Women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)
Women’s economic activity in the MENA region has increased over the past 20 years. Still, the region has a long way to go as even today just over 30 percent of the region’s women are economically active. The corresponding numbers for South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, are approximately 40 and 60 percent, respectively. It should be noted, however, that the share of women in MENA countries employed outside of the agricultural sector is greater than in either South Asia or Sub-Saharan Africa.
Access to resources
Women in MENA are relatively well educated and not short of entrepreneurial ideas. Why, then, is their labor force participation low compared to other regions in the world; regions that are poorer and much more restrictive in granting women access to services such as education and health care? To some extent, women in MENA countries have long been the victims of a society that is patriarchal in nature, where women have been praised for their reproductive role only. The world of money, in turn, has been – and to some extent still is – the world of men.
For example, there are still reports from women in the MENA region who have faced restrictions in their access to credit. Several banks and lending institutions require female clients to obtain their husband’s permission or co-signature before they grant them any financial aid. It is obstacles like these that limit women’s economic opportunities and hence their chances to start businesses of their own. This, in turn, has dampening effects on the overall job creation in the region as well as on economic growth.
One also needs to take into account regional differences between the MENA countries. In Kuwait and Israel , close to 50 percent of women are economically active, while this is only true for 10 percent in the West Bank and Gaza, 17 percent in Saudi Arabia and 20 percent in Egypt. Over 90 percent of women (girls) are enrolled in primary school in Algeria , Bahrain , Egypt , Israel , Jordan , Lebanon , Gender Equality in Syria and Tunisia . In contrast, female primary enrolment is at 70 percent or below in the the United Arab Emirates , Yemen and Saudi Arabia . In many MENA countries, female employment needs to catch up with female education, or the resources invested in women’s education will not be effectively translated into economic gains for the society as a whole.
Conditions for female entrepreneurship are gradually improving. Women are gaining more independence, both financially and socially. There is a trend among both men and women to marry at a later age and, perhaps, to first pursue a professional career instead. While still limited, micro-finance institutions are being set up in the region, some specifically targeting women. Another contributing factor – maybe even the most important one, although not easily measured – is the fact that women are becoming increasingly aware of their economic and political rights, and are starting to demand them more firmly.
- World Bank Gender website in MENA http://go.worldbank.org/FNNK519C60
- The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development /The World Bank, Status and Progress of Women in the Middle East and North Africa (2007)
- The 2007 Declaration on Fostering Women’s Entrepreneurship in the MENA Region was adopted on the occasion of the Second Ministerial Meeting of the MENA-OECD Investment Programme on the 28 November 2007. To learn more about the 2009 Business Forum and Women Business Leaders Summit of the MENA-OECD Investment Programme (held on 22 November 2009 in Marrakech, Morocco), click here.
- To find our what progress has been made in improving the status of women in the Middle East and North Africa, read Women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa 2010, paper by Freedom House