The Female Challenge of North Africa and the Middle East

Published June 2nd, 2014 - 02:33 GMT
Although the proportions of young men and women in education are very close throughout the region collectively (46% men and 44% for women respectively), 23% of young women are not part of the labour force.
Although the proportions of young men and women in education are very close throughout the region collectively (46% men and 44% for women respectively), 23% of young women are not part of the labour force.

Gender still remains an area of great concern for harnessing the full productive potential of the North African and Middle Eastern Woman when it comes to the work place. Women's participation in the labour force, and in paid employment has maintained an upward trend in almost all regions of the world at 56.6%. Unfortunately however, this is not matched in the MENA region: with the rate remaining stubborn at 32%, the lowest level among all regions. Why this low percentage? And what factors need to be considered in creating better access to jobs?

Women face specific challenges in accessing the labour market: much human resource potential gets lost, and year in year out these women miss the chance to contribute to growing economies in the region.

Although the proportions of young men and women in education are very close throughout the region collectively (46% men and 44% for women respectively), 23% of young women are not part of the labour force, compared to only 5% of young men. It is the early process, before a potential worker has even made it into employment which should be looked at firstly, and nursed to a better conclusion. Instead, the current trend is that men progress onto higher level jobs, while gender clearly plays a role in the barrier which prevents women from entering the labour market.

It's a common trend also to see labour force participation among women decreasing with  age: take Lebanon for example.  44% of women from the ages of 18 to 35 work, or are between work. This statistic drops to 38% for the 36 to 55 age group. A factor to consider is a cultural one, whereby Middle Eastern and North African culture encourages marriage and children. Women leaving the labour force because of this is not something unheard of, and  this systematic discrimination entails no job security or chance to return to work after such life events.

What should be highlighted is that both men and women are given a similar start in their education and lead up to work life: unfortunately, the chances of a woman being in wage employment are much lower.

Not only does this reflect lost potential and discrimination against women in the work place; gender inequalities in education and employment can also have a negative intergenerational impact. It has been well demonstrated that children are less likely to be educated if their mother has not been educated or is not in work.

When discussing work, one must also consider the forms of work in which men and women partake in (or are offered). In the MENA region, it is more likely for women, than their male counterparts to work part-time in order to balance household and family duties. Interestingly however, is the fact that women are twice as likely as men to report being employed part time (12% vs. 6%), more than three quarters of working women and eight in ten working men do so on a full-time basis.  Though these percentages may not suggest a huge difference in the gender divide when it comes to working hours, there are important differences in how women are compensated for their work.

Deeply entrenched societal norms, combined with conservative interpretations of Islamic law, regions such as the Gulf for example also continue to relegate women to a subordinate status. Women in this region are significantly underrepresented in senior positions in politics and the private sector, and in some countries they are completely absent from the judiciary.

Employment participation in North Africa is much lower than in other world regions, largely because of the low employment share of women. The overall employment rate in North Africa is only 40%; much lower than in most other parts of the world. This is in comparison to the OECD countries with Brazil at just over 65% and in China over 70%.

In Algeria, the weight of tradition or certain family constraints restrict women’s work and travel opportunities.  Families are often more inclined to provide moral and financial support to boys for enterprise-creation projects. In Algeria, equal rights for men and women are enshrined in the constitution. However, the Family Code which has been in place since 1984 has reversed many elements of progress. In public life women are concerned with their rights, but within the family they accept subservience.

Algeria is a young country: around half the population is under 25, and unemployment is rife. Though the trend sees that both men and women are struggling in the battle for work, it is young women who tend to be more eager to learn, more flexible and often make better use of what opportunities there are, taking what they get. Studies suggest that this is due to the male students' tendency to start work rather than continue their education, and for the females' desire to attain a higher social standing through academic achievement. They represent 61% of graduates in higher education.

Women currently account for one-third of the total workforce: Over half of university staff, 60% of hospital employees, 30% of judges and over 55% of journalists are women. Thirty women hold seats in parliament and 11 hold senior government posts, including the minister for culture and three ministers of state. Though on the surface, this may seem a promising agenda, it must be realised that many of those in these positions have been in these positions for over 20 years. It is the younger women, who are only just finishing education and seeking employment who are finding difficulty in climbing the ladder.

In neighbouring Tunisia, its new constitution, promulgated in early 2014, reinforced women's rights and it safeguarded the rights won by Tunisian women by referring to the Code du Statut Personnel (Personal Status Code) of 1956. Yet still, there is a need to empower women and to strengthen their contribution in the Tunisian economy.  The last quarter of 2013 saw only 25.7% of women active in the labour market compared to 74.3 % of men.  And similar to Algeria, where 41.9% of female university graduates were un employed, in comparison to 21.7% for men.

Women in the region see education as a gateway to attaining status and assuming higher positions, thus liberating themselves from "stereotypical vocations such as sewing and cleaning. However, the governmental role in this situation does not always play in favour of these women; where they are expecting to see their economic role and their situation enhanced.

 By: Naila Missous

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