Tunisia’s new Minster of Women’s Affairs, Family and Children Samira Maari spoke to Correspondents about tackling huge economic disparities between urban and rural women, education gaps, and the rise of extremism.

Madame Minister, there are those who criticize you for rarely conducting joint activities with Tunisian women’s organizations that address women’s problems, how do you respond to this criticism?

Tunisia’s new Minster of Women’s Affairs, Family and Children Samira Maari spoke to Correspondents about tackling huge economic disparities between urban and rural women, education gaps, and the rise of extremism.

Madame Minister, there are those who criticize you for rarely conducting joint activities with Tunisian women’s organizations that address women’s problems, how do you respond to this criticism?

These accusations are unrealistic. Soon after taking the duties of the ministry, I found unorganized contracts and agreements to finance to some organizations. I directly made some changes based on specific program organizing the way these organizations can approach the Ministry. At the end, the ministry is the only entity in charge of setting the state’s policy on enabling women and families on social, economic, and educational levels.

The program studies the applications presented by the organizations, who must address certain issues like violence against women and protecting women from domestic violence. Then, the program mandates ministry supervision alongside funding. The aforementioned application process is conducted by a transparent committee that has representatives from other ministries.

Your statement about intending to close Koranic schools has aroused controversy, can you explain your position on the issue?

My statement was clear. In this statement, I urged to close none licensed religious instruction spaces and not the legal Koranic schools.   

We oppose shutting down the schools that teach the Holy Koran under the supervision of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The illegal schools I targeted were exposed to be teaching children things that contradict religion and incite violence, murder and religious extremism. These schools do not respect the state’s conditions and the people working in them are breaking the law. The government and the civil society have legal mechanisms to monitor these schools and report them to be shut down.

Statistics show that young Tunisian women have joined the so-called Jihad in areas of conflict. Don’t you think there has been a failure in combating extremism and launching programs to raise awareness among women?

I am convinced that families living in extremely difficult social conditions and who have lost their values and moral compass are more likely to be seduced by terrorists.

I have repeatedly urged the government to adapt a social policy to counter terrorism. In this context, the Ministry of Women has allocated 20 million Tunisian Dinars (US $10 million) to put this policy into action and to reach out to women in marginalized circles.

This policy focuses on education and supporting women launching small enterprises to reduce the economic suffering lived by women in rural, mountain and border areas.  These areas not only need attention from the government but also from civil society organizations and investors.

This year, the program will help launch one hundred small enterprises in all of Tunisia’s provinces, and fifty middle-size enterprises for women with university degrees.

Does the ministry have programs to monitor, intervene and protect young women being attracted by extremists?

As a matter of fact, the focus of the embassy at this point is mainly preventive, to stop this phenomenon. Our outreach program targets marginalized areas and poor families and has a follow-up function to prevent terrorism and extremist ideas from affecting women.

In this context, what about the children living in border areas, who have also become recruitment targets for terrorists?

We are highly attentive to this issue; therefore, the development program also focuses on educating children to be immune to the terrorist trends.

In the internal parts of the country and in mountainous areas, children face various dangers on their way to school on a daily basis. Since terrorism is one of these dangers, we included a program especially for children. The program was developed by experts in psychology and sociology, and aims at endowing kids with self confidence and boosting their sense of belonging to this country. It also encourages children openly talk about their interests and worries.

We started this program in 11 marginalized and border areas in the country, and we witnessed a high turn out. This program also succeeded at bringing long-term absent children back to school, of whom most joined professional schools. The ministry is highly interested in providing every condition possible to protect children, school them and integrate them in the economic fabric in order to protect them from extremist ideology and terrorist organizations or merely form living on the streets. The ministry also intends to revive the “My Childhood” fund to help raise children in Tunisia.

There are major social and economic differences in Tunisia between women in the cities and women in rural areas. How do you intend to reduce these differences?

Since I took my ministerial duties, we have a policy that targets women in rural areas aiming at achieving the women’s constitutional equality with men and obtaining their rights.

Although the Tunisian Constitution is a subject of pride for Tunisia and Tunisian women, we still have to make major regulatory improvements in the field of gender equality.

I began working not only for equality between women and men, but also for equality between rural and urban women, since the life conditions of women in the remote parts of the country are extremely difficult. However, I believe in investing in the Tunisian woman and providing her with the mechanisms that enforce the laws connected to women rights.

 There are talks about the rising phenomenon of “feminizing” poverty and unemployment among women in marginalized areas, what is your plan to counter this phenomenon?

Unfortunately, this is the bitter truth. Estimates and studies have ranked Tunisia at a very low level in the field of employment equality between women and men. The rates of women unemployment doubled those of men and more than doubled in some areas.

Women in Tunisia still suffer from severe illiteracy –  40 % of women in Al-Qayrawan province are illiterate and this is a frightening number if seen in contrast to the rates of education in the country. One of the reasons for this problem is the social and economic conditions that drive women out of schools at an early age. Therefore, we at the ministry have prioritized women’s economic conditions, and as I mentioned earlier, the ministry sponsored 50 middle size enterprises for university educated women and 100 small enterprises for women who are out of school. In addition, the ministry, in cooperation with the Tunisian Solidarity Bank and other organizations, contributes interest free loans of five to 10,000 Dinars to self-financed enterprises.

Some opposition parties accuse the government of not having a clear social and economic program to run the country and meet the demands of jobs and development. How do you comment on this issue?

These accusations have no base in reality. The government previously declared its program in the Directory Charter for Development (2016 / 2020), that none of those accusers seems to have read. When it was presented to the EU Council, the charter was praised as being a plan that would excel with the country on every level. However, this plan on the ground still faces difficulties due to to rising social protests and the outward movement of investments, which delays the development and work opportunities the Tunisian people are asking for.

Are you not repeating the arguments that were made by former governments to explain the delay in development and job creation with the social protests and strikes?

On the contrary. Since I was a representative in the National Convention as a representative of the Afek Tounes Party, I have denounced the protests that obstruct business and investments. This is and has always been our principle position. The problem now is the disruptions in the budget balance, the income is shrinking and the expenditure is rising alongside the random and unorganized hiring in the public sector in the last few years. These issues, among others, are real problems keeping the government from executing its plans.  

You talked about the financial imbalance. Why did the government not reschedule its debts to use the debt funds to solve the economic social problems as the opposition parties suggested?

I find these suggestions strange and unrealistic. How can we ignore the Tunisian state commitments to other countries? Is it not in our interest to present an image of Tunisia as a country that respects its commitments? Is it in our interest to break our pledges? In addition, from another perspective, we do not control debt refund suspension or flow, this matter is controlled by the lender countries and international banking institutions – the decision in the end is theirs.

Are you content with the government’s performance?

Of course I am. The government is working tirelessly with pure devotion and patriotism. However, as I have mentioned, this is still not enough because of the urgent popular demands and the disruptions in the production process because of strikes and protests. Moreover, we still have major problems like the lack of qualified personnel, and the lazy public employees in the midst of a suffocating bureaucracy. These are unacceptable conditions in these times of technological and communication advances.

This government has already reached achievements that are still not visible to the citizens. However, we need to have a strategy to show our work and I believe that it is still too soon to cast a judgment on the government’s performance.

Your party Afek Tounes criticized the performance of the former troika government lead by Ennahda Movement, and today you are allied with the  movement. How do you assess this experience?

I believe that this governmental coalition was inevitable, and Afek Tounes Party actually called for the current coalition. We do not call for the exclusion of any political faction, and we built our election campaign on economic and social programs, rather than on narrow ideological bases.

Content or discontent is not connected to the nature of the coalition, rather it is connected to the application of the programs carried by the parties forming this coalition. This coalition came together to set the governmental, social and economic quotas and not to split positions along partisan quotas. The coalition was also formed to endow the government with a political legitimacy to help it execute its plans and programs. However, this did not take place properly and the coalition did not live up to expectations.