The word mabrouka in Arabic translates as ‘many blessings from God’ and ‘good luck’. It is believed that a woman who holds this name not only enjoys these blessings and luck but also shares them with those around her. Yet things didn’t quite turn out that way for Mabrouka Oweini who was born and raised in the Sarj Mountain in the Waslatia area in the Kairouan governorate, in central Tunisia.

Deprived of an education  

The word mabrouka in Arabic translates as ‘many blessings from God’ and ‘good luck’. It is believed that a woman who holds this name not only enjoys these blessings and luck but also shares them with those around her. Yet things didn’t quite turn out that way for Mabrouka Oweini who was born and raised in the Sarj Mountain in the Waslatia area in the Kairouan governorate, in central Tunisia.

Deprived of an education  

Twenty-one-old Mabrouka sits and watches swaths of students going to a faraway school, as there is no school where she was born and raised and still lives. There are almost no facilities and no infrastructure here. She, like many of the less fortunate residents of rural areas, never learned to read or had the chance to attend school.

Mabrouka is not even registered in the state’s civil registry because her father, Sabouei Oweini, was a fugitive escaping from judicial rulings against him because he illegally cut wood in the forest. A number of verdicts were issued against him, in absentia, and he hid in the mountains. He stopped travelling to the city, especially anything related to state institutions.

But Mabrouka only found this out later, as an adult, having spendt all of her life as an invisible citizen. Her lack of an official status made it impossible for her to attend school. In Tunisian law, education is compulsory and free until the age of 16 and the law punishes any father who does not send his children to school.  However, this law was not applied towards Mabrouka’s father, who is now deceased.

Mabrouka does not own an identity card, preventing her from voting or having any official status whatsoever. She owns no document bearing her name.

Even marriage will prove difficult unless she decides to follow the traditional way used in her area. Many men here marry according to the prevailing norms and without any official contracts. Even her death would be officially insignificant because she technically does not exist. 

Charities discovered these realities

It was by mere coincidence that one of the charities discovered the story of the Oweini tribe in the Sarj Mountain in Waslatia in 2011, while the charity was distributing food aid to some members—Mabrouka was among them. It was then that the charity discovered that not only are tribe members not registered, their children do not attend schools and their young men marry without any official contracts. 

The issue may appear as if it is related to poverty, the remoteness of the city, transportation difficulties, and the absence of means and resources.  However, there are many other reasons that were revealed when some of these cases did not respond to the advice of charities to go and register.  For a number of them, it was fear that prevented them from going. The registration procedure requires that they go to the court, as a routine administrative procedure, without any penalty. Still, there were some cases that didn’t register until January 2015. 

Monia Saket, head of Solidarity Association for Relief and Development, was among the charitiy team in 2011, and they have discovered that nothing has changed, especially Mabrouka’s status. The association interfered again by raising awareness, sensitization and by clarifying a means of correcting this legal problem. It also coordinated with the mayor of Kairouan in order to find a legal solution to the issue.

Some families have responded and started to register their sons, like Mabrouka’s uncle, Lehbib Oweini, who had started with the procedures needed for registration. He benefited from the exceptional interference of civil society and the judiciary, which, according to Nabil Farjawi, an official at the social progress unit in Waslatia, only requires birth details of the parents and two witnesses after which the registration is done by the Court of First Instance in Kairouan.

Despite the interventions of civil society associations and their attempts to convince Mabrouka’s father in 2011 to register her, he did not take the issue seriously because if he did, he would have had to go to the court. He passed away one week after the charity team’s visit in 2015. 

After her father’s death, official efforts to correct Mabrouka’s status were put into motion, mainly from the charity’s advocacy. Based on the birthdate of her mother Manjiya Oweini, and the death certificate of her father, together with the testimonies of two witnesses, authorities were able to give Mabrouka official status.  According to the family system in rural areas, when a father dies, the custody of his children goes to the children’s uncle and Mabrouka’s uncle, Lehbib Oweini, who corrected the status of his unregistered children, accepted to be the guardian. He plans to follow up on Mabrouka’s legal status. 

Shock and fear

Mabrouka’s case came as a shock to local officials in Kairouan and to its mayor who responded by visiting the family and the region. In addition, the Social Affairs Department also responded by providing Mabrouka with a monthly assistance of 70 dinars (US $36), an amount usually paid to poor families to help them cover a small part of their needs. 

Monia Saket, the head of the Solidarity Association for Relief and Development, said: “It seems that some of the unregistered families did not dare declare their unregistered status for fear of being punished by the state and because they did not have trust in the official delegation, which had visited them. She added: “This issued can be addressed by civil and awareness means.”   

The first in the number of protests and in suicide rates

Mabrouka’s life story mirrors the experience of many youth and children in Kairouan. With 600,000 inhabitants, Kairouan is in the center of Tunisia, described as a transit area with a strategic location linking north to south, but it is also an area of false promises and speeches on development, as the people of the province say.

According to a study prepared by the Ministry of Social Affairs in 2011, the poverty rate in Kairouan was at 34% and the percentage of needy families was estimated at 14%. The region enjoys natural richness as represented by the vast farming areas, natural resources, cultural and civilizational heritage, but all this did not do anything to improve the well-being of the people. Residents here blame officials for this situation as well as the central administration and for the neglect and marginalization of this region. 

Kairouan has the highest rate of illiteracy, second highest rate of poverty and ranks 23 out of the country’s 24 provinces in its developmental achievements.

It also has the highest suicide rates.

The highest rate of suicide attempts was in the Bouhajla, south of Kairouan, with a total of 37 suicide attempts in less than a year in 2014, most of these cases were among children, according to  Ayman Mahrazi, an activist in the field of media and culture, who organized a cultural and educational event to raise awareness about this phenomenon. 

This tragic phenomenon sent people to the streets to protest— The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, a human rights non-governmental organization in Kairouan, recorded the organization of 22 events during the month of December 2014. 

I will live !

‘I will live!’ is the slogan of an anti-suicide awareness-raising campaign organized by the coordination committee of civil society organizations in Kairouan under the supervision of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights.  The campaign is composed of educational activities and cultural events with the participation of civil society organizations, psychologists and social workers. Activities were held in a number of primary schools in al-Ula province, where there is a very high rate of suicide cases, some are among students.

This activism forced the regional authority in Kairouan to respond after a long period of silence and to start finding solutions to these problems.  A cell of doctors, specialists and educators has been formed during the month of January, 2015 to follow up on this issue.

Mabrouka, who will soon become a citizen with full rights, after registering her in the lists of citizens, will undoubtedly start to demand an improvement of her living conditions, which she did not willingly choose.  Like thousands of unemployed people in Kairouan, she will aspire to have a job and a decent life after two decades of marginalization and isolation.