Key finding: Recent data illustrates that the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region continues to rank lowest overall in the world on measures of women’s economic participation and opportunity (Global Gender Gap Index, 2012). However, MENA economies are not homogenous and variation does exist among countries, with fragile and conflict-affected states recording lower rates of female (and male) economic activity. However, overall progress has been slow.
Investments in human capital, increased levels of female educational attainment and indications of delayed age of marriage have not yet translated into increases in women’s participation in economic life; this situation is also known as the ‘MENA paradox’. Women’s continuing low economic participation has been attributed to number of interrelated socioeconomic, cultural, individual, structural and institutional factors. Although variation occurs, the following have been identified as key barriers to women’s economic participation:
- constraints on access to quality education
- demands of the care economy
- disincentives to working in the private sector after marriage
- cultural perceptions of women’s domestic role
- limited labour market mobility
- discriminatory labour laws and practices
- weak implementation of laws to protect women’s rights
- limited access to capital and finance
- limited access to information, networks and markets
- restrictions on women’s mobility and freedom of association
- the double disadvantage of young women.
The debate about which factors are more or less important in constraining or enabling women’s economic role has direct implications for the types of initiatives that should be prioritised by governments and donors. Nevertheless, while there is a good deal of research available on the factors that constrain women’s economic empowerment in MENA, development agencies acknowledge there is little evidence of the impact of initiatives that have sought to address these constraints. Some initiatives in the areas of reforming labour laws, supporting women’s entrepreneurship and improving access to microfinance, engaging the private sector and supporting graduate transitions into employment have reportedly had positive effects. However, in most cases evidence is anecdotal, and in some cases contradictory. Moreover, this sample of activities does not represent the full range of ongoing initiatives that might have an effect on women’s economic empowerment.