Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Tunisian Women Pursue Gender Equality

Olfa Arfaoui, an alumna of HANDS Professional Fellows Program, has a passion for women’s empowerment that began during her childhood in Tunisia when she realized that men and women did not have equality in public spaces. In her own words, “I was surprised that there were coffee shops open only to men and women weren’t allowed in.”

Olfa says that her country has made tremendous strides since then in promoting  social equality as recognized by the Convention of the Elimination of all Forms of Violence Against Women. Olfa works to combat economic inequality as a technical adviser and Tunisian representative for the Women in Economic Integration in MENA Region Program at the International German Development Cooperation.

Olfa (center in blue) working on a project with Aid to Artisans


Though pleased with her professional accomplishments through her organizational roles, Olfa wanted to further her efforts within Tunisia by seeking professional development in the U.S. She applied and was accepted to HANDS’ Professional Fellows Program, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. Her month-long fellowship in Washington, D.C. with the Aid to Artisans division of Creative Learning allowed her to meet with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) based in the D.C. area, learn about the operations of the U.S. federal system, and explore how NGOs  in the U.S. function and obtain funding. Olfa says her most memorable experience while participating in the fellowship occurred during an event at the U.S. Department of State:

“When all of the Professional Fellows met in DC, I was invited with the other fellows to the U.S. Department of State where I had the opportunity to discuss with the different regional representatives their agendas to promote mutual understanding and a culture of partnerships between countries.”

Olfa at a U.S. State Department event


Olfa’s experience in the Professional Fellows Program gave her a sense of hope upon returning to Tunisia because she knew there was a network of young professionals within the MENA region that were making a difference; and she knew o rganizations in the U.S., like HANDS, who were willing to support them through a variety of means. In addition to continuing her work at the International German Development Corporation, Olfa is also preparing a research paper titled, “Glass Ceiling: The Determinant of Career Advancement of Female Top Managers in the ICT Sector in Tunisia” [ICT – Information and Communications Technology].

Her fellowship experience also inspired her to create a network for mid-career women that fosters mutual support in career advancement. In addition, she plans to launch an association with other program alumni from Tunisia focused on promoting Tunisian handicrafts made by women.

About her time in the HANDS program, she says: “I would like to encourage other mid-level career women to participate in the Professional Fellows Program because there is a lot of knowledge and other information to share. We [the fellows] also had a great experience with our American counterparts who really liked Tunisia and its culture.”

Olfa and other outstanding HANDS alumni at a U.S. State Department event


HANDS would like to thank the U.S. Department of State, our donors, and our partners for helping women, like Olfa, combat economic inequality and inspire positive change in their communities.