The Tunisian woman who weaved her way to a better life

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The Tunisian woman who weaved her way to a better life

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Sassia Kharchoufi was born into a poor family of farmers in rural Beni Khedache, in southeast Tunisia. Unable to pay for all of their children's schooling, her parents prioritised the sons’ education, and instead tasked the then nine-year-old Sassia with looking after the family sheep, crops and house work. For the next decade, her life revolved around these chores – until 2003, when she turned 19 and married.

The road to success is paved with obstacles
To help his newlywed daughter earn an income, Sassia’s father gifted her three sheep and a loom. For years, she battled to set up a business and provide for her children. By 2016 she was earning just under DT 310 (US$ 100) a month selling ewes – the equivalent of Tunisia’s minimum wage. Life wasn’t easy, but Sassia’s determination kept her going. Then, in 2017, tragedy struck when a family feud forced her to sell the ewes. In the blink of an eye, Sassia lost everything she had worked so hard for over the years.

Sassia Kharchoufi remains resilient in the face of adversity. © IFAD/PRODEFIL

Nevertheless, she persisted. After obtaining a diploma in weaving in 2017 she contacted IFAD's Agropastoral Value Chains Project in the Medenine governorate (PRODEFIL), through which she secured four looms, a sewing machine and DT 15,452 (just under US$5,000). The project’s financial assistance meant Sassia was able to rent a room, where she works with and trains 14 young women in weaving carpets and scarves, among other items. In December 2021 Sassia’s hard work began to pay off when she won the EU’s European Neighbourhood Programme for Agriculture and Rural Development award for best project.

Despite her accomplishments, her freedom of movement was and continues to be frowned upon by her community, her neighbours and even her brothers. Sassia’s only male allies are her father and husband. 

Sassia with one of her many creations. © IFAD/PRODEFIL

Building a future
Undeterred, Sassia pushed forward with her plan. Today, the 38-year-old's business is going from strength to strength. She participates in town fairs, where she sells her products with much success, and her monthly income has doubled to about DT 700 (USD 227), most of which is reinvested in the business or goes towards supporting her family.

Sassia’s next objective is to export her products to other countries and build a thriving business that she can eventually pass on to her daughter.

Sassia’s uphill battle is a common one in the rural communities of southeast Tunisia, where women’s freedom is often stifled by gender norms. Through PRODEFIL, IFAD aims to help generations of women create a future for themselves in which they are financially independent and can support their families and contribute to their communities.