Climate Change and Tunisia’s Tozeur Oases: An opportunity to boost women’s leadership and economic activity
Article proposed and written by Euro – Mediterranean Women’s Foundation’s Secretary
Publication date: 28 October 2019
Table of Contents
In its latest report ‘’The Global Climate in 2015–2019’’, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) warned that global warming is accelerating, so are the associated features such as the sea level rise, the shrinking sea ice, glacier retreat and last but least the extreme events such as heatwaves, droughts, landslides, floods and hurricanes . Although these events affect all of humanity, their repercussions can radically affect the lives, lifestyles, consumption and economic and social dynamics of certain groups, especially those whose lives depend heavily on natural resources, or who experience a certain degree of loss resulting from resources depletion or scarcity .
It has been evidenced by many international actors that women are among the most vulnerable groups to climate change, especially in areas where gender roles and relations lead to gender inequalities. For instance, 80% of people displaced worldwide by climate change are women, according to UNDP  who also concluded that ‘’women don´t have easy and adequate access to funds to cover weather-related losses or adaptation technologies. Women also face discrimination in accessing land, financial services, social capital and technology. ’’
Despite the disproportionate impact of climate change on women and scientists alarm bells, these risks must be faced with hope and seen as an opportunity to empower women and increase their contributions to finding sustainable alternatives and solutions to environmental problems and their socio-economic consequences. This article attempts to explore the specific relationship between climate change and women in the oases of Tozeur (Tunisia), whose ecosystem has been disrupted and some of its crops resistant to climate change have disappeared due to some unfortunate agricultural policies.
The article is based on a field diagnosis conducted by the association La Ruche de la citoyenneté active de Tozeur (The Hive of Active Citizenship of Tozeur), with the support of the Euro-Mediterranean Women’s Foundation (FFEM) and the European Institute of the Mediterranean (IEMed) within the framework of the project “Strengthening the capacities of equality actors” which consists in analysing women’s local realities and public policies through consultations and dialogues at a grass-roots level, through the set-up of local clusters of gender equality actors in 7 southern Mediterranean countries, including Tunisia (more information about these local clusters’ project is available on www.euromedwomen.foundation). The article is also based on perception surveys with 32 environmental and women empowering entities including associations, trade unions and agricultural development groups (GDAs), four focus group discussions with institutional and civic actors from Chebika, Tamagheza, Hezouwa and Nafta).
Tozeur: Demography, facts and fragile ecosystem
As its geographical location suggests, the governorate of Tozeur and its 6 delegations (Tozeur, Hezoua, Tamagheza, Nefta, Deguèche and Hamma) are characterised by a dry continental climate with very high evaporation and extremely low rainfall, never exceeding 100 mm/year .
Tozeur is the least populated governorate in Tunisia, as the number of inhabitants represents less than 1% of the Tunisian population. More than half of its population are women, due to the recent increasing migration of young males in search of better living conditions in neighbouring cities and regions.
The economy of this governorate is dominated by agriculture, mainly palm date production which remains the most important sector in terms of area, production volume and revenues, following decades of agricultural business policies supporting date palm monoculture. These policies though led to the depletion of water resources and the gradual loss of local oasis expertise which adopted integrated agriculture to adapt to difficult climatic conditions.
This ancient agriculture is carried on, typically by superimposing three layers: at the top, date palms; in the middle, fruit trees (oranges, bananas, pomegranates, apples, etc.); and, in the shade, at the lowest level, plants (vegetables, fodder, cereals) . The three-stage culture creates an oasis microclimate that reduces evaporation, allows the growing of several species using the water and the sun, and shelters and preserves a wide diversity of animals . Therefore, the dependence on one type of agriculture, coupled with high temperatures and water scarcity, started to vulnerating the oasis ecosystem and posing a serious threat to its inhabitants and their livelihoods.
This fragile situation has, though, pushed Tozeur’s population to engage in tourism, a sector has a lot of potential.
Oasis Women: traditional knowledge and economic practice
As most of the oasis women in North Africa, women in Tozeur play an important role in the management and the conservation of biodiversity. They have knowledge and expertise, acquired over centuries, of conservation, processing and recovery of date palm products, other fruits, palm grove by-products and surrounding species .
Their lifestyle, positions, roles, customs, behaviours and even economic activity are quite diverse and are governed by their area’s nature. For instance, in the mountainous area of Tamagheza, Chbika and Mides where lifestyle is semi-rural, women take part in fieldwork at the bottom level (irrigation, hoeing, weeding, etc.), contributing to maintaining soil quality. They are also responsible for caring for herds’ hygiene and stables.
Meanwhile, the women of Hezoua region are semi-nomads, they travel with their stock-farmer husbands in search of desert pasture. In urban areas such as Tozeur and Nafta, the division between agriculture and domestic life is very clear. Women in these areas don’t customarily work in the fields, where the tasks are considered tough for women, but they contribute to the processing of palm grove products: grading, filling and packaging dates, on one hand; and the preservation and processing of local products such as date syrup, paste and vinegar. They also contribute massively to crafts and artisan dairy products. Women also make use of other oasis products such as vegetable crops, aromatic and medicinal plants. Additionally, women weave clothing and carpets from camel skin and remnants of fabrics.
Underrepresentation of oasis women in the public sphere
Despite women’s significant contribution to the local economy and the preservation of the oases biodiversity, and their remarkable participation in the first municipal elections after the revolution in 2018 (out of 36 electoral lists, 11 were headed by women in Tozeur), their presence in local governance and the political scene remain weak. Following 2018 municipal elections, women of Tozeur have only won seats as deputy mayors.
The same goes for civil society: 70% of members of organizations targeted by the survey on which this article is partially based are women, while this figure is inverted when it comes to decision-making posts as it turned out that only 30% of active women in associations have managerial roles.
In the survey, 3 out of four of the people interviewed stated that the level of gender integration in development projects in Tozeur is insufficient and that dedicated programmes in the region do not take into account the needs and expectations of oasis women. For example, only 3 out of the 40 development projects, programmed for the Chebika, Tamagheza and Mides regions as part of the Sustainable Management of Oasis Ecosystems project (SMOE), financed by the World Bank, are dedicated to women.
Likewise, women make up only 3% of the members of the GDAs who are been appointed by the State to manage local natural resources including water, forests and pastures.
Existing initiatives and promising efforts to empower oasis women
Tunisia’s Jasmine revolution paved the way for increased participation of women on all levels. In Tozeur, several initiatives have been carried out by or for women, and various programmes and projects were launched to improve women’s lives and boost their leadership.
In 2017, the Regional Commission for Agricultural Development (CRDA) set up a women’s GDA in Tozeur as one of the components pf a project it has been conducted since 2013 with support of the German Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ), to promote women’s participation in rural sustainable development .
Civil society organizations are also playing huge role in empowering women and strengthening female entrepreneurship. One good example is Tozeur WES Centre  whose some beneficiaries’ achievements were recognized on local and national levels. Precisely, Fathia Arfaoui, a housewife from Bouhlel, who won several awards for the quality of her date-derived products, after attending one of WES Centre’s training programme.
Another good example is the social enterprise Shanti which came up with the project El Mensej as a solution to fight environmental pollution caused by cloth waste, as well as to perpetuate an endangered knowledge and tradition .
In 2018, and following the field diagnosis on which this article is based, the association La Ruche de la citoyenneté active à Tozeur conducted several activities to strengthen the resilience of oasis women in the face of climate change and to improve the incomes of women artisans through the promotion of local know-how and products that result from it (gastronomy, crafts …). these activities included a training for local elected officials and members of the civil society of Tozeur on gender and climate change, the production and dissemination of videos and radio programs on traditional dishes in connection with the biodiversity of oases, and the distribution of a directory to facilitate the marketing of local products developed by women in the region of Tozeur .
Women of Tozeur have a close relationship with the oasis, therefore, any imbalance affecting the oasis ecosystem will evidently have an impact on their lives, which means that they must be involved in every decision making related to local development.
Investing in initiatives enabling women to recuperate and revive ancestral knowledge and agricultural and cultural heritage would contribute to the economic empowerment of women in Tozeur and the preservation of the environment. A program to improve product quality, packaging, and marketing will increase sales revenue for these women and help them to meet their needs and those of their families.
Scientific research in the area of adaptation and resilience to climate change in oasis regions needs to be developed and further explored. It is also necessary to build the capacities of local civil and institutional actors in planning and executing gender-sensitive projects and programs.
An urgent action to protect and to re-introduce local varieties resistant to climate change is also needed.
References WORLD METEOROLOGICAL ORGANIZATION (WMO), The Global Climate in 2015-2019, 2019
https://library.wmo.int/index.php?lvl=notice_display&id=21522  United Nations Disaster Relief Organizations (UNDRO), Natural Disasters and Vulnerability, 1982  UNITED NATIONS DEVELOPMENT PROGRAMME, Gender and Climate Change – Overview of linkages between gender and climate change, 2017  Ibid  ASSOCIATION LA RUCHE DE LA CITOYENNETE ACTIVE DE TOZEUR, Field diagnosis: Climate change and the economic empowerment of oasis women in Tozeur, 2018
https://www.euromedwomen.foundation/pg/en/documents/view/8362/field-diagnosis-climate-change-and-economic-empowerment-of-oasis-women-in-tozeur  QUEBEC ASSOCIATION OF INTERNATIONAL COOPERATION BODIES (AQOCI), “Gender in Practice” Practice Community – Supporting Partners in Gender Mainstreaming: Women’s Economic Empowerment, 2013  Les oasis de Tozeur et Chenini Gabès : diversité et durabilité des formes de valorisation à l’ère de la mondialisation et des crises du développement – Article paru in Marshall A., Lavie E., Chaléard J-L., Fort M., Lombard J. (dir.), 2014, Actes du colloque international : Les oasis dans la mondialisation : ruptures et continuités, Paris, 16 et 17 Décembre 2013, 105-112 (The oases of Tozeur and Chenini Gabès: diversity and sustainability of valorisation forms in the era of globalization and development crises – Article published in Marshall A., Lavie E., Chaléard JL, Fort M., Lombard J. (dir.), 2014, Proceedings of the International Symposium: Oases in Globalization: Ruptures and Continuities, Paris, 16-17 December 2013, 105-112)
http://www.umifre.fr/c/1864  ASSOCIATION LA RUCHE DE LA CITOYENNETE ACTIVE DE TOZEUR, Field diagnosis: Climate change and the economic empowerment of oasis women in Tozeur, 2018
https://www.euromedwomen.foundation/pg/en/documents/view/8362/field-diagnosis-climate-change-and-economic-empowerment-of-oasis-women-in-tozeur  Profile Genre de la Tunisie, préparé dans le cadre de la coopération de l’Union européenne avec le Gouvernement de la République tunisienne (Gender profile of Tunisia prepared in the framework of the European Union’s cooperation with the Government of the Tunisian Republic), 2014\https://eeas.europa.eu/sites/eeas/files/rapport_national_genre_tunisie_2014_complet_fr.pdf  Centre WES Tozeur https://www.facebook.com/Centre-WES-Tozeur-1543117069264012/  EURO – MEDITERRANEAN WOMEN’S FOUNDATION, Empowering Nefta’s women artisans through cloth recycling; 2018https://www.euromedwomen.foundation/pg/en/sharedpractices/view/8278/empowering-neftas-women-artisans-through-cloth-recycling  EURO – MEDITERRANEAN WOMEN’S FOUNDATION, Climate Change and women’s economic empowerment in Tozeur, 2018