Hina Mahmood
Last updated: 9 April, 2012

The Need to Unleash the Economic Potential of Women in the Middle East

According to the latest Economist Intelligence Unit report “Women’s economic opportunity 2012,” the female labor participation rate in the Middle East and North Africa region is the lowest in the world at below 30 percent.

The report looks beyond gender disparities incorporating a range of indicators including labor policies, access to finance, education and training, women’s legal and social status, and the general business environment.

It is worth taking note of the data as women historically have been key drivers of economic growth. In the second half of the 20th century the rising women in the workplace added around 2 percentage points a year to economic growth in the US. Since the mid 90s a quarter of Europe’s annual GDP growth has been attributed to the increase in female employment.

In developing countries, nearly half of working-age women are not active in the formal global economy. They have the potential to greatly impact economic growth if they are empowered and provided with education. Unfortunately, many of these women work in unpaid labor in developing countries and have less access to income and resources.

According to the report, just increasing the number of working women will not be effective as many of the poorest regions in the world have high levels of female labor force participation. The financial, legal, social, and educational barriers that are hampering women’s productivity need to be addressed. For example the Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that giving male and female farmers equal access to time and labor saving tools could increase agricultural output in developing countries by as much as 2.5-4 percent.

In the Middle East and North Africa, women have made progress but there is still a long way to go. One of the key factors hindering productivity and participation in the labor force is the lack of opportunity to study. The region has some of the lowest female literacy rates in the world with Morocco at 44% and Yemen at almost 45% as well as some of the lowest female enrollment rates in education. Cultural norms make it difficult for women to attain education as many families place more importance on educating boys than girls. Many of the girls who do attend school are pressurized to drop out to get married.

In addition to poor education, women also face legal obstacles. Some countries require the permission of a father or husband for a woman to work, travel, or open a bank account. Legal restrictions, poor education, and high reproductive rates have all contributed to the region having one of the lowest female participation rates in the world. In Jordan only 17 percent of women between the ages of 20 and 45 work. From Morocco to Iran, no country has a female labor participation rate above 50 percent.

There is also less political participation in political processes than any other part of the world and women have fewer protections against violence. With the changes that are sweeping the region, new governments should pay attention to this glaring problem. For their countries to prosper they will need to invest in women’s education, remove outdated legal restrictions, and implement measures that protect women from violence. More women will also have to partake in the political process to ensure that women are able to participate effectively in the formal economy, are afforded greater opportunities, and through such empowerment, are able to contribute to the economic growth of their country and the region.
Click here to read the EIU report.