Constructing a future for youth in Tunisia
Ever since Najet Salem was a young design student, she dreamed of two things: reviving the ancient carpet-weaving tradition and empowering the women artisans of her hometown of Gafsa, in southwest Tunisia.
- A joint 3-year programme of US $3.12 million aims to increase employment opportunities for young university graduates and low-skilled youth by improving their skills as potential entrepreneurs and job seekers.
- One third of young people between 18 and 29 in Tunisia are jobless, and almost half of the new job seekers are women.
- Women’s unemployment rate reaches up to 40% in some of the most vulnerable regions (2007).
"From the time I was young, I was fascinated by weaving and I sensed how many women who carried on this tradition were lacking support,” says the 25-year-old, today a successful businesswoman. “It hurt my heart to see that, compared with the products of (towns like) Ouedhrif or Kairouan, there was a big difference in terms of quality,” she says of Gafsa’s famous “Mergoum” carpets.
Local artisans were losing their expertise, Salem explains, and unskilled producers were eroding the traditional luster of the Mergoum carpet, whose unique bright colors and geometric patterns are reminiscent of the art of the Berbers and Romans.
Najet, still a student, had begun working with local artisans on carpet production when she was invited to take part in an MDG-Fund-supported training programme to improve entrepreneurial skills among Tunisian youth.
The joint programme “Engaging Tunisian Youth to Achieve the MDGs” is a collaboration between five UN agencies (ILO, FAO, IOM, UNIDO, UNDP) and the Tunisian government to reduce joblessness and migration among youth in Tunisia, where one third of all young people are unemployed.
Based in three areas with the worst job prospects and high risk for illegal migration, the programme targets the most impoverished youth and those who have the fewest opportunities to find work (both young university graduates and unskilled youth), with particular attention to young women who face discrimination based on sex.
The training helped Najet develop a business plan for her artisans, who work from home on designs developed by Najet based on traditional motifs. Najet advances part of the cost of the carpets and pays the balance when the finished product is delivered. The training also helped her to build networks and to show her goods at trade shows and fairs.
“For me, it was very important to restore the value of these local products and to revive the know-how that once prevailed in the region,” she says. “By being better educated, I could do better."
Today Najet employs 75 artisans and is looking to ramp up her production volume. She recently took part in a two-month internship in China to learn new technologies in carpet manufacturing, and is now providing customized carpets that she designs on her computer based on her clients’ specifications.
But the young entrepreneur takes the greatest pride in having boosted incomes and empowered her women weavers, some of whom live in very remote hamlets.
“The women of the region have never really seen their work validated. In fact, they had never really developed an entrepreneurial spirit. They needed a catalyst to streamline production, address and consolidate their market and creatively innovate,” says Najet, who is preparing to register her artisans for Social Security.
“I think that, with these women, we are changing the rules,” she says. “The kind of training that we are getting from the UN agencies is giving us the tools we need to move forward on a solid foundation. [Now] it is up to us to work on changing the attitudes and the prevailing culture in our region.”