Thirteen-year-old Fatima lowers her head while she talks about her lost dream: “I wanted to become a doctor but now it is impossible.”  She put a bag full of grass as a fodder for her sheep and said in a shaky voice, “I left school two years ago and today I am helping my mother in running the house’s affairs. I am also looking after the sheep.”

Thirteen-year-old Fatima lowers her head while she talks about her lost dream: “I wanted to become a doctor but now it is impossible.”  She put a bag full of grass as a fodder for her sheep and said in a shaky voice, “I left school two years ago and today I am helping my mother in running the house’s affairs. I am also looking after the sheep.”

Fatima works from six o’clock in the early morning till noon time in the collection of vegetables to sell them in the weekly market. Her two small hands are black because of the dirt and the residue of grass.  Her mother said that her daughter was excellent in her school performance but “the extreme poverty of the family has forced us to sacrifice her future in order to allow her brother to continue his education. We do not have the financial means to let the two continue their education.”

“My mom is preparing for my wedding.” Fatima has been engaged to her cousin who is unemployed and who is five years older than her. The marriage ceremony will take place when she turns 16.

Fatima is a local resident of Magel Bel Abbès, in Kasserine province. She is one among thousands of rural girls who have been deprived of continuing their education at an early age, despite the fact that the Tunisian law provides for compulsory education until the age of 16. Early dropout rates have worsened since the January 14 revolution—100,000 pupils left school between 2012-2013 about 17,000 more than before the revolution. Most of the dropouts are girls from rural and marginalized areas. This costs the government 345 million dinars, (US $207,000,000), more than 6.7% of the Ministry of Education budget, estimated at 5089 million dinars, approximately US $3,050 million, according to the Education Ministry.

Lost girls

The Kheir Eddin Secondary School Fatima attended is located in the Magel Bel Abbès area 400 kilometers away from Tunis. This school receives both genders aged between 12 and 16. In 2010-2011, 480 students were enrolled in the school— 63 of them dropped out, 76% of them were girls. This percentage decreased during the 2011-2012 school year to 54%, but it continued to be high. 

The figures clearly show that illiteracy is gradually spreading in this semi-isolated rural area due to the poor programs of the Education Ministry in reducing the rate of school dropouts, according to the results revealed by this investigative report.

Omar al-Mansouri, the school principal, over the last nine years acknowledged that there is a significant number of students dropping out of the school despite all the efforts made by his administration to reduce these numbers. Al-Mansouri blames the former regime for this phenomenon: “It adopted a policy of media exaggeration to prove that it cares about the education sector but in reality it did not tackle the real problems facing it,” he said. “Legal texts did not contain any restraining procedures to prevent the guardians from obliging their children to leave school before the age of 16.” 

Compulsory education law

The statements of Omar al-Mansouri were refuted by a former Ministry of Education official who preferred to remain anonymous and said: “The Tunisian Constitution of 1959 contained many provisions on the right of the Tunisian males and females to education.  Moreover, legal texts on education and training have further stressed this right. The law enacted on November 4, 1958 confirmed in its second chapter that education is compulsory for children aged 6-12 years old. It also stipulated that education is free in all grades.” He added that subsequent laws have further supported this right by passing new legal texts.

The education reform law of 1991 goes even further: “Every Tunisian citizen who does not enroll his child in the primary education institutions or who obliges him to drop out of school when he is under the age of 16 shall be penalized by a fine reaching up to two hundred dinars ($US 120). In the case of non-compliance, the parents who violate the law shall be subjected to other penalties as stipulated in the Criminal Code.”

Because the penal code does not contain any penalties related to parents who withdraw their children from the educational institutions before the age of sixteen, this law has remained a subject of contention over the past two decades.

Despite the penalty mentioned in the laws, Lasaad Ya’qubi, the Secretary General of the General Union of Secondary Education (the Tunisian General Labor Union), confirmed that for years, the ministry has not penalized any of the parents who withdrew their children from schools under the legal age.

Ya’qubi added that the apparatuses of the education ministry “have neglected their duties of monitoring and tracking these cases legally, which effectively disrupted state programs aiming at increasing the numbers of students joining education.”

About the procedures followed in the implementation of the compulsory education law Ya’qubi said: “The school principal is requested to notify the Regional Commissary about drop out cases. The latter should inform the education ministry, which should contact the parents of the concerned child and notify them of the importance of returning the child to school. In case of noncompliance, the ministry starts taking measures and as a last measure, it refers the parents to judicial authorities.”

Ya’qubi explained that the negligence of the education ministry of its duties led to the formation of the secondary education syndicate about a year ago—the Coalition for Educational Reform Association in collaboration with a number of human rights organizations. It is expected that this coalition will study the causes for early drop out rates in school and ways to reduce it. The ministry declined to comment on the issue, despite repeated attempts to get a response from the ministry.

Omar al-Mansouri director of Kheir Eddin Secondary School in Magel Bel Abbès, said that the school administration contacts the guardians of the students who drop out from school in order to ask them to return. It then submits their files to the supervisory authority when its endeavours have not succeeded. He added that the administration was able to make five children who dropped out return to school.

Al-Mansouri gave two examples of such cases, the first about a girl named Y. M., and who is not yet 14 years old. Y. M. lost her mother and her stepmother made Y.M. leave school to care for her siblings. The school contacted the father during the previous school year (2012-2013) to convince him of the importance of returning his daughter to school and to inform him about the legal consequences if he didn’t. Today, Y. M. is one of the most successful students at the Kheir Eddin School according to al-Mansouri.

In the other case S.K., a young girl, left school for two months during the second part of the 2012-2013 academic year, despite her good grades. When her father was contacted and asked about the reason for her dropping out, he said it was because she didn’t want to go to school. When her relatives were contacted, it was revealed that her father was planning marry her off, although her teachers were able to make her join the school again. However, her father was able to take her out of school quickly prepare her wedding in order to avoid any attempts to make her join the school again.

Poverty, gender discrimination and ignorance

Many families in rural Tunisian areas believe that girls are cheap labour.  They help their families shoulder the burdens of life such as housework and domestic livestock. They even send them to work as servants for wealthy families.

Magel Bel Abbès has the dreams of 13-year-old Najah Sabreen disappear. This student was among the best students in the school when her twin brother Saber failed. Her father made her leave school in order to allow her brother the opportunity to continue his education. Sabreen was obliged to do the seasonal farming work, the only source of livelihood for the family.

The main reason behind the early drop out rates in rural and marginalized urban areas is poverty that plagues the dreams of young girls and brings them out of their schools to work in the pastures and fields in search of a living, while males are still able to continue their education.

According to official statistics, the poverty rates in rural and urban marginalized areas reach 65%. This percentage reaches 15.5% in Tunisia. In addition to the lack of money, in these remote rural areas the patriarchal mentality is widely spread and this means that females, in addition to their roles as peasants, are forced to stay in the house in order not to face any threats while going to school and coming back from it. This was confirmed by a number of families who found in this excuse a good reason not to let their daughters go to school. They say that they are afraid for the girls’ safety, especially with the absence of transportation means that ensure that they arrive safely to school and that they are not harassed when they return to their homes in the evening.

In most cases, children have to travel two and a half kilometers. Moreover, the harsh natural conditions substantially contribute to making it difficult for the education ministry to enroll both sexes, but especially girls.

A. S., from Magel Bel Abbes said that the reason behind depriving his 15-year-old daughter Amal from school is the absence of housing for secondary school girls in the Kheir Eddin area. This is in addition to his inability to rent a house for his daughter and the absence of suitable and regular transportation means to the school.

On the other hand, Saad Ya’qubi said: “The most important cause of early drop out rates is the lack of integration between the educational institution and its social surroundings. The schools usually do not deal with the students according to their social and geographical environment and do not care about the difficulties they face.”

Salafists are threatening young girls with illiteracy

The rise in the influence of the Salafi movement in Tunisia since the revolution is another factor that has further complicated the situation of girls in rural areas and deepened the dropout phenomenon. In light of the inability of the Salafists in applying the principle of separating the two sexes in schools, due to the impossibility of implementing this idea in the Tunisian educational institutions, a number of them decided to take their daughters out of school at an early age. For them, when the girl finishes her secondary school education, she becomes 12 years old and this means, for them, that she has learned what she needs to learn.  She has become an adult and she ought to get married, similar to what happened with 13-year-old Zainab.

Zeinab is a rural young girl from Manzel Shaker in Sfax. She started to wear the Niqab (veil covering the face) at the age of ten and she left school when she turned 11. Zeinab said: “I was the first in my class and I wanted to become a teacher.  My parents decided that I should leave school because I matured and learned enough of what I needed to learn. I’m now reciting the Quran at home with my sister Reem, who also left school because women, according to the teaching of our religion, should stay at home in order to be away from the eyes of men,” she said.

While Zainab seems to be convinced of her new situation, 16-year-old Doha from the Majaz Elbab city in the northwestern state of Baja, considers what happened to her as a tragedy in the fullest sense of the word. With eyes full with tears and anguish, Doha said: “My live has no meaning anymore. My father killed my only dream of continuing my education like the rest of my girlfriends.  Today, I die every day inside the rooms and walls of this house and nobody seems to be listening to me.  My father is searching for a Salafi husband for me (to protect me – as he says) and I want to have my own life, to build it the way I want not the way they want.  I can’t disobey them.  Who can save me?”

T. W., the father of Doha, who is a member of the Salafist Group justified his decision saying that he was fair to her.  “I taught her enough to make her a good mother.  This is the role which she was created to perform.”  For him, girls should leave school and stay at home to preserve their honor and dignity. They should do so like the wives of the Prophet, peace be upon him.”

Psychological and social consequences

Thousands of girls are dropping out of schools and leaving their childhood friends behind.  They start a new journey of shouldering the house work and this is adversely impacting their physical and psychological health, according to Hania Khader, a social worker who confirmed that the highest rate of school dropout is among the age group 11-15. 

The high rate of school dropout in rural and marginalized areas carries with it serious consequences. “The girl who does not finish her education is ignorant about her human needs of participation, dignity and development.  She cannot develop her own sense of innovation and creativity and she cannot fill her time. This will negatively impact on the way she raises her children.  Moreover, she will not be able to properly deal with issues related to her physical and psychological health and those of her children, such as early detection of malignant diseases and how to deal with fluctuating moods of teenagers.”

The political crisis and the educational sector

Despite the passage of more than two years on the formation of the National Constituent Assembly, the issue of the school drop-out phenomenon and the advancement of rural women were not among the topics debated by the assembly. Most of its sessions were entirely devoted to resolving political conflicts between the government and the opposition.

Moreover, the Educational Affairs Committee of the Constituent Assembly did not provide any new legislative value. It even did not convene during the past two years more than four times for hearing sessions to listen to a number of officials but without reaching any significant results, as confirmed by the statistics of the Constituent Assembly office.

Najib Ayyad, an expert at ALECSO, the Arab League’s Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization, which is concerned with the development and coordination of activities in the areas of education, culture and science in the Arab world, said: “The fate of Tunisia today is at stake, especially as more girls are dropping out of school one year after the next. The society, with all of its potential and aspirations is one integral part with its men and women.  Comprehensive development depends on good investment in the human resources of the country regardless of the gender issue.”

“Keeping women in a state where they don’t have to use their brains lessens the Tunisian families’ chances to find good work opportunities and participation.  When the capacities of rural women are not developed in the fields of skills, education and innovation, the whole society will suffer and will not be able to use its full capacity.  This wastes the next generations’ opportunities of a more beautiful and decent life.”