Building resilience for Tunisia’s most vulnerable

Social protection

Sam Kimball and Pau González.
The five siblings go out to the field. They take out a donkey from a small barn next to the house to play with it./ Dâaja, Beja. 2021.
UNICEF/Tunisia/2021/Paula González
23 March 2022

“Their circumstances are tough, it’s true. But with the stability of the transfer each month, the two youngest children can go to school, which they couldn’t without the extra money. The kids’ clothes have gotten better.”

Rafika Oueslati, A social worker from the Ministry of Social Affairs.
UNICEF

At the top of a hill at the end of a bumpy dirt road, amid bright green fields, five siblings—Yousef, 6, Mohammed Aziz, 8, Aminullah, 2, Maysa, 4, Aya, 6—play together, riding atop a donkey and shouting excitedly together. Just beside the field they play on, the children’s father, Abdelhafidh, leans against the outer wall of their house, looking on with a gentle smile.


The house is a simple concrete structure, at the edge of a tiny settlement called Dâaja, in Tunisia’s northwest Beja province.

The village is isolated from much of the towns around, with only a freight train railroad track from Tunis visible in the plains below. Many of the villagers in Dâaja are severely economically marginalized, with few work opportunities, and the agriculture most locals depend on does not bring in enough stable revenue to support a family.


Later, Hajer Daaji, the mother of the family, sat in a bare bedroom with her five children sitting around her, clinging to her lap and coat. She spoke about the extreme hardship the family has experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic, on top of the daily challenges they already faced in Dâaja.

Hajer Daaji, spoke to UNICEF about the cash transfer program. “Two of my children get 30 dinars ($10,50 USD) each per month. My husband picks it up at the post office. I use the money to buy food and clothing for my kids. I buy them books for school.”/ Dâaja, Beja. 2021.
UNICEF/Tunisia/2021/Paula González
Hajer Daaji, spoke to UNICEF about the cash transfer program. “Two of my children get 30 dinars ($10,50 USD) each per month. My husband picks it up at the post office. I use the money to buy food and clothing for my kids. I buy them books for school.”/ Dâaja, Beja. 2021.

“I got sick with Covid. I was exhausted. I had a fever. And then all of the kids got sick too. But my husband and I were only able to spend three days in bed recovering—we had to get back up and work.”

Hajer Daaji

Hajer spoke of UNICEF and the German KfW Development Bank’s cash transfer program, of which the Daaji family is a beneficiary.

“Two of my children each get 30 dinars ($10,50 USD) per month. My husband picks it up at the post office. I use the money to buy food and clothing for my kids. I buy them books for school.”

While many Tunisians and their children were already struggling economically prior to the start of Covid-19, since the virus became a pandemic and lockdowns and restrictions hit Tunisia, child poverty has been brought back 15 years, according to a UNICEF study. The economic devastation may have long-term impacts on Tunisian children including poor nutrition, increased violence in the family, abandonment of schooling, poorer learning due to COVID-19 restrictions, and stigmatization by peers, among numerous other negative effects.

As part of its Social Protection work for children, UNICEF Tunisia, in cooperation with the German KfW Development Bank, supports the Tunisian Ministry of Social Affairs by providing monthly cash transfers of 30 dinars per month to children in need between the ages of 0 and 5 years old; 310,000 children older than 5 were supported with 100 Tunisian dinars: 50 dinars from the national budget and an additional 50 Tunisian dinars from the UNICEF-KfW programme, in September 2020 to help them with their return to school after the summer break and Covid-19 lockdown period. The money supports essential things like transportation, pre-school fees, books and school supplies, health visits, clothes and food. According to UNICEF and the Ministry of Social Affairs, in December 2021, 129,000 children aged 0-5 years old received support through the cash transfer program.

For its part, the German Embassy noted that funding social protection for children in Tunisia —for which its Government has already provided 22 million euros—is not just a response to the Covid crisis, but part of a philosophy of investing in society’s long-term development.

Rike Sohn, Deputy Head of Cooperation at the German Embassy, said “There’s a strong perception in Germany that securing early childhood development is human capital development. This form of social inclusion early on is very important to strengthen participation and thus, not only economic but also democratic development. With social programs like this, you can really invest in the future of your population.”

Abdelhafidh, sits outside his home surrounded by his five children, Yousef (6), Mohammed Aziz (8), Maysa (4), Aminullah (2), and Aya (6)./ Dâaja, Beja. 2021.
UNICEF/Tunisia/2021/Paula González
Abdelhafidh, sits outside his home surrounded by his five children, Yousef (6), Mohammed Aziz (8), Maysa (4), Aminullah (2), and Aya (6)./ Dâaja, Beja. 2021.

Despite the continuing challenges, Hajer said the regular monthly cash transfers have helped her keep her kids in school when times are especially tough. She hopes this will allow them to go on and pursue the futures they want. And when the kids heard, “What do you want to be in the future?” they piped up brightly.

“In the future, I want to become a lawyer,” said Yousef, half hiding behind his mom.

Aya, his older sister, followed him: “And I want to become a doctor,” she said.

A social worker from the Ministry of Social Affairs who works with the Daaji family, Rafika Oueslati, talked about her daily work.

“I make visits to the Daajis every three months. Before I come, I call them and tell them which paperwork to prepare so they can submit requests for special aid,” for their son, Aminullah, who was born with serious hearing problems, “And I submit the papers to the Ministry of Social Affairs. I verify the children’s school attendance so that I can get the financial aid for their school supplies.”

Rafika noted the importance of the cash transfers to the Daaji family.

“Their circumstances are tough, it’s true. But with the stability of the transfer each month, the two youngest children can go to school, which they couldn’t without the extra money. The kids’ clothes have gotten better.”

She also spoke of the unlimited phone credit that UNICEF provides to social workers.

“The unlimited phone credit facilitates our work. How do I coordinate with the Daaji family? I call the father, Abdelhafidh. And he can call me at any time and I call right back, to prepare paperwork or submit files. It’s the most important tool in my relationship with citizens.”

But UNICEF’s Social Protection collaboration is not only helping those in rural areas. In Tunis’ crowded southern suburb, Fouchana, the cash transfer program is also being implemented.

Here, packed main avenues are crisscrossed by smaller neighborhood streets, mostly filled with pedestrians and people on motorbikes. It’s on one of these side streets that Sihem Oueslati and her four children and husband live.

Sihem Ousleti, her husband and their four children, live in a two-room house, with only one small window for light. The whole family sleeps on mats on the floor. The apartment is cold and humid in winter./ Fouchana, Ben Arous, 2021.
UNICEF/Tunisia/2021/Paula González
Sihem Ousleti, her husband and their four children, live in a two-room house, with only one small window for light. The whole family sleeps on mats on the floor. The apartment is cold and humid in winter./ Fouchana, Ben Arous, 2021.

Sihem and her family live in a two-room house, with only one small window for light. The whole family sleeps on mats on the floor and the apartment is cold in winter. Without any free space, kitchen implements merge on tables with the children’s school bags.

She described the impact that the Covid pandemic has had on their already difficult situation.

“Covid hit us extremely hard. It’s even been hard to get food [since the pandemic began]. And my husband does day work selling mattresses—some days no one buys any mattresses, and there’s no money.”

But the cash transfer has taken the edge off, and helped Sihem’s children get the essentials.

“I get 30 dinars per month for two children each. And the money has really reassured me—it lets me breathe. When the money comes through, I can let go of the stress,” she said. “My eldest son has a problem in his ear. This money allowed me to make a doctor’s appointment for him. I can buy diapers with it.”

She went on: “I buy things by priority: and right now, it’s a doctor for my son’s ear, and backpacks for my kids’ education.”

Najet Dkhil, director of the general committee for social promotion at Tunisia’s Ministry of Social Affairs and coordinator of the 0 to 5 year-old cash transfer program, discussed how the program started, and where she hopes it can go.

“In the program’s beginning in December 2020, it was targeting only 40,000 children. These were children registered in the country’s social security database. But in the year since then, that number has increased to 128,000 child beneficiaries. We expect that number to reach 150,000 children in the coming months. The monthly transfers are now reaching almost 15 percent of all children under the age of five in Tunisia.”

Yakout, 8, plays with her youngest sister Joud, 1. Behind her, her mother meets with the social worker that came by to check on the family./ Fouchana, Ben Arous, 2021.
UNICEF/Tunisia/2021/Paula González
Yakout, 8, plays with her youngest sister Joud, 1. Behind her, her mother meets with the social worker that came by to check on the family./ Fouchana, Ben Arous, 2021.

In March 2021, the World Bank’s Board approved a loan to the government of Tunisia of USD 300 million for a new ‘COVID-19 social protection emergency response support’ project, which includes funds for continuing the payment of monthly child benefits to about 125,000 children aged 0-5 years old during 2022 and 2023. This will sustain the under-5 years old child benefit in the mid-term.
Najet believes that civil society has a role to play in further increasing coverage of the transfer program.

“Civil society actors can contribute to informing very poor families of their right to these monthly grants for their children, and the necessity of using the funds solely to help their children. We’re depending on civil society to help raise the awareness of families about the importance of using these grants at this critical age when children’s intellectual and health development are so easily affected.”

Marilena Viviani, UNICEF Representative in Tunisia, said, “UNICEF is delighted to see the institutionalization by the Tunisian Government of social protection support to all children under 6 years old at risk of poverty and vulnerability, through the adoption on 31 January 2022 of decree-law number 2022-8.  This is a major achievement for children in Tunisia and a milestone for the Universal Child Benefit approach promoted globally by UNICEF.”