Organizing a movement for her new country

Tunisia

March 8, 2012

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Sabrine Wafi is a dynamo. Young and filled with energy, it’s difficult to keep up with her. More than once during our conversation, I found myself asking her to hold up so I could wrap my head around her ideas.

Sabrine, 25, runs a group that’s focused on helping impoverished women realize their rights and access education and healthcare for their families. She lives in the southern Tunisian city of Tataouine, where leaders from nearly dozen new non-governmental organizations (NGOs) recently gathered to talk with Mercy Corps colleagues about work in their rapidly changing country.

One of these leaders, she was eager to tell me about the challenges that women — and men — face in Tunisia. “Most women here don’t understand human rights. They don’t work, and sit home thinking about how to get married. Both men and women need a revolution in mentality,” she explained emphatically.

Sabrine also bemoaned the state of medical care in Tunisia, and is irate about the condition of local schools, which she claims are often too distant for children to access and lack proper toilets. After several months of running education campaigns to prepare for last year’s elections and aiding Libyan refugees who’d fled violence in their own country, Sabrine now spends her time recruiting for her nascent organization, going out into communities to connect with women and youth.

The past several years have not been easy for her.

She was forced to leave university after two years because she covered her head with a veil, a big no-no under the former President Ben Ali. She doesn’t know if she’ll be able to return to her studies because her family is poor. Sabrine also carries a heavy burden of worry about one of her brothers, who lives as a refugee in Paris. But she is undaunted by these personal challenges. Sabrine has a greater mission.

Living in the U.S., it’s easy to take for granted that citizen-run organizations play an important role in society. You grow up in the Boy or Girl Scouts, raise money for groups that fight cancer or other diseases, donate clothes to homeless shelters, and volunteer for local soup kitchens. Non-governmental organizations run all of this activity, tackling many different social and economic issues.

But this isn’t the case everywhere — and certainly not in many of the Arab Awakening countries that have experienced revolutions in the past year. In Tunisia under the leadership of President Ben Ali, very few NGOs existed; organized citizens’ groups were considered a threat to the regime. With Ben Ali’s departure, the sector has woken up, and is expanding in sometimes awkward leaps and bounds.

Mercy Corps, with support from the U.S. State Department's Middle East Partnership Initiative, is working with our local partner the Center of Arab Women for Training and Research (CAWTAR) to help nascent NGOs take root and flourish. The groups we met in Tataouine are grappling with a diversity of issues, ranging from the rights of people with disabilities to emergency preparedness. They each develop their own strategies about what and who to help, while we provide the trainings and tools to help them implement their vision. Some groups were organized and focused, while others were struggling to come up with a plan. In a country where NGO work is unchartered territory, many well intended groups won’t get off the ground. From Mercy Corps’ view, that’s not failure. It’s just part of the sector’s inevitable growing pains.

That brings me back to Sabrine. Like many Tunisians I met, she is impatient for positive change; that’s why they fought the revolution in the first place. She’s also part of a growing segment of Tunisian society that’s not content to wait. They’re mobilizing to create change on their own — a sometimes messy endeavor, yes. But with the promise of big rewards.