Women: MENA’s Untapped Potential

Women in the Arab region have the lowest labor force participation rates in the world. Despite being relatively well-educated, only one in four women is in the workforce. Young women also experience some of the highest unemployment rates in the world – reaching over 60 percent in Saudi Arabia, Libya and Iraq.

Arab women face several barriers in entering the labor force. First, there are legal barriers that impede female equality. In many countries in the Middle East, North Africa, Afghanistan and Pakistan (MENAP), laws do not guarantee equal constitutional, inheritance, and ownership rights for women.

Women face a multitude of legal and institutional constraints in traveling, obtaining identification, accepting a job, or registering a business. Of the 30 countries in the world that have 10 or more legal differences based on gender, 18 are in the MENAP region. For example, women face unequal treatment in obtaining a passport in 13 regional countries, and in accepting a job without spousal permission in 11 countries.

Second, women also face barriers in access to finance. More than 90 percent of young Arab women (between 15 and 25 years old) do not have a bank account. This is the highest rate of exclusion in the world.

Regulatory hurdles are an important factor. For example, a woman may not be able to access a loan from a bank because she cannot register the business in her name and present it as collateral.

Still, several countries in the region have begun to address the barriers to women’s empowerment. For example, Jordan passed a law preventing women from waiving their right to inheritance and requiring any property they inherit to be registered in their name when the will is executed.

Algeria, Morocco, and Djibouti legally require equal remuneration for equal work, while Morocco forbids gender discrimination in accessing financial services. Egypt’s new constitution includes a nondiscrimination clause and introduces female quotas for parliament (10 percent) and local councils (25 percent). It also adopted a law that criminalizes sexual harassment in the workplace, classroom and public spaces. Saudi Arabia also introduced a 20 percent quota for women in the Shura council, enacted a law criminalizing domestic violence, and recently allowed women to drive starting June 2018.

These are all promising initiatives. Yet much more needs to be done to allow women to fully contribute to their societies. By some estimates, raising female labor force participation rates to the level of men would increase GDP by 12 percent in the United Arab Emirates and 34 percent in Egypt. These are huge gains that should not remain untapped.

To find out more about challenges and solutions to inclusive growth in the Arab region, join us at http://www.imf.org/en/News/Seminars/Conferences/2017/08/08/morocco-opportunities-for-all.