Empowering Tunisian Artisans: An Inside Look with Olfa Arfaoui

Olfa presents her experience to the Professional Fellows Program
Photograph by Emad Mohamed Medhat

For 3 weeks this past October, Aid to Artisans hosted a Tunisian Fellow Olfa Arfaoui as part of the Professional Fellows Program by partnering with Hands Along The Nile Department Services (HANDS) and supported by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Olfa is one of 204 Professional Fellows who participated in fellowships across the country. Her fellowship focused on the economic empowerment of women. From November 5th through the 7th, she presented her work at the 2014 Professional Fellows Congress. The Congress marks the culmination of the program and provides a forum for fellows to share their experience and network with program colleagues to learn about the best practices and creative solutions in their respective fields. ATA sat down with Olfa to learn more about her passion for supporting initiatives that provide economic opportunities for women and what she hoped to learn from her fellowship with ATA.

Tell us a little about yourself.
My name is Olfa Arfaoui and I’m 31 years old. I have 3 sisters and I grew up in a small town in the northern region of Tunisia. After I received my Bachelor’s Degree, I attended a university in Tunis to study Business Administration and Management. Afterwards, I began working as a Technical Expert for the Economic Integration of Women program within the German corporation in Tunis, a program located in the MENA region. We work in four countries: Egypt (where our main office is located) Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia. For some time, I coordinated the media effort for Ana Hunna, “I am Here”, an initiative to promote the discussion of economic opportunities for women. The initiative went on for about 2 to 3 years and ended this past April. I’m now managing the gender diversity project which focuses on implementing gender equality in the private sector.

Olfa presents her experience to the Professional Fellows Program
Photograph by Emad Mohamed Medhat

What inspired you to help women?
I can tell you, actually the activism on women’s empowerment and women issues came from my mother. She was always very supportive and believed women should have their own salaries, take responsibility and make their own decisions about their lives and destinies. After the revolution [in Tunisia], I decided to participate in the transition. It was very important for me to do something for my country and to help build a better future for Tunisia. I started looking up information about NGOs working within the field of human rights and I came across the application for this program [Economic Integration of Women].

What do you hope to gain from your fellowship with Aid to Artisans and what information do you hope to take back?
The first day I came, I was a little surprised to see all these beautiful products, all very well done and of high quality. I believe that this kind of work should also be done in Tunisia because it is so important to focus on quality and to make products that are attractive to customers. I hope to learn more about ATA’s expertise on how to access markets and product design. I’m working with Maud on implementing a project in Tunisia.

Olfa was selected to present her project on Media Campaign to Raise Awareness for Women in Tunisia at the Professional Fellows Congress
Photograph by Hands Along the Nile Development Services, Inc. (HANDS)

What do you think is the best strategy to empower women and men?
I think the best strategy is to enhance their capacity to create their own job and providing opportunities for access to markets. I give them the tools to craft products and aid their capacity to do it.

Since the revolution, do you think there will be more opportunities for women and men?
Yes, of course. The revolution opened up many more opportunities for NGOs, many that were focused on human rights and many focused on empowerment and economic development. Some of these NGOs also worked with artisans, specifically those who were women. Even the government focused on artisans and helped them connect with markets. For example, we have a big exhibition for artisans and participants are able to reserve spaces for artisans and NGOs that support them.

What have been some of the challenges that have come up with the work that you do?
Most of the challenges come with working with civil society and working in a new context after the revolution. Everything had changed. Things are better now but those challenges still appear every now and again.

Where do you see yourself in five years?
I see myself leading a NGO focusing on empowering women and men.