Women are key to progress in the Arab world
Many indicators point to measurable progress in the status of women in the Arab world.
The latest edition of the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report notes that 97% of the gender gap in health has been closed. Maternal mortality rates, for example, have decreased 60% in the last 20 years.
The gender gap in education also has been reduced by 93%, according to the report. The rate of access to university education is, in fact, higher for women than it is for men in at least ten Arab countries.
But the Middle East and North Africa region continues to rank last among all other regions in economic participation, with only 42% of the gender gap closed.
While on the global level, women constitute 50% of the labour force, in the Arab world the percentage is only half that level. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the percentage of female labour participation is no more than 25% in North Africa and 20% in the Middle East.
The ILO notes that raising the employment levels of young men and women to global levels would increase per capita income in the Arab world by about 20%.
Political empowerment of Arab women has made big strides but is still below the world average: 17% of parliamentary seats in the Arab world are held by women, compared to 22% worldwide, according to the International Parliamentary Union.
But some Arab countries boast higher than average world figures: In Algeria and Tunisia, 31% of parliamentary seats are held by women; in Sudan, 30%; and in Iraq, 26%. It is noteworthy that all four countries achieved these rates of women parliamentary participation after introducing gender quotas.
The growing presence of women in politics will hopefully help address the lingering gender gaps. Women in the Middle East and North Africa are too often victims of physical violence, which they do not dare report. In a number of countries, young girls still suffer from the practice of genital mutilation.
In Arab countries facing turmoil and violence, women bear a disproportionate share of the burden. The political instability and economic precariousness that have come with the post-2011 uprisings led to women suffering unemployment and poverty at higher rates than men.
Women have assumed the responsibility of keeping the family together and providing childcare during times of war and displacement. They have had to suffer all kinds of ill-treatment and degrading exploitation. Under the barbaric rule of the Islamic State (ISIS), they have even suffered from sexual enslavement. Not surprisingly, women in the MENA region have the highest rate of depression in the world. Seven of the ten most affected countries in the world are in this region.
Despite the pressures and restrictions to which they are subjected, women are acceding to higher levels of achievement and self-reliance. Modern technologies have allowed women to irreversibly break out of isolation. Statistics show that 91 million Arab women own a mobile phone. Education is irreversibly taking the young women of today to new heights. Arab girls born today should enjoy a future unimaginable to previous generations of women. They are definitely key to progress in the Arab world.