Women in Middle East Economy

Ερευνητική Ομάδα «Οικονομικές Δυναμικές»

Γιολάντα Διαμαντοπούλου, 27 Φεβρουαριου 2018


Women in the Middle East have been experiencing progress concerning their social, political and economic participation and inclusion. Tunisia’s new constitution includes strong support for equality in women’s political representation. Saudi Arabia issued a royal decree in 2017 allowing women to drive, stating that this will boost women’s participation in the economy. However, social, political and economic marginalization of women persists, while sexual violence against women continues to cast a shadow over the protection of women’s rights throughout the Middle East. With only 21 percent of women employed (compared to 75 percent of men), the region has the lowest rate of women’s participation in the labor force.
According to the World Bank, despite more women than men attending university in the MENA region, their participation in the workforce remains low. Only17 percent of women have jobs in the non-agricultural sector such as engineering and finance, according to the World Bank, while the region has the lowest proportion of female entrepreneurs in the world. Combined this means lower productivity: women generate only 18 percent of the region’s GDP, despite accounting for half the working-age population. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that increasing women’s participation in the workforce to the same level as men could nearly double the region’s economic output, adding $2.7 trillion dollars to the Middle East and North Africa’s GDP by 2025.

The legal and social barriers hampering women’s access to jobs and careers in the Middle East is costing the region an estimated $575 billion a year, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) stated on January. On a social level, a recent survey of attitudes in the region, by the UN Women agency and Promundo found more than two thirds of respondents believed a woman’s primary role should be caring for the household, while at least half the women surveyed also saw this as their most important duty. In addition, lack of access to contraception and sexual health care pose additional hurdles for women.
On a legal level, the regulatory environment of the region is not favorable for women. Barriers include needing a guardian to travel as in Saudi Arabia or laws requiring permission from husbands or fathers to work. At the same time, laws perpetuate unequal access to assets; family property is usually in the husband’s name, and women cannot access it if they are widowed or divorced and because they have fewer personal assets, female entrepreneurs have a harder time securing a loan through collateral. Labor laws restrict women’s working hours and the sectors in which they can work, thereby limiting the employment available to women.
Another issue both social and legal is sexual harassment in the workplace. Only a handful of Arab states have laws that specifically tackle violence against women, since most countries in the region still view violence against women and deal with it as a private issue and not a public one. Even if such laws exist their enforcement is problematic, as judges and police across the region rarely punish the perpetrators of sexual assault. Violence against women and girls brings huge economic costs to any society. There is no data on the scale of violence against women in the Arab world but victims of sexual assault tend to report a wide range of negative outcomes, such as worse psychological and physical health, higher absenteeism, less commitment to the organization, and a higher likelihood of quitting one’s job.
Reforms that strengthen women’s rights are necessary to address fundamental problems that have plagued the region, such as reducing high unemployment rates. Unemployment in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region ranks among the highest in the world, with a jobless figure of more than 50 percent. The region’s economies are recovering from the difficult years of a low oil environment, various austerity measures and geopolitical risks. Focusing solely on promoting fair competition and better regulation is not enough.
The region has a long road to achieving gender equality, but legal reforms would be a good starting place. The reality is that the relationship between how much freedom women have in their homes and how easily they can contribute to society outside the domestic sphere is linear. Until women are able to freely work, travel, and own property, reforms to business regulations or other strictly economic solutions will not be enough to decrease the gender labor gap.



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