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The Economic Miracle of Women

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Oct 08, 2018 / 0 Comments






Gender Equality, the guarantee of access to equal rights and opportunities for women same as their men counterparts, has yet to be fully achieved for women across the globe.

Historically, women have been actively pursuing their right to equality since the nineteenth century, and maybe even longer.


Simone de Beauvoir wrote that "the first time we see a woman take up her pen in defense of her sex" was Christine de Pizan who wrote Epitre au Dieu d'Amour (Epistle to the God of Love) in the 15th century.


Women's movements have come a long way achieving major victories throughout history starting with gaining the right to vote in the early nineteenth century and counting to successfully push for women involvement and leadership in political and social life from the 90s to the present time.  

Yet, women still face Gender-based discriminations. The key to understanding Gender-based injustices is understanding Gender.


The United Nation's Fund for Women (UNWomen) defines "Gender" as "the social attributes and opportunities associated with being male and female and the relationships between women and men and girls and boys, as well as the relations between women and those between men."

According to the UN, these attributes, opportunities and relationships are socially constructed and are learned through socialization processes. Gender determines what is expected, allowed and valued in a woman or a man in a given context.


In the current global context, women remain one of the world's most vulnerable populations; they have access to fewer opportunities for education, employment, political and social involvement and enduring all forms of violence


“An estimate of 130 million girls between the age of 6 and 17 are out of school.”  UNESCO


The current global labor force participation rate for women is close to 49%. For men, it’s 75%.” ILO 


“In June 2016 only 22.8% of all national parliamentarians were women – up from 11.3% in 1995.” UNWomen


“Global estimates indicate that about 1 in 3 (35%) of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.” WHO


“Throughout the MENA region, a girl is still 25% less likely to attend school than a boy.” UNICEF 


“MENA has the world’s lowest percentage of female integration in the labor market with women making up only 20.5% of its total labor force.” The World Bank


“37% of Arab women have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime.” UNWomen 


The following report examines the situation of women in MENA in the fields of education, labor market, entrepreneurship, politics, civil society and combatting Gender-based violence while presenting inspiring stories of women who are pushing for more female inclusion each in her area of expertise.  









Today, it has become clear that the world stands to gain more if a woman is guaranteed quality education throughout her life. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) states that “an educated woman will be more productive at work -- and better paid and that one extra year of schooling will increase a woman's future earnings by about 15% compared with 11% for a man”.


Not only is a woman more productive when better educated, but she boosts the economy of her country. A one percentage point increase in female education raises the average gross domestic product (GDP) by 0.3 percentage points and raises annual GDP growth rates by 0.2 percentage points, according to the same source.


Unfortunately, the benefits of educating girls are yet to be fully grasped by the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Generally, MENA has lower levels of women’s education than other areas of similar economic performance.


Though the region has come a long way in reducing gender disparities, it still weighs heavily on a woman's chances to access education (see below figure). Throughout the region, a girl is still 25% less likely to attend school than a boy.


The share of out-of-school children for the MENA region by gender and
school level in, UNICEF, 2012



Education : Sources 









Shayma Tantawy is the founder and the CEO of Man Ahyaha, an Egyptian NGO working on improving access to education in rural Egypt. 
Sahyma's story is one of determination and strong conviction. She believed that in order to lift-up society, education needed to be a guarantee for all and the responsibility of all. 



Since 2007 Man Ahyaha has been working on raising community awareness around the subject of girl’s acess to education, which led to the construction of two community schools enrolling more than 200 children each.



Man Ahyaha's next step is to execute its vision of "Community Engagement Support through Education” and to replicate the community school module in other villages.


"Community schools create a concrete alternative for the faraway built schools that drastically affect girls’ enrollment and prevent the completion of their education."

Read more about her story here!








The MENA countries have been making impressive progress in pushing the gender agenda forward, and more women are attending universities and getting to a higher level of education. However, this progress has not translated into improvements in their economic inclusion.


The region still has the world’s lowest percentage of female integration in the labor market with women making up only 20.5% of its total labor force.   


Female Labor Force Participation in MENA


The region’s female labor force participation rate of 26% sits well below the 39% rate in Low and Middle-Income countries, testifying to the need for more inclusive economic policies in the region.


Women are more likely to be unemployed as their level of education increases, as opposed to men who benefit from advanced degrees.


The gender gap in women’s participation in the labor force means an estimated 27% losses in income for the MENA region.    



Labor Market : Sources

Brookings : Equality and the Economy: Why the Arab World Should Employ More Women









Sarah Arbi is a young Tunisian entrepreneur who in the spirit of the 2011 uprising in Tunisia, took a leap of faith in herself and set out to follow her dream of creating and running her own business.


Although Sara is a formally trained industrial chemist, she found her real passion lies in the art of communication. She ventured into creative writing and created her advertising and strategic marketing agency, G-dice.


As a driven young woman herself, Sara had no doubt in her mind that supporting youth is the only way forward and they hold power to change the future of the country. She made it a policy that G-dice is only to hire young professionals, especially women, sending out a message of trust and support to the young people struggling to feel valued in the Tunisian society.


Under the leadership of Sara, the innovative, youthful team of G-dice closed several deals with some of the biggest companies in the Tunisian market. 



“Unemployment is living locked in a dark room away from a very beautiful reality.”

Watch Sara and other young entrepreneurs talk unemployment!






It is just a fact that the MENA economies have the world’s lowest proportion of women in employment and a low level of female entrepreneurs. Women keep struggling to change the negative stereotypes that have been built around them and to be seen and treated as equals.


Often, cultural constraints, social and traditional norms, and personal and family reasons, hamper professional progression for women, contrary to men, who are not subject to such norms and are not professionally affected by it.


While constraints and barriers are real, women in the MENA region are making an impressive headway in asserting their relevance in pushing the economies of their countries forward. More and more women are expanding and owning businesses. 15.9% of corporate board members across the Arab world are women, compared to a world’s average of around 21.8%.


According to the IFC report “Women Entrepreneurs in the Middle East and North Africa”: the majority of the women surveyed in Bahrain and Tunisia are sole owners of their firms, at 59% and 55%, respectively. This compares with 48% sole owners in Jordan and the UAE, and 41% in Lebanon.


Arab women are also creating employment, Tunisian women-owned firms employ 19.3 workers per firm on average.


Source: IFC, 2007


These are only few indicators illustrating the importance of women’s involvement in raising the MENA region’s economy.  


Encouraging women to participate in the workforce is not to be underestimated. When they are poorly represented in businesses they are also poorly represented socially and politically. When women are financially independent, it creates security and enables them to take risks maximizing personal development and making the population richer, more productive. 


Entrepreneurship: Sources

IFC report: Women Entrepreneurs in the Middle East and North Africa: Characteristics, Contributions and Challenges, 2007








After long four years working and covering stories of women in different countries over the globe, Sana became convinced that hearing a woman's story and learning about her struggle was not good enough!


Following her conviction, Sana started focusing on developing ways to stimulate the economy through female entrepreneurship, accentuating the importance of female contribution in driving economic prosperity across the MENA region.


She created Womenpreneur, an initiative that supports women entrepreneurs grow scalable businesses, accompanies them through the development process and addresses the key challenges impacting the growth of their projects.


By providing women the skills, knowledge, and confidence they need to succeed their businesses, Womenpreneur has been facilitating the integration of women in the labor market throughout the region and has created a ripple effect where women are not only leading their businesses successfully but also helping other women do the same. 



“The struggle to setup and grow a business is harder for women. Therefore, Womenpreneur saw the niche and potential in helping women over the region to foster their passion to open a business.”








After the 2011 uprisings in several countries of the MENA region, political participation of women has seen a slight improvement. For example, countries like Tunisia passed laws guaranteeing gender parity in electoral lists running for Parliament.


However, this remains the exception. Politics in the MENA region is still male-dominated. Generally, there has been limited engagement with international legal and policy mechanisms to reduce gender disparity and support equality and women’s empowerment.


Many governments in the MENA region have signed and ratified the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), but all have entered reservations to various articles in the treaty.


Governments lack of commitment to the cause, and the absence of instruments to support women empowerment in the region contribute to alienating women from political involvement.


With only 16% of parliamentary seats held by women, the MENA region remains in the bottom of the pack well behind Latin America and the Caribbean at 30%, and sub-Saharan Africa at 24% percent.

Percentages of Parliamentary Seats Held by Women, World Bank, Source: Surveys compiled available at the World Bank open data (1990-2015)



Politics: Sources Proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments

UNDP: Advancing Women’s Political Participation, 2017








Paula Yacoubian recently won an uphill battle securing a seat in the Lebanese Parliament during the legislative election that took place in May 2018. Paula became the first Lebanese woman to head a successful electoral campaign without prior political experience and with no family ties to male politicians.


Paula ran within a civil society coalition with an anti-corruption agenda, and in the prolongation of recent Lebanese popular protests for better public services, notably after the garbage crisis.


Known for her journalistic career, Paula had always left an impact through the strength of her arguments and her genuine interest in shedding a light on some the country's most underexposed issues. Notably, women's rights.


The World Bank Group chose Paula to be a member of their External Advisory Panel for Diversity and Inclusion for her advocacy for the women rights and her tireless support of electoral women quota and a fairer electoral law in Lebanon.


Paula used all the channels available to her to get her message through, advocating for women empowerment and she intends to continue to do so as a deputy in parliament. Paula is a testament to the determination of Lebanese women getting involved in the process of decision making in their country.



"We cannot protest against traffic jams, power cuts, pollution and waste all day and do nothing. I decided to act! "







Empowering women doesn’t just mean getting a seat at the political table, a woman's voice has to be heard in all fields, civil society included. Women must be included and represented in the region’s journey to craft a new social contract founded on good governance, transparency, and gender equality. 


The MENA region has a very heterogeneous landscape, the role of civil society and the accessibility to civic engagement varies from one country to another.


Still, over the past eight years, the MENA region saw how civil society can bring about democratic reforms. Women often led these movements not only pushing for policies improving the status of women's rights but also pressuring general government accountability. In its recent report "Women in public life", the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) highlights the dominance of women in civil society in MENA, mainly due to accessibility and, in some cases, cultural acceptance and work-life balance considerations. Yet, in civil society, women in leadership positions remain limited.


It is critical that women be supported in their path to civic engagement. Equipping women with technical skills to leverage their participation in civil society and promoting their access to leadership in these organizations will foster an active and vibrant community, leading to a more equal and inclusive society.



Voice: Sources

OECD: Women in Public Life, 2014 








It takes bravery, determination and solid belief to stand up to the Saudi government on issues of women's rights. Loujain Alhathloul indeed gathered all those factors.  


For years Loujain defied the Saudi government's ban on women driving and took to her driving wheel roaming the street of the country in broad daylight landing her in jail times and times again. Yet, Loujain was unstoppable, not threats, police harassment or even jail time were to make her take a step back or give up her belief that women are not second-class citizens and are entitled to be equal to men in rights.


Loujain used the power of social media to get her voice heard on a national and international level. She was known for posting videos online of herself protest driving, and she managed to gather international support to her cause.


She also inspired other Saudi women to drive the #women2Drive movement while in the driver seat. In September 2017, Saudi women won a battle of a lifetime. King Salman signed a decree law finally putting an end to the women driving ban. This win was primarily the result of the perseverance of women like Loujain. 


While one battle was won, the war is far from over. Even though the government has loosened their restrictions on women, women activists including Loujain still face retaliation for speaking their opinions out.



"In my perfect world there is no guardianship on women"

Watch her story here!






Much like any region in the world, women in MENA are not spared violence. Overall, it is estimated that 37% of Arab women have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime.


As highlighted by the recent #MeToo movement across the world, many women who undergo harassment or violence may find it difficult to report their experience for fear of being stigmatized, retaliated against, not being given credibility and most importantly for the lack of an adequate justice system that guarantees them fair judgment.  


    Overview of Legal Provisions Against Violence



Because of the degrading physical, emotional and psychological effects on those suffering violence, the case for tackling the legal loopholes allowing perpetrators to escape punishment stand its own merits.


For example, in Libya, a person responsible of rape can escape punishment if this person marries the victim. Ensuring the change of such laws is certainly crucial to helping the cause but passing a law does not guarantee that it is applied and that the problem will be solved.


Violence against women is a multi-factor phenomenon that also requires a profound change in mentality and community norms through public campaigns, education, economic empowerment, the ability to enforce legal sanctions. 


According to UN Women at least 26% of men in MENA agree that a woman should tolerate violence to keep families together. This sentiment is widespread among women themselves. 



Besides its personal effects, violence against women represents an economic loss: globally, the total direct and indirect costs of violence against women in countries are estimated to be as high as 1-2% of the world’s Gross National Product. 



Violence Against Women: Sources

"Global and regional estimates of violence against women: prevalence and health effects of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence” (2013) WHO

World Bank, Women, Business and the Law.

Global Burden Disease 2010.

Violence against Women, WHO Key facts

“Intimate Partner Violence: Economic Costs and Implications for Growth and Development” Women's Voice, Agency, & Participation Research Series 2013. World Bank   

Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, UN Doc A/RES/48/104, Article 1, 20 December 1993

UN Women: Understanding Masculinity

Human Rights Watch: Palestine repealed the marry-your-rapist-law 










Zoya Juredini Rouhana is a feminist social activist, co-founder, and leader of KAFA "Enough Violence and Exploitation," a non-governmental civil society organization seeking to create a society that is free of social, economic and legal patriarchal structures that discriminate against women. 


Zoya is the definition of commitment to the cause. She spent thirteen long years fighting for women's rights in Lebanon, crafting one campaign after the other targeting controversial laws hindering women empowerment. 


Behind the poised and calm features of Zoya lays a woman with so much determination to build a safer future for women in Lebanon. 


When initiating KAFA, Zoya set the protection of women as a goal for the organization and build its identity on combatting all forms of violence against women. Since 2005, KAFA has worked to break the silence and provide assistance to women suffering abuse. It has established the first listening and counseling center that provided services to battered women in Lebanon. 


KAFA attained one their most significant achievement when the success of their campaigning led to the repeal of the Article 522 in Lebanon’s penal code. Article 522 declared rape to be punishable by up to seven years in prison but with a loophole that allowed the suspension of criminal prosecution if the rapist and survivor marry for a minimum of three years.


This victory was proof of the value of the work of Zoya and KAFA in holding lawmakers accountable for the future of women and girls suffering no legal protection in Lebanese context and regionally.  



The current political system being as sectarian and patriarchal as it currently is, is a system that works against women empowerment” 


Blanca Moreno-Dodson

Mrs. Blanca Moreno-Dodson is the Manager of the Center for Mediterranean Integration, the World Bank, Marseille, France.  She is an experienced development economist with more than twenty four years of World Bank service, including operational work worldwide, with deeper regional expertise in Africa and Latin America.  She is accomplished in macroeconomics and fiscal policy for developing countries, with a focus on growth, inequality and poverty reduction.  She is skilled in public expenditure analysis, fiscal sustainability, public finance, tax policy reforms and transfer pricing.  Previously, she worked as junior economist at the European Union (European Commission and European Parliament). 


She has published three World Bank books: “Reducing Poverty on a Global Scale”, 2005, “Public Finance for Poverty Reduction”, 2007, and “Is Fiscal Policy the Answer? A Developing Country Perspective”, 2012, as well as numerous papers on macroeconomics, public expenditures, tax policy and growth, and other development issues, at the National Tax Association Journal, Banca d’Italia Fiscal Policy Annual Volume, Hacienda Pública Española Journal,  Bulletin of Economic Research, and the World Bank Working Papers series.  She has been guest lecturer at the Duke University Tax Executive Program and at John Hopkins University, and a frequent speaker in a variety of international Development Conferences and Workshops.


Blanca obtained her PhD in International Economics and Finance from the Aix-Marseille II (Université de la Méditerranée) in France and her Masters in Economics from the Autónoma University of Madrid, Spain. She is fluent in Spanish, French, English and Portuguese.



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