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Tunisian Women Break Employment Stereotypes

TUNIS—Reem Mabarki, a 26-year-old surveyor, knows that it is unusual to see a woman on a construction site.

“Men usually do land surveying. It’s a job that requires physical effort and long hours of standing in hot or cold weather,” she said. “But this is work I have studied for two years, and I am happy to be doing it.”

Mabarki graduated from one of Tunisia’s accredited vocational education centers, specializing in land surveying. She was one of only two women in her class of 20 students.

“I was certain about my choice of this subject, and my parents encouraged me,” she said. “The study was not easy. In the end, I was one of only five students who managed to graduate.”

Mabarki studied economics, and received a diploma, before taking a course in land surveying. “There are thousands of unemployed graduates with degrees in economics,” she said. “I preferred to study a subject that would let me work and avoid having to join a long queue of job seekers.” (Read the related article: “Without Jobs, Dignity Eludes Many Tunisian Youth.”)

Tunisia’s unemployment rate is estimated at more than 15 percent, with an average of 625,000 unemployed persons in mid-2017, according to official figures. A study by the Institut Arabe des Chefs d’Entreprises, a business think tank in Tunisia, revealed that 145,000 jobs are vacant. Sixty percent of these jobs are vocational in nature. The study estimates that this number will rise to 270,000 vacancies by 2018.

Khalid bin Yahya, director-general of the Tunisian Agency for Vocational Training (Photo by Ibtissem Jamel).

“The opportunities that are available in the labor market for vocational education graduates are about twice those available for university graduates,” said Khalid bin Yahya, director-general of the Tunisian Agency for Vocational Training, a government institution responsible for organizing and supervising 130 vocational education centers in the country. The agency offers courses in agriculture, construction, textiles and clothing, electricity, electronics, transport, tourism and hospitality, leather and footwear, welding, food industries and traditional arts and crafts.

This year, the Tunisian government passed a law requiring young people under the age of 18 who have dropped out of school to attend a vocational education course. More than 100,000 young people drop out of school annually, according to the education ministry.

Tunisian women have begun to take vocational education courses in disciplines that were long monopolized by men, Yahya said. In 2016, for example, 471 out of a total of 6,654 students who enrolled in construction courses were female. In the same year, 214 females out of 5,912 students studied metal welding; and 239 women took a course in vehicle maintenance, out of a total of 5,073 students. Also, there was strong demand for courses in electrical and electronics skills, with 2,725 females out of 15,738 students.

“All professional disciplines at our centers are open to all students regardless of sex. There are no restrictions on registration,” said Yahya. “There are hundreds of female graduates in the fields of construction, carpentry, blacksmithing and heavy equipment maintenance. Most of them are working today in workshops and private companies, while a number of them have also opened their own workshops.”

Jihan Bolefi (Photo by Ibtissem Jamel).

Yahya believes social restrictions do not prevent female students from joining certain disciplines. “There is surprise at first, but the well-qualified graduate will quickly receive admiration and respect for her professional work,” he said.

Jihan Bolefi, 17, faced some criticism from family members and friends when she chose to train for a career in construction and enrolled in courses at Ben Arous Vocational Training Institute in Tunis.

“Many people warned me about the difficulty of the work and the amount of physical effort it requires, but I like construction work,” she said. “There are many job opportunities in this area, not only in Tunisia but also in European countries.”

Bolefi needs to study for three years before she can graduate and start working. She plans to find employment during the summer vacations to acquire practical skills.

“The path is long and hard,” she said. “But it is not impossible, and I am sure I will succeed because I love what I do.”


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