10/22/2013 02:37 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

A Woman's Work: Powering Up in the MENA Region

The Middle East and North Africa region represents a wildly diverse variety of cultures, customs, religions and political groups. And the relationships between these constructs and popular ideas about women's rights are similarly varied throughout different countries in the region. But while women in Bahrain, for example, are almost 40 percent of our workforce --they are entrepreneurs, business leaders, heads of civil society organizations and members of Parliament -- on the whole, only 25.2 percent of women in the MENA region participate in the labor market. This is about half of the global average, according to a World Bank report.

Unemployment rates are even more staggering; not only have they doubled for MENA women since 1985, but youth unemployment rates among women aged 15-24 are almost 50 percent, compared to 10 to 20 percent for males. And only 15 percent of 5,887 firms surveyed by the World Bank in 10 MENA countries between 2003 and 2010 were female owned.

But despite the challenges that women face in many parts of the MENA region to achieve full economic integration, there are solutions that are making headway. Here are a few important examples:

Who's Empowering MENA Women

  • Public policy and advocacy for women's economic rights: The Tunisia-based Center of Arab Women for Training and Research (CAWTAR) was established 20 years ago as a center of academic research and field studies regarding the status of women. CAWTAR encourages policy dialogue about economic empowerment for Arab women, and implements various projects to enable and better equip women to participate in the economy.
  • Enabling women's labor market participation in Saudi Arabia and beyond: Laws in some MENA countries stipulate that a woman must obtain the permission of her husband or a male relative to obtain a passport, to travel, and even to apply for a job. Since restrictions on mobility prevent many women from working in countries like Saudi Arabia and Jordan, Glowork was formed in response. It is the first portal dedicated to female recruitment in the GCC, and it has already placed 3,000 women in the workplace and found work-from-home employment for another 500. SAS Holding recently invested about $16 million in Glowork, which will help scale-up its model across the MENA region.
  • Training illiterate women to become solar engineers: Barefoot College trains illiterate and semi-literate women from rural villages around the world to become solar engineers. There is a fantastic documentary film called Solar Mamas that chronicles the tale of two such Jordanian women--both of whom are illiterate and unable to speak their instructor's language!
  • Adapting flying schedules for culture: One obstacle to female employment is the restriction on jobs that are considered "against women's morals." To enable more traditional and conservative Bahraini women to work as flight attendants, Gulf Air launched a campaign, promising scheduling benefits that allow Bahraini women to opt only for turn-around flights that do not require an overnight stay outside of Bahrain.

On the Horizon

Although there are a number of dedicated organizations working to empower women in the MENA region, there is still much work to be done. Some of the key areas highlighted by the World Bank include:

  1. Bridging gender gaps in education and improving quality of service delivery
  2. Removing constraints to participation in the formal labor market (because many are still working in the informal market)
  3. Nurturing entrepreneurship
  4. Giving women a greater voice and legal agency
  5. Promoting open-data, pilot-testing, and evidence-based policymaking

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