A bit of good women’s rights news has greeted us to end 2018. The Tunisian Cabinet recently approved a bill that will require male and female heirs be given equal inheritance shares. This is a first for the country, and is one of the first proposed bills of its kind in the Arab world. While the bill must now go to the Tunisian parliament for debate, this is still a victory for women’s land rights.
We have seen in our work that equal inheritance rights on paper do not always translate to equal rights in practice, but good laws in support of women’s rights are an important first step. Tunisia has a way to go on both fronts, but may be headed in a good direction even though there is still opposition. In fact, a survey conducted last year showed that 63% of Tunisians, including 52% of Tunisian women, oppose equal inheritance shares. Many Muslim clerics in Tunisia oppose equal inheritance rights as well. Vocal opposition remains a reality.
However, the Tunisian Feminist Association, some local NGOs, and secular activists all support the bill. We see an effort to eradicate discrimination against women, to reduce barriers to the equal exercise of rights, and to increase economic independence for women. We see a bill being introduced for debate when five or ten years ago such legislation would never have been crafted.
These victories might seem small, but these incremental changes lead, ultimately, to greater empowerment of women. We applaud the Tunisian Cabinet for taking this step in the fight for women to gain equal rights to land, resources, and inheritance.
As Resource Equity turns four, we are reflecting on what motivated us to begin, and why we continue: ensuring women’s rights to land and natural resources are at the center of our work.
We founded Resource Equity four years ago in order to center women in our work, and to ensure that women’s experiences, needs, and desires drive what we do. We know that secure land and resource rights are a critical building block that provide women, and their families and communities, the opportunity to prosper. However, for a long time, women’s voices have been excluded from land and resource rights reforms. We believe that many of the solutions to the challenges women face are found by starting with women, and by truly listening to them and including their perspective in everything that we do.
When economic development projects start with women, they benefit both women and men, but the reverse is not always true. In fact, development work often has unintended consequences. A project which gives money to households might see that money used to purchase alcohol instead of food. A change in a law to ensure that families get titles to land may result in women’s rights to land being extinguished in the process. Livestock given to women can be taken and sold by husbands who say that they own the land that was used to grow the fodder. Land given to landless women may not be used, because it is too far from home and the duties they have there, too barren, without water, or in an insecure place.
One way to foresee and forestall these consequences is to view people as people, not as projects, and to trust that they are normally the best judges of what is best for them. Even when we are constrained by funding and resources, we work to make sure that we talk to the people we are working with first, and that we work with partners in-country who know and care about women’s challenges and strengths.
Part of our work is to recognize and address the needs we can fulfill, then work to connect the communities we have committed to helping with other resources, and, most importantly, to ensure the women and men we are working with know that they are heard and that we are prioritizing their articulated needs.