Alert! Arab world women at bottom of global workforce participation
Worldwide, women remain at a disadvantage relative to men and the same is true in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. But, there is a stark paradox in gender equality: while, for the most part, MENA countries have made admirable progress in closing gender gaps in education and health outcomes, these investments in human development have not yet translated into commensurately higher rates of female participation in economic and political life. For example, female labor force participation rates at 25 percent are half the world average and the lowest among other regions.
A new report entitled “Opening Doors: Gender Equality in the Middle East and North Africa region” unpacks this paradox, and identifies a complex set of economic, social and legal constraints that inhibit women’s ability to engage in the public sphere on an equal footing with men. The region has depended for a long time on the public sector as a source of jobs, especially for women. But these options are dwindling as countries face fiscal pressures. Moreover, private sector led job creation has not been adequate to absorb young job-seekers and even within this limited sphere, women face additional challenges. For instance, the poor quality of education and critical skill mismatches between what is studied in school and what the private sector demands. Women in the region continue to face significant restrictions on mobility and agency; these are underpinned by the legal framework, social and cultural norms, and regulations that restrict work and political participation. The report, which will be launched next month, highlights the urgency of reform and the need for decisive action to redress the gender challenges facing the region.
This is a critical juncture for the women of the MENA region. Many countries in the Middle East and North Africa region are undergoing a profound transformation. From Morocco to Yemen, popular movements have called for reforms to make government more inclusive and more accountable, extend social and economic freedoms, and boost employment opportunities. Young men and women have been at the forefront of these calls for change, reflecting their desire to participate actively in the political sphere. As new governments are being formed in Tunisia and Egypt, and elections are on the cards elsewhere, people continue to demonstrate for meaningful change. It is now clear that the rapid transformation that seemed so close at the start of the Arab Spring is in fact likely to be a process of gradual change that will take months, if not years.
How the region's societies will change in the wake of these revolutions of varying degrees remains an open question. Facing popular pressure to be more open and inclusive, transition governments in Tunisia and Egypt are considering electoral and constitutional reforms to deepen democracy. These reforms present an opportunity to enhance women's economic, social and political inclusion. However, the outlook remains uncertain. Tunisia mandated that an equal number of men and women run as candidates on the electoral list, and women have secured a quarter of the seats in the constituent assembly. In Egypt, millions of women turned out to vote in the recent parliamentary elections but eventually made up only two percent of the lower house of parliament. Throughout the region, there is a concern that efforts to advance women’s rights may be halted, and even reversed, as new governments come to power. In this context, it will become increasingly important to safeguard the gains from past reforms, at the very least. At the same time, the world has acknowledged the power of Arab women as catalysts of change, recognizing Tawakel Karman with the Nobel Peace prize. She is the first Yemeni, the first Arab woman, and the youngest recipient of this honor.
The time for change is now. In consultations for the report held across the region, women affirmed their desire to work and the lack of job opportunities, reiterating the constraints posed by the legal and regulatory framework and conservative social norms. Grave concerns about regression in the women’s rights and in laws that govern women’s ability to exercise choice, move freely, and exploit opportunity were a recurrent theme in these discussions. In the face of this popular sentiment, the countries of the MENA region can no longer be complacent. This opportunity to improve productivity and social cohesion by giving women the chance to participate fully in the public sphere cannot be missed.