Tunisia is in a period of dramatic transition. The country’s 2011 revolution was largely fueled by frustration over high unemployment and demand for political, economic and social reform. As Tunisians celebrate their recent democratic political transition, many are focused on building better lives for themselves and their communities – finding suitable jobs, putting food on the table, providing a good education for their children and securing a peaceful society.
In Tunisia, women represent 60% of all university students and graduate at higher rates than their male counterparts. Yet in 2012, only one in four women was active in the national labor market. Given their higher educational attainment, the relatively low numbers of women in the formal economy represents a significant loss for Tunisia.
Entrepreneurship is increasingly recognized as an important factor for economic growth and development across the globe. In the MENA region, where female labor force participation rates are among the lowest, entrepreneurship can offer opportunities for women to actively participate in the economy. Tunisia has one of the highest rates of women entrepreneurs in MENA with sole ownership of their firms (55%) and Tunisian women-owned companies had the highest recruitment rates in the region, employing an average of 19 workers per firm, according to a 2012 study. Despite these signs of success, Tunisian businesswomen cite a number of barriers, in addition to the same challenges their male peers encounter. A general culture that was seen as resistant to women’s entrepreneurship was cited in a recent survey of Tunisian women entrepreneurs as the number one barrier to reaching their full potential. Family obligations and limited business networks were other obstacles often mentioned by survey respondents.
At 39%, Tunisia is the second most active country in Africa in terms of internet penetration. About one-third of the population is active on Facebook (and 42% of the Facebook users are women). However, e-commerce, an important tool for many entrepreneurs, remains very limited due to conversion restrictions on the Tunisian Dinar.
With the support of the US-Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), IIE’s Center for Women’s Leadership Initiatives designed the WES program to support women's entrepreneurship and build the capacity of civil society to secure equal rights and opportunities for women.