Placing Tunisian Men at the Center of Promoting Gender Equality
Illiterate women living in rural areas in Tunisia face significant barriers to exercising their electoral rights. In addition to residing in remote, inaccessible areas and lacking the financial means to travel to register or vote, they are also confronted with male resistance to their participation in public affairs. A survey conducted by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) partner, the Tunisian Mediterranean Center, found that 16 percent of women who participated in a mobilization campaign ahead of the May 2018 municipal elections responded that men in their families did not allow them to vote in the elections. To begin to break down this barrier, IFES piloted the first-ever “Male Allies for Leadership Equality” (MALE) training in Tunisia.
IFES developed the MALE training module as an addendum to its women’s leadership training curriculum. MALE training uses a systemic and practical approach to build an understanding among participants that gender equality and women’s empowerment will only be achieved when both women and men work toward that goal together. The objective is to train men at the household and institutional levels to defend women’s right to political participation. The MALE module includes male allies at the household level because supportive household environments are vital for women’s leadership development. Engaging family members is critical to maximizing women’s participation by eliminating basic barriers, such as household responsibilities and restrictions on the freedom of movement.
For the pilot MALE training in Tunisia in March 2019, IFES gathered a diverse group of 29 men from six southern governorates, many of whom were relatives of women who had participated in IFES outreach activities. The men came from different backgrounds, professions and literacy levels, ranged in age from 18 to 70 years old, and most had low levels of education. Over the course of two days, IFES facilitators created a space where the men could have open, frank discussion on topics such as gender equality, the achievements of Tunisian women, principles of citizenship, and women’s participation in elections.
The training was highly successful; however, at the beginning, the participants were reserved and voiced their reluctance to the concept of gender equality, saying, for example, that women are too emotional to participate in political and civic life, hold leadership positions or make decisions. Others invoked religious beliefs as a reason to limit women’s participation. Trainers subsequently exposed participants to concepts of gender equality and presented accomplishments of Tunisian women. By the end of the first day of the training, participants began to feel more at ease, increasingly confident and more interactive, and by the end of the second day, the men were visibly transformed, actively engaging with the facilitators and concepts and debating constructively with each other. More importantly, they had become more receptive to the concepts they were being taught; some men even admitted to having wrong perceptions and ideas about women.
Focus groups held after the training revealed the true extent of the transformation: an increase in the participants’ appreciation of the role of women in civic and political life and an evolved understanding of gender equality and women’s right to vote. As one participant said, “if you educate a woman, you educate a nation. When a woman takes a leadership role whether in family or at work, she is very assertive and strict, she takes responsibilities very seriously. That is why it is very important to support her to be more independent in her choice when it comes to election as well as cultivating her knowledge in politics.” Others expressed their willingness to share what they learned during the workshop with other men in their localities. Some suggested recruiting men ambassadors to sensitize men from rural areas since most of rural men are unaware of the importance of women’s participation in political and civic life. Many highlighted that this experience was unique and enriching and emphasized the importance of reaching out to more rural women and men.
“We need to spread the knowledge that we received in this workshop; we need to be ambassadors and spread it across our environment, be it with family members, neighbors or friends.” – A participant from Medenine
This pilot showed that the IFES-developed MALE training can yield positive results in Tunisia. Despite their initial resistance, the men began to internalize concepts of gender equality and professed their willingness to take the message to other men in their communities. The pilot also highlighted that placing men at the center of the promotion of gender equality and building male allies is the way forward to lifting resistance to women’s participation in political and public life and building a sustainable democracy in Tunisia. In the near future, IFES will look to work with these men as male ambassadors to sensitize citizens in rural areas to the importance of women’s participation in political and civic life.
This workshop was supported by the Canadian Government and the United States Agency for International Development through the Consortium for Elections and Political Process Strengthening (CEPPS). Established in 1995, CEPPS pools the expertise of three premier international organizations dedicated to democratic development: IFES, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute. CEPPS has a 20-year track record of collaboration and leadership in democracy, human rights and governance support, learning from experience, and adopting new approaches and tools based on the ever-evolving technological landscape.