AIWF Activities 2018

What Others Say

“In striving to empower Arab women and realise their human rights we are fighting for the freedom to be fully and completely human, without need for permission or persuasion.”

- Dr. Benita Ferrero-Waldner,Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighbourhood Policy.

AIWF Conference at the European Parliament, Brussels, April 2005

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"Time is Now: Rural and urban activists transforming women's lives"
A Special Message from the AIWF Chairman

8 March 2018  

Haifa Al Kaylani, Founder Chairman of the Arab International Women's Forum Fellow, Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative 2017
Commissioner, ILO Global Commission on the Future of Work
Haifa Al Kaylani picture

UN Women's theme for International Women's Day 2018, "Time Is Now: Rural and Urban Activists Transforming Women's Lives", follows a year in which much of the Arab world saw phenomenal progress in women's leadership throughout the region in many formal, developed, and information-based sectors, but still significant improvement is required in addressing the challenges and disempowerment of women and young people in the rural and informal economies. 

Throughout the MENA region, women are taking high-level leadership positions in business, public service, the judiciary and the legislature in most States, advancing rapidly in professions previously restricted to men, including finance, medicine, aviation, and STEM careers, and challenging gender bias in nearly every sector and sphere. More Arab women are playing prominent roles on corporate boards and in executive leadership throughout the MENA region, with the number of women occupying board seats in the EMEA at 5% (4% in Asia-Pacific), according to the Deloitte report Women in the Boardroom: A Global Perspective, inching closer to the global average of 12% of women holding Board roles (and 4% chairing Boards). Many of the region’s most prominent businesswomen are at the helm of some of the most successful family ventures in the world, and we regularly see Arab women included in Forbes and Fortune lists of international “women to watch”.  

Arab women are successfully running for political office, serving in uniform and parliament, and assuming positions of leadership in public service and international relations. The overall rate of parliamentary participation of women in the Arab States is at, as of January 2018, 17.5% (up from 13% in 2012 and 9% in 2010, per data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union). Women are also levelling the playing field in diplomacy, law and politics, breaking new ground as lawyers, judges, professors and parliamentarians. In addition to senior cabinet positions, more Arab women than ever before are also serving as Governors, Ambassadors and leading diplomatic figures around the world. 

As a result of women’s increased participation in policymaking across the region, legal reforms are being celebrated across many of the MENA countries, especially in Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia – which recently passed a landmark law to protect women from domestic violence, and Egypt – which passed a law granting women inheritance rights on an equal basis with men. The UAE is leading the way in improving maternity leave rights for working mothers and has recently launched high-level Ministries led by women, including the world’s only Ministry of Happiness and the Ministry of Food Security. Jordan recently appointed its first female judge to the Supreme Court, Judge Ihsan Barakat, in what is a major breakthrough for women in the legal profession and the judiciary in the Arab world (Judge Barakat was also the first woman to serve as Amman’s Attorney General). And women in Saudi Arabia are now able to attend public events at sports arenas, drive and serve in the military.  

In my view, the key to the Arab world’s progress has been education, which could well be the region’s success story and the key to its future prosperity. At higher and advanced education level, in almost every MENA country, Arab women are graduating from Arab universities in far greater numbers than men and in subjects such as computer science, engineering and law, in what the World Bank has called a ‘reverse gender gap’. In some countries, the ratio of women to men studying STEM subjects at university is 2:1; in some GCC countries, more than 70% of law graduates are women; and in most Gulf States, around 60% of university graduates overall are women. For many Arab women, not only has education enhanced economic opportunity and engagement, it has helped move gender equality forward in the region, it has lifted families out of poverty and broken the cycle of under-privilege, deprivation and disenfranchisement.  

However, notwithstanding the undeniable progress that has been made in most MENA states, as the ILO notes in its World Employment and Social Outlook Trends 2017 report, women in North Africa are still twice as likely to be unemployed as their male counterparts, unemployment for women in the Arab States is still 13 percentage points higher than that for men, and female participation in the labour market remained the lowest globally at just 21.2% in 2016, against a world average of 49.5%. As the ILO has found: “Such large gender disparities in labour market performance undoubtedly highlight the fact that although women have achieved high levels of education, this has not translated into their inclusion in the world of work.”  

The World Bank estimates that legal and business barriers are presenting the most serious barriers to women joining the labour force in MENA, causing an estimated loss of 27% in income for the region overall. Every MENA economy has at least one restriction on the type of work a woman can do, and Morocco is the only country where it's prohibited by law to discriminate against women when giving them access to credit. Morocco and Djibouti are the only countries that legally mandate equal remuneration for equal work and non-discrimination based on gender in hiring for jobs, and Algeria legally mandates equal remuneration for equal work.  

Gender barriers to women’s inclusion are also reflected in the low rates of female-led entrepreneurship in the MENA region, with the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor’s (GEM) MENA 2017 Report identifying barriers as: women having higher levels of domestic responsibility, lower levels of education, a lack of female role models in business and public service, fewer business-orientated networks in Arab communities, a lack of capital and assets, and a “culturally-induced lack of assertiveness and confidence” in women’s abilities to succeed in business, entrepreneurship and professional life. 

Women in the rural sector face the most significant gender disparity, a situation that the ILO describes as “the ever-present challenge”. Women living and working in rural economies are often perceived to be and treated as second-class citizens, but despite the low level of recognition given to their work, their socio-economic contribution to the welfare of their households and communities is immense. According to the ILO, around 70% of the world’s poor live in rural communities that rely heavily on agriculture, forestry, fisheries and livestock. Within these communities, women and young girls, “the poorest of the poor”, typically lack regular, viable, decent employment, face hunger and malnutrition, poor access to health, education and productive assets. As the ILO finds: “Although gender inequality varies considerably across regions and sectors, there is evidence that, globally, women benefit less from rural employment, whether in self- or wage-employment, than men do”, with 25% less pay then men and women also shouldering much of the burden of unpaid work which is neither valued nor remunerated. Gender inequality in rural economies exist because of the “interlinked social, economic and political factors” but mostly because of “the invisible but powerful role of social institutions that disempower one sex above the other” which include “traditions, customs and social norms that govern the intricate workings of rural societies, and which act as a constraint on women’s activities and restrict their ability to complete on an even footing with men.” (ILO). Women working in the rural sector are also less able to anticipate or recover from disasters or civil unrest, more likely to suffer from food insecurity and poverty and more likely to be marginalized in development projects and economic growth initiatives.  

In the MENA, the informal sector, estimated at around 25% of regional GDP, plays an increasingly significant role in providing entry-level work to low-skilled women and young people. However, as Brookings Institute notes, young people entering the informal economy typically encounter low wages, inadequate working conditions and job insecurity. A 2015 EBRD survey of the business environment in the MENA region shows that the informal sector in the MENA is bloated and shows no signs of slowing down, which puts formally registered businesses at a disadvantage in some sectors. The informal economy is also very difficult to measure and, according to research from the Carnegie Middle East Centre, estimates vary widely between the Arab countries. In Egypt, the informal economy is believed to account for 40% of economic activity; in Morocco, around 30%; in pre-war Syria, 25% of the labour force was believed to be unregulated and working in the informal sector; and in Jordan, the informal sector represents over 20% of the economy. Across the region, the informal sector is rapidly absorbing the high numbers of young people who are unable to secure job opportunities in the formal economy.  

As the McKinsey Global Institute noted in its influential report in September 2015, The Power of Parity, narrowing the gender gap and advancing women's equality across the board – in formal and informal, developed and rural economies – could add $12 trillion to global growth. McKinsey has identified six types of intervention necessary to bridge the gender gap and push through further progress for women, which include promoting financial incentives and support for women; promoting literacy in technology and improving infrastructure; creating economic opportunities for women; capacity building; building on advocacy to reshape cultural attitudes and inspire women’s own self-belief; and much-needed reform in laws, policies and regulations that impact the lives of women, children and societies overall.  

By continuing to power progress in education levels across the board, we are likely to see more women working in the professions and in technical, or previously male-dominated sectors such as STEM, and assuming leadership roles in all sectors and all spheres. And by ensuring that due attention is paid to the voices of women and youth in the rural and informal sectors, we can drive forward more equitable economic prosperity and social transformation towards true gender equality between men and women in the MENA region.  

Gender parity can certainly be achieved by strengthening normative and legal frameworks impacting working women, ensuring decent work and progression opportunities for women at all levels and in all sectors. This requires serious political will and the collaborative efforts of all stakeholders – including, most importantly, women and young people themselves – to integrate gender perspectives in labour and economic institutions and programmes at local, national and global levels. Gender inequality exists in the workplace – not only in the Arab world but globally – because gender inequality exists at home and in society overall. Let us press ahead in this critical year ahead, and achieve real, viable, long-lasting progress for women in the Arab world and globally, by taking a wide lens view of the societal and cultural factors that inhibit women’s progression in the workplace and adopting top-down legislative and regulatory reform to give legal protection and political voice to women both at work and at home. Women’s unhindered and active participation in society is key to achieving prosperous and peaceful communities.