Ashoka has declared that Meher Khelifi, newly elected Ashoka Arab World Fellow and founder of Ahmini, shared with us his first reactions to becoming an Ashoka Fellow, the challenges he faced along the way, and his experience pursuing social security coverage for women in rural Tunisia.
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Meher Khelifi experienced first-hand the devastating consequences of being uninsured in Tunisia when his mother, Fatema, passed away in 2016. Fatema was uninsured and therefore untreated for what was later diagnosed as cancer. After this life-changing experience, Meher was convinced that no woman should ever go through the same thing, and he committed himself to making health coverage accessible to Tunisian women in rural areas.
Meher is transforming Tunisia’s healthcare system through Ahmini (‘Protect me’ in Arabic) by allowing women in rural areas to be enrolled in social security and thus receive medical and retirement benefits for the first time. By partnering with different stakeholders, Meher has made structural changes at the level of laws and regulations, facilitating the accessibility and enrollment of thousands of women. Using technology and mobile phones to link social security numbers and payments to SIM cards, rural women are now able to be insured at a manageable cost.
Through awareness sessions, women were able to learn and understand the importance of being insured. With the help of hundreds of trained volunteers, Ahmini facilitated registration opportunities throughout Tunisia’s rural area and registered 20,000 women in just two months. But Meher’s work is far from over—he is looking to expand his idea to Algeria and Lebanon next.
How did you feel when you first got the news that you were elected to be an Ashoka Fellow? And what part of the Ashoka Fellowship do you find most exciting and beneficial to your growth?
It was a happy day and a wonderful feeling! I kept on screaming from happiness when I found out that I am now an Ashoka Fellow. Then, I realized that I would be able to continue working in my Ahmini and help the underprivileged women in rural areas, not only in my country, but also in all over the world.
What motivated you to begin your work?
Ahmini is part of me, part of my day-to-day life. I don’t want anyone in this world to experience what I did, to see someone really close to you dying and without being able to do anything to him/her.
What aspect of your work energizes you the most?
What I want to do is to restore the dignity of marginalized women in my country and of all countries in the world.
What is a challenge you have overcome in your work?
The biggest challenge I faced was that all the laws didn’t allow me to work with rural women. There were no laws that insure them a social or health coverage and the municipalities were not so supportive, but I managed to change the laws and introduced new ones to benefit and insure them.
Tell us about an experience with your target community or a particular beneficiary that stands out to you as reflective of your impact?
I used to go very early in the morning to each village and the women always waited for me. One time, I came and they started to cheer and greet me with happy faces. I saw my mother in every one of them, I was getting love from them similar to the love I used to receive from my mother. I was a son for them and they were all my mothers. They listen very carefully to me with smiley faces.
In what ways do you see your initiative growing in the coming years?
I’m planning to spread my idea to the whole world, starting in the Arab world, and then spreading out everywhere else. I want to help every single woman that has no social or health coverage. I don’t want any woman to face what my mother had to face in her last days.
One last question—who is your hero?
My hero is my dad.