At a time when the world’s governments are redrafting economic strategies to restore long-term growth, and expectations for increased transparency and accountability in both the public and private sector are rising everywhere, we need to respond to the aspirations of women and youths by linking economic strategy with broader plans for societal progress.
The Arab world is moving in the right direction by slowly removing cultural constraints to gender equality through education, entrepreneurship and political empowerment. Progress made by Arab women in the last 15 years continues to narrow the gender gap in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, with particular improvements being made in the areas of literacy, women’s entrepreneurship and political empowerment. Literacy rates for women throughout the region are now higher than those of men, and there have also been substantial gains in primary, secondary and tertiary enrolment.
Throughout the Arab region, women outnumber men in higher education and account for around 75% of students enrolled in colleges and universities in the Arab world. Women in Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia constitute 67%, 63% and 57% of university graduates respectively. The number of women holding ministerial-level positions and other roles in public life has also increased significantly in the last decade, and we are seeing more women exert a strong, positive and lasting influence on their communities, their societies and their economies. Women are taking on prominent roles as decision-makers, participating in their economies and societies as educators, professors, university deans, journalists, judges, lawyers, media figures, bankers, medical professionals, scientific researchers and government ministers.
More women are attracted to business too, and the number of women choosing entrepreneurship over traditional employment–12,000 in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) alone–is growing impressively year to year. Women represent 50% of the small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) sector in the MENA area, and the participation rate of women rose from 10% in 1986 to 33% by 2008. The Boston Consulting Group recently estimates wealth held by women in the MENA region at $500 billion, while MEED, a Middle East business media company, estimates that $385 billion of wealth is managed by women in the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia and UAE).
But, to put these achievements into perspective, women are still vastly under-represented in the region overall, especially in the sciences, sports, media, religion, medicine, engineering and law. Take the workplace: Qatar has a relatively high rate of women at work at 35%, ahead of Bahrain with 30%, whereas Oman stands at 25% and Saudi Arabia at just 17%. These numbers are all far below equivalent OECD averages. And despite an increase in parliamentary representation in many MENA countries, gender barriers have prevented women from having any major impact on some of the region’s key institutions.
Societal norms and traditions still exert a unique and limiting pressure on women in the region, while women in business in all Arab countries still struggle when it comes to access to capital, technology and networking or marketing opportunities, skill building and specialist training.
These barriers must be overcome. After all, SMEs owned by women have been shown to be best at creating jobs and recruiting women and young people. Job creation is the crisis of our time, yet there is a strong link between women’s entrepreneurship and sustainable, inclusive economic and social growth: Arab women can be real drivers of change and partners in a developed and more dynamic Arab private sector,which the region desperately needs for its mainly young population.
The barriers to more equality in the Arab world may be falling, but gender and income inequality is rising. The global financial crisis and the Arab Spring have underscored the fact that in some parts of the region economic growth in recent decades has simply not translated into inclusive economic opportunity for all citizens, nor has it resulted in any noticeable social improvement. Still, while the true effects of the Arab Spring may not be known or measurable for decades, governments in the region have undeniably been awakened to the currents of change. There really is no going back.
Closing the gap between the economic opportunities available to men and those available to women should therefore be a top economic priority. An increased emphasis on the importance of social and human development issues, such as education, health, youth and women’s issues is a monumental step forward which can make a real impact in the critical areas of economic participation, economic opportunity and political empowerment. In working towards achieving gender equality in the MENA region, Arab governments must approach sustainable development strategies with a rights-based focus on the Arab world’s most precious resource—its people, and especially its women and young people.
But change will only come gradually and only from within. Looking ahead, the key concern for AIWF and our members is whether women will be able to successfully carve a space for themselves and find a voice for themselves in newborn Arab democracies. Several of our members, who are working on the ground to advocate for the inclusion of women in the shaping of new political frameworks in Egypt and Tunisia, broadly agree that outside assistance should be targeted at education and job training, as well as raising general public awareness of the important role women play in the economy, whether formally or informally.
Now, more than ever, we can see that gender equality and equality of economic opportunity for all citizens are key to successful, inclusive and sustainable development for the MENA region, and that Arab women are engines of social progress and economic growth. Every MENA country faces a long and uncertain few years ahead, but there are now unprecedented opportunities for women to claim a critical role in shaping the frameworks that will set legal, political and social precedents for the decades to come.
©OECD Observer No 290-291, Q1-Q2 2012