School in Tunisia at the hub of major socio-economic and cultural issues

July 21, 2004

Since the 1960s strong efforts have been exerted in Tunisia devoted to education. Yet, in spite of considerable success, access to schooling is not equal for all, boys and girls. Nor is it equally possible in all parts of the country. Children living in rural areas still having the lowest school attendance rate. An IRD demographer conducted a survey among families in two rural areas of Tunisia, then examined results to bring out the difficulties of access to schooling for young people in rural populations. Absence of schooling is not only attributable to child labour and long distances from schools. It is also related to the complex interaction of several economic, social and cultural factors. The demographer has therefore put forward an analysis of schooling at the scale of families rather than at nation-wide level. This approach can give a more accurate picture of the way rural Tunisian societies work.

The level of schooling of children in Tunisia has been growing continually since the 1960s, reaching 91% in 2000 for 6-12 year-olds. Standardization of a diversity of education systems in 1958 after Independence, substantial State investment in education, the generalization of education and measures taken to promote schooling of children under 16 years have contributed to this progress. However, inequality of access to school persists, in particular between the sexes and between different areas of Tunisia. The rural areas show a schooling rate lower than that found in urban zones. Moreover, although this inequality tends to be regressing for boys, a non- negligible proportion of girls still miss out on school.

An IRD demographer has investigated the difficulties that affect the schooling of rural children. Using results of a survey (1), conducted among 500 households in two farming regions of Tunisia, Kroumirie and El Faouar, she produced a family-scale analysis of the various education strategies adopted depending on economic, demographic and socio-cultural factors. The average schooling rate in these regions for children of 6 to 14 years is 75% for boys and 69% for girls. In spite of this, wide disparities exist from one area to another. Kroumirie is the area where schooling rates are lowest and disparity between girls and boys the widest. A substantial number of children leave school after primary school and only 20% of girls and 37% of boys between 15 and 19 years continue their school career. In contrast, the children of El Faouar benefit from longer schooling and there are still many who go to school after the age of 15 years. The distance from school cannot alone explain disparity. No relation between the relative remoteness and the school attendance rate was observed in Kroumirie. Schooling strategies must therefore be placed in the local socio-economic context.

Households in both of these farming regions usually possess land and livestock. But in Kroumirie, a mountainous area, very low profitability of food production renders households financially unstable. They therefore have to intensify their activities in order to meet their needs. Whereas men have jobs outside agriculture, women and children take in hand smallholdings which now no longer require a specialist workforce. The children must therefore do paid work, which hinders their schooling. As for girls in Kroumirie, traditionally they are sent to Tunis before they marry to work as domestics. All their pay is turned over to their families. Therefore these tend to send daughters as migrants to Tunis very young, which deprives them of education and reinforces segregation between the sexes. In contrast, the economy of El Faouar is based on an oasis system of production and the marketing of farm products, especially dates. There, agriculture is profitable and employs skilled labour. Consequently, children in oases work less and 67% of boys between 15 and 19 years thus continue their studies to at least the baccalauréat. Fewer girls in this age group (about 40%) carry on their education, but they attend school for longer than in other rural areas of Tunisia, while the local social norms traditionally forbid women, and young girls in particular, from taking up paid work. This can be explained by social factors that intervene, such as matrimonial strategies. For parents, schooling contributes to an enhancement of women's status through marriage: an educated woman has to be married to a man whose level of education is at least equal to hers, so she carries prestige for her family. In Tunisia, rural society in fact embraces highly diverse realities and behaviours relative to children's schooling. This study shows on the one hand the necessity for placing examination of education strategies in the economic, social and cultural context, and, on the other, highlights the pertinence of a micro-social and micro-demographic approach in this field of research. The research done should contribute to better understanding of how Tunisian rural societies, and more generally African societies, work. It has provided information on which national education policies could be devised that would be adapted to the social and cultural characteristics of different peoples.
Marie Guillaume-IRD

(1) Survey on the mobility, fecundity and activity of women in rural Tunisia, conducted in 1998 on 1 000 households as part of the IRD's DYPEN programme in conjunction with CREDIF (Centre de recherches, d'études, de documentation et d'information sur la femme (Tunis)). Only two of the four areas taken into account in the initial enquiry - i.e. 500 households - were incorporated in the investigation presented.


Bénédicte Gastineau - IRD UR151, Laboratoire Population - Environnement - Développement, BP 434, 101 Antananarivo, Madagascar.
Tel. : 261-202-233-098
Fax : 261-202-236-982. Email:

REFERENCE GASTINEAU B., 2003, " Les facteurs de la déscolarisation en milieu rural tunisien - L'exemple de deux zones rurales tunisiennes : la Kroumirie and El Faouar ", in Cosio M., Marcoux R., Pilon M. et Quesnel A. (ed.), Education, Family and Population Dynamics / Education, Famille et Dynamiques démographiques, Paris, Cicred, 2003, pp.103-123.

Institut de recherche pour le développement

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