizes of the bus companies which mean that they cannot properly service even those areas in which they already operate. The early interview data gathered by peer researchers on the Youth engagement and skills acquisition within Africa’s transport sector project clearly indicate that there are not enough buses (and even these are in poor and often dangerous condition), that there are too few bus routes meaning frequent transfers between vehicles and long waits in between, that the buses are severely over-crowded and that they are particularly  unsafe for women who are subjected to daily harassment, pick-pocketing and mugging.    Similarly, collective taxis are dangerously over-crowded, badly driven, poorly maintained and expose women to regular scrutiny and abuse for how they look and what they wear. Private buses and taxis offer greater personal security but are too expensive for most women, very few of whom can afford a car or can drive themselves.

The early interview data has painted an extremely gloomy picture of women’s mobility in Tunisia. The two research sites have indicated commonalities between rural areas and peri-urban settlements. Women are more reliant on public transport than men and thus more severely impacted by its inadequacies. They spend enormous amounts of time travelling what are often quite short distances. Transport is unpredictable and largely unscheduled. Places have to be fought for in buses and collective taxis, and the vehicles are often poorly maintained and unsafe. They are seriously over-crowded, leaving women vulnerable to men squeezing up against them, groping them, and worse. Public transport will not even service some residential areas where the roads are in too poor a condition or drivers themselves do not feel safe, leaving women to walk in unsafe and unlit locations. Informal barriers restrict women from working as drivers themselves, so women move in entirely male-controlled environments, making mobility beyond the immediate residential location a constantly stressful and intimidating project.

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