Gendered Labor and Structural Violence: The case of women farmworkers in Tunisia

Editors’ note: This is the first in a series of pieces Mada Masr will be publishing on gender and labor. If you would like to pitch for this series, please write to [email protected]

In late April 2019, a pick-up truck transporting women farmworkers in the central Tunisian province of Sidi Bouzid collided with a bigger truck, killing 12 women and wounding 20 others. Protesters flooded the streets and a general strike was declared for a few days in Sabbala, where the lack of state investments, jobs, and infrastructure has led to a pervasive sense of injustice and abandonment. 

The deaths of these farmworkers were the outcome of the same conditions that led fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi, a Sidi Bouzid native, to set himself on fire almost a decade ago — an act that became iconic and set off a wave of nationwide protests. As women and as inhabitants of the rural interior, female farmworkers are doubly vulnerable and disempowered.  

The deaths sparked a national outcry in a country often thought of as a pioneer in women’s rights among Arab and Muslim countries. Yet many of those rights remain out of reach for large segments of the population in rural areas like Sabbala, and in particular for farmworkers. 

The latest in a series of road accidents that have left 40 women farmworkers dead and hundreds injured* over the past five years, the April 2019 collision highlights the discrepancy between women’s rights as enshrined in law (de jure) and the reality of women’s access to rights and protections (de facto). 

The Sabbala accident was particularly outrageous for women’s rights advocates and human rights organizations because it occurred a year and a half after Law 58, a groundbreaking law that adopted an expansive definition of violence against women, came into effect. 

When Law 58 passed, it was celebrated by lawmakers, feminists and women’s rights groups as “revolutionary” because it criminalizes a wider range of discrimination on the basis of sex to guarantee more protections for women and the delivery of justice. For the first time in the country’s history, political violence — defined as depriving women of their right to vote or run for office — is recognized by law and harsher punishments have been stipulated for crimes of sexual violence. New procedures, such as protection orders, were introduced and so was the legal status of victim, which entitles its holder to special rights and social services. 

Since the law was passed in late 2017, women’s rights organizations, legal experts, government officials and international organizations have been working to ensure its effective implementation by running awareness campaigns for the public and by training those responsible for implementing it, such as prosecutors, judges, lawyers, and policemen. 

In 2018 alone, around 40,000 complaints of all forms of violence against women were filed with police units specializing in investigating gender-related crimes. Although figures from previous years aren’t available, feminists relying on anecdotal evidence say there was an increase in the number of women reporting such violence, a fact they attribute to the new law. 

Yet the gendered inequalities that pervade the agricultural labor market amount to a structural form of violence that may not be immediately recognizable under this law.

Almost 70 percent of farmworkers in Tunisia are women. They work more than eight hours a day, get half the pay of men, don’t have access to social security or healthcare, and are not part of unions. Almost all women surveyed by a human rights observatory in Sidi Bouzid in 2016 said they do not have contracts and that they work seasonally, with daily wages below the national minimum wage of 13 dinars per day (around $5). Because of the seasonal and informal nature of their work, they deal with a mediator to negotiate their wages and to collect them; they don’t deal directly with landowners, according to the same survey.

The development model that Tunisia has followed since the 1980s, which has not changed following the 2010-2011 revolution, relies heavily on debt to finance growth and binds itself to international trade agreements, most notably with the EU. This has aggravated already existing regional and economic inequalities. This unequal development has disproportionately affected women, particularly those working precariously in the informal sector. Tunisia signed a US$2.8 billion loan with the IMF in 2016 to restructure its economy, including by freezing raises in public sector salaries and cutting subsidies.

Incidents like the one in Sabbala are inseparable from women farmworkers’ daily struggles and are an amplification of ongoing discrimination in the labor market, in a country that is a signatory to international labor rights agreements that stipulate equal pay and fair conditions of work for women. As such, lawyers and activists say that the conditions under which the victims live and work belies the promise of Law 58.

A few days after the Sabbala collision, dozens of women and men, mostly Tunis-based activists, gathered in front of the Ministry of Women, Family, Children, and the Elderly to call on the government to launch an investigation into the incident and to bring the perpetrators to justice. The centerpiece of the protest was the floral headscarf traditionally worn by rural women, known as el folara. Some of the protesters wrapped them around their heads, others around their necks, while one woman attached a headscarf with yellow flowers against a black background to a stick and waved it like a flag in mourning and protest. They chanted slogans against the government and the International Monetary Fund, whom they accused of impoverishing the rural areas. “You who have killed our children! Go, leave our country!” (Gattalin wledna! Barra sibou bledna!), dozens of women chanted, before launching into the slogan that resounded throughout the streets of Tunisia during the uprising that toppled Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali: “Employment! Freedom! National Dignity!” The chant “Equality! Equality! For women and for the [interior] regions!” connotes the inseparability of the struggle for equal rights for women and for the impoverished interior and mostly rural regions of the country, like Sidi Bouzid.  

At a press conference later that day, activists, lawyers and human rights organizations called for an urgent investigation into the deaths. Yosra Frawes, head of the Association Tunisienne Des Femmes Démocrates (ATFD) and a lawyer by training, called on the government to launch an investigation and draft legislation to protect women farmworkers. Halima Jouini, a member of the women’s committee at the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights, shouted out: “It’s the state that killed them!” Jouini’s comment was not simply an expression of anger, but was meant to call into question the claim that the deaths were just an “accident,” a narrative that the government reiterated. Minister of Women Naziha Labidi had earlier said that the deaths were “not the responsibility of the government. The government has carried out its duty and has drafted plans (to protect these women) but there are people who violate the law,” a comment that was interpreted to mean that it was the fault of the driver.  

Since women farmworkers are more vulnerable than men and are overrepresented in agricultural labor, they suffer disproportionately from a dilapidated road and transport system and an unjust wage regime, which puts them at risk of injury or death more often and more severely than men. The deaths in Sabbala were not the outcome of that one moment when their driver crashed the truck into another vehicle, but of the broader context of systematic neglect and uneven distribution of rights and protections.

While the inability of the state to ensure safety standards for these rural women has been met with rage and protest, it was also followed by proposals to mend the cracks in the legal system. A month after the Sabbala collision, in May 2019, Tunisia’s parliament ratified an amendment to the transport law requiring women farmworkers to be transported in designated vehicles. The vote on the legislation, which had been previously put to the parliament for discussion, was accelerated in the wake of the Sabbala deaths. But the existence of yet another law that aims to secure de jure protections is no guarantee of women’s actual access to rights. 

The Tunisian government is currently in negotiations with the European Union over the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, known by its French acronym ALECA, that is expected to undercut the Tunisian economy, particularly the agricultural sector, according to the Forum Tunisien Des Droits Économiques et Sociaux (FTDES), a Tunisian organization for the defense of economic and social rights. Seasonal agricultural workers, the majority of whom are women, are set to be disproportionately affected by the signing of the agreement. 

In rendering the lives of rural women disposable, incidents like Sabbala make visible the structures that produce the inegalitarian effects of gendered labor markets, social safety nets, and transport infrastructures. They also bring to light the discrepancy between the rhetoric of the Tunisian state, which glorifies rural women as the core of authentic Tunisian identity, and the reality of the dire conditions under which they live and work.  

By specifying and expanding the definition of gender-based violence, Law 58 is certainly a powerful resource for Tunisian women. Yet it remains to be seen the extent to which the law is capable of addressing gendered work conditions that put the lives of women farmworkers at risk and may ultimately lead to their deaths, as in the case of the victims of the Sabbala truck crash. This will partly depend on the efforts of civil society in continuing to raise awareness about the new law and on the increased familiarity of those responsible for implementing it, most notably the police and the judiciary, with its intricacies. But most importantly, as Tunisian feminists repeatedly say, making the law more than just “ink on paper” is contingent on the availability of financial and administrative resources from the state, and the political will to implement it.

* Data according to Forum Tunisien Des Droits Économiques et Sociaux (FTDES)

* Note that the law does not refer to “gender” in any of its clauses but refers to “women”


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