Drought and Contamination: Climate Change Aggravates the Plight of Rural Women in Tunisia

Much like a snowball rolling down a slope, climate change increasingly affects our global population. Among those bearing the brunt are women working in agriculture, facing the harshest consequences of these shifts.

In Tunisia, rural and farming women grapple with the harsh realities of climate change, compounded by prolonged drought plaguing the nation for the past five years. The toll on agricultural yields has been heavy.

What makes it all the more difficult is that these women have to carry the burden alone. Their husbands are away from home for months on end. They go to work in the cities in search of a living.

Rural women in Tunisia face many challenges stemming from climate change, ranging from water shortages to summer wildfires. Winter floods pose a significant threat to their crops, which serve as their sole means of sustenance.

The vulnerability of women engaged in agricultural work profoundly impacts both the economic landscape and national food security. These women constitute the backbone of the agricultural sector, contributing to a labor force exceeding 70 percent.


The Tunisian government ignores the plight of vulnerable groups affected by climate change, refusing to heed warnings from human rights advocates and environmental experts. They falsely claim equal opportunities for all, neglecting the reality.

Barren land and economic exploitation

Years ago, Nadia Al-Hussni ceased cultivating her land when her well ran dry due to low rainfall. Despite her efforts, she has yet to receive any state support to establish her own business, leaving her unable to adequately provide for her family and lead a dignified life.

Nadia Al-Hussni, 48, originally from Jabniana, finds herself compelled to work in farms and fields for a meager wage. She earns a daily wage of 15 dinars ($4.74) for long hours of work that she describes as “arduous.”

“Conditions in the fields and farms have become increasingly harsh and challenging,” Nadia told Sharika Wa Laken, attributing the hardships to the climate shifts gripping her nation, with unprecedented heatwaves and the agricultural sector reeling from drought.

She recounts, “During the scorching summers, I labor in fields and farms under searing sunshine surpassing 50 degrees, resulting in many diseases.” Nadia emphasizes how “drought and diminished rainfall have led to dwindling crop yields and job losses”.

“With less rain and drought, there are fewer jobs in agriculture,” she explains. As a result, farmworkers are unable to find alternative income to sustain their families.”

Nadia dreams of getting financial support to establish a sheep-raising business, envisioning it as a means to attain self-sufficiency and tranquility for herself and her family. With nearly two decades spent toiling in the agricultural sector, she finds herself susceptible to economic exploitation and the harsh realities of climate extremities.

Without clean water, agriculture falters… Drought reigns supreme

From Jabniana to Siliana governorate (northwest of the country), Salema Mowlhi, 42, shared how her life has been impacted by relentless heatwaves and drought. Every day, she journeys to fetch water from a mountain spring, while her husband works in construction in the capital, Tunis.

With a pale face and sad eyes, Salema spoke to Sharika Wa Laken about her struggles as a rural woman. She says: “Sometimes words can’t capture our countryside hardships,” she lamented. “Our dream is simple: a decent life and clean water. Yet, it feels like an impossible dream.”

“My life is difficult, especially without my husband around. He has to travel to Tunis to work striving to educate our children. So, I am left to provide water from the distant spring, tend what’s left of my sheep, and care for our children.

We continue to grapple with daily life in this village, striving to provide for our children. There is no clean water to drink, no health services, and no paved roads. Our suffering has increased due to the drought and the dwindling yields of our crops.”

Salema thinks back to 10 years ago when her small plot of land was doing her a lot of good. She says: “Gone are the days when I used to eat the beans, wheat, and barley grown on my small land. Today, everything has changed because of the drought and lack of rain,” she says.

Salema is not an expert on climate change, nor does she know the dangers it poses to her life and the lives of thousands of rural women and farmers. But she is well aware that her life has become more difficult, as she can no longer cultivate her land due to the drought, or feed her animals, half of which she lost due to unprecedented heat waves. Her supplies of oil, barley, wheat and couscous are running out.

While Tunisian authorities acknowledge the threat of climate change to vulnerable groups, including rural women, the absence of local statistics or studies on this phenomenon remains glaring.

From the land of plenty to arid terrain

Aunt Mrs. Alawi’s narrative mirrors that of her compatriot, Salema. Both reside in a nation classified below the water poverty line and come from remote, rugged rural regions. However, the relentless impact of climate change is encroaching upon her reality.

Mrs. Alawi, aged 73 and hailing from the Hwaidiya region of Jendouba governorate (northwest of the country), relayed to Shirka Wa Laken the stark decline in agricultural yields in her village, imperiling their sustenance and food security.

Years ago, she used to eat what she grew and shared some with those in need. But now, after years of drought, she can no longer rely on her land for sustenance.

Even at her age, she still lacks a water tap at home. She has always drunk from a nearby spring, though its water quality is uncertain. And with time, her once-fertile land has transformed into barren soil, unable to satisfy her hunger.

Vulnerable groups confronting climate change

“Rural women bear the brunt of climate change,” states Inas El Abiad, coordinator of the environmental justice department at the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES). “Their direct reliance on ecosystem elements like soil, water, and agriculture amplifies their vulnerability.”

“In Tunisia, women feel the impact of climate crises firsthand, especially through water scarcity affecting their daily lives,” El Abiad notes. She criticizes her country’s climate policy as “weak,” advocating for a gender-sensitive approach that addresses the disproportionate impact on women and marginalized groups.

“There’s an urgent need to support women in agriculture,” she emphasizes. “This requires agreements to allocate financial aid, enabling them to explore alternative livelihoods beyond agriculture.”

A Tunisian plan to support rural women!

In January 2023, the Tunisian Ministry of Women, in collaboration with the Ministry of Environment, initiated a program to assist women in mitigating the effects of climate change on their households.

The plan aims to provide alternative sources of income for women whose livelihoods are threatened by drought, especially those working in the agricultural sector. A budget of 1.5 million dinars has been earmarked to establish 10 women’s development centers by 2023, aiming to generate employment opportunities for thousands of women.

Earlier, Women’s Minister Amal Belhajj Moussa highlighted that “rural women bear a heavier burden from climate change compared to their urban counterparts. They make up over half of the population and 70 percent of agricultural workers.”

Belhajj Moussa also noted the establishment of a national committee for gender and climate change, aimed at bolstering women’s economic empowerment as part of the implementation plan.

Tunisian Minister of Environment Leila Sheikhawi emphasized the differing impacts of climate change on women and men. She emphasized that women, particularly those lacking resources like land, loans, training, and technology, face greater challenges in adapting due to existing inequalities, rendering them among the most vulnerable.

Tunisia’s oversight of climate change effects on vulnerable groups

Feryal Sharafeddine, a human rights activist and president of the Kalam Association, highlights that “vulnerable groups are hit hardest by global crises. This means climate change seriously impacts rural women, women farmers, and women agricultural workers.”

Speaking to Sharika Wa Laken, she emphasized how drought in Tunisia has left rural women struggling to survive off agriculture.

“The Tunisian government ignores the plight of vulnerable groups affected by climate change, refusing to heed warnings from human rights advocates and environmental experts,” she criticized. “They falsely claim equal opportunities for all, neglecting the reality.”

Sharafeddine urged Tunisian officials to “urgently address the needs of women and vulnerable groups, and seek international financial aid to tackle the climate change risks.”

Gendered climate justice

While Tunisian authorities acknowledge the gravity of climate change’s impact on vulnerable groups and rural women, local data and studies on this matter remain scarce.

In stark contrast, a report by the European Investment Bank revealed that “84 percent of Tunisian women surveyed believe climate change is already impacting their daily lives. Fifty-two percent reported income losses due to severe drought, rising sea levels, coastal erosion, or extreme weather events like floods or cyclones.”

Top of Form

A study conducted by the Tunisian Ministry of Environment, in collaboration with the British Embassy, titled “Economic Impacts of Climate Change in Tunisia,” has unveiled that “the agricultural sector, comprising 14.2 percent of GDP, faces the threat of losing close to 1,000 jobs each year.”

Local and international human rights organizations stress “the imperative of bolstering support for rural women and enhancing their economic empowerment. This is crucial to shield them from environmental and economic upheavals and to dismantle social and legal barriers hindering gender economic parity.”


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