Arab Women in Revolution: Reports from the Ground

Part: 10

In the New Tunisia, Women's Rights Are in Play

Friday, November 4, 2011

Women's rights have long been considered a development keystone. Tunisian women--in the vanguard of the Arab world--will put that theory to a crucial test as the country's new democracy takes shape following last week's elections.

(WOMENSENEWS)--With its recent elections, Tunisia has passed its first hurdle in the long transition to democracy.

While the world will watch closely as a constitution is created and a government formed, there is one important gender-specific bellwether that bears special attention: The ability of educated women to help forge a stable, advanced democracy that preserves and promotes their civil rights.

In Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, the status of women is by numerous measures the highest in the Arab World.

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Here is a real-time chance to observe whether educated women with small families, employable skills and time for careers can contribute significantly to a stable, largely secular political order able to restrain a potential conservative backlash against them.

Around the Arab world, women worry about where the revolutions are leading society, perhaps most publicly in Egypt, where many gains for women made under Hosni Mubarak and his wife, Suzanne, are now threatened because of their origins in that hated regime.

But Tunisia is now in the spotlight too.

On Wednesday, about 200 Tunisian women demonstrated in downtown Tunis in defense of their rights, fearing a threat from last week's victory by the Islamist Ennahda party.

Tunisia has 10.6 million people, according to the United Nations Population Division, the New York-based keeper of global census statistics. That number is split evenly between male and female citizens, with no evidence of the widespread "son preference" that leads to the abortion of female fetuses and the neglect of little girls in parts of Asia and elsewhere. That's a good start for Tunisian women.

Better Quality of Life

In 2008 (the latest available U.N. figures) the maternal mortality rate in Tunisia -- the deaths of adolescent girls and adult women in any stage of pregnancy and immediately after giving birth -- was 60 in 100,000 live births. In Arab nations generally, the rate was 247 in 100,000. Ninety-five percent of Tunisian births are attended by skilled health personnel. The Arab world's average is 72 percent.

Virtually all Tunisian girls go to primary school; 76 percent are enrolled in secondary education. Female teens and young women in the 15-to-24 age range enjoy literacy rates that are roughly on a par with their male counterparts. Ninety-eight percent of men can read and write, and 96 percent of women can as well, roughly 10 percentage points ahead of women in a region that stretches across North Africa and the Middle East.

By some measures, Tunisia ranks among developed nations. Its total fertility rate, statistically at 1.9 children per women, is lower than that of the United States, at 2.1 percent, and nearly in line with the average of 1.7 children in the richer countries, including Europe. (The United States is the exception to the rule, with its higher rate. A fertility rate of 2.1 children over a woman's reproductive years is known by demographers as replacement fertility, meaning that the two parents will replace themselves while keeping population growth stable.)

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