In December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a 23-year-old market vendor in Tunisia, self-immolated to protest deep-seated government corruption that made it impossible for him to earn a living. Following his desperate action, Tunisian women helped spur protests and end autocratic regimes in Tunisia and throughout the Arabic-speaking world. Today, Tunisian women remain in the forefront of ensuring democratic change in their country during the difficult years of government transition.

“As far as the revolution is concerned, we can say that just one hour after the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, the opening salvo was shot by a woman who shouted in front of the municipality: ‘Where are you men?’” says Souha Miladi, a school teacher and trade union member. “Immediately afterward, protests broke in the streets, and popular anger swept all the regions and reached the capital, prompting the fall of the dictator.”

Despite longstanding legal and social protections, Tunisian women only comprised 25 percent of the working population in 2010. And they were, and are, disproportionately represented among the most impoverished. Yet, working in large part through their unions, they formed strong networks and gained crucial leadership skills that helped them recognize their economic and political stake in democratic change.

“The struggle of Tunisian women did not just begin today. It is rooted in their history, since independence, and in their struggle against colonialism, tyranny,” says Siham Maadi, a high school teacher. “Many women martyrs have fallen. We have fought against tyranny … in unions and in the legal system and in all civil arenas.” Like Miladi, Maadi is a member of the Tunisian Labor Federation (Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail, UGTT), the nation’s largest confederation of unions.

After the ouster of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled Tunisia for 23 years, Tunisians elected a government to steer the constitution-writing process. But in August 2012, the constitutional assembly proposed an article to make women “complimentary” to men—a sharp reversal of their long-standing legal rights, among other protections, that ensured women’s equality with men. In response, tens of thousands of women took to the streets in an August 13 rally. They also waged a media campaign and circulated petitions against the proposed language. By November, Tunisia’s constituent assembly dropped the article. The assembly also removed an article that described the nation as committed to ensuring gender equality “as long as it does not conflict with the rulings of Islamic Sharia.”

The UGTT “was one of the actors in the rally on August 13,” human rights activist Samiyah Noorah said at the time of the proposed constitutional article. “They called on a lot of women, and even men, not only women. This issue affects everyone.” Today, women in the nation’s capital, Tunis, are reaching out to women in impoverished rural communities, providing food and health services while engaging them in education about their rights as citizens, says Kalthoum Barkallah, general secretary officer for International Relations at the UGTT Railway Federation. Barkallah, who since the 1970s has led the development and promotion of talented women trade union activists, also says the UGTT National Committee of Women Workers is partnering with other allied groups to create a new organization to combat violence against women, which has dramatically increased in the wake of the uprising.

For many years, the trade union federation has served as a key resource for women workers. In turn, women members of Tunisian unions have developed leadership skills and enabled the union movement to play a key role in democratic change.

Social and political mobilization through the labor movement “to demand improved working conditions and to defend core labor rights of decent work are characterized by a massive presence of women,” says Saida Garrach, an attorney and member of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women. “This momentum led to important participation of women in the Tunisian revolution.”

This report is an excerpt from Catalyst for Change, a forthcoming series prepared by the Solidarity Center with support from the National Endowment for Democracy. The series features the working people, their unions and activists who are advancing worker rights and greater equity in their societies. Their experience and efforts provide real, transferable lessons for others seeking to affect positive change.

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