Working women? Not in the Arab world (JERUSALEM POST) By DAVID ROSENBERG/THE MEDIA LINE 04/04/12)
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By overwhelming margins, young people in the Arab world think women
should be allowed to hold any job they are qualified for. But in
practice women are not given the same educational opportunities as
men and far fewer actually enter the workforce.
Those are the findings of a survey by the Gallup polling organization
released on Monday. It found that among young people aged 23 to 29 in
22 Middle Eastern and North African countries, 70% of the men and 82%
of the women polled favored equal opportunity.
But the equality does not reach the office cubicle or university
lecture hall. The same survey found that less than a third of the
women hold jobs, compared with more than 80% of the men. In
education, too, the gap is yawning: Across the Arab world only half
the female population had a secondary education or better while 63%
of the men had one.
The gender gap represents a huge loss for the Arab world because it
deprives the region’s economy of the labor and skills of half the
population. It is also a political problem as the double-digit
unemployment for young men and women that is the norm in the Arab
world has been cited by analysts as a factor in the Arab Spring
Overall, the female labor force participation rates at 25% of the
population of working-age women are about half the world average and
the lowest among other regions, according to the World Bank.
The Gallup survey cites several factor holding back women in the job
market. Women in the Arab world have fewer resources like legally
mandated maternity leave and easy access to daycare that would enable
them to juggle household and work responsibilities. Laws on sex
discrimination are poorly enforced.
They also face a glass wall because unemployment is high all across
the Arab world labor market. The economies of the Middle East and
North Africa, even when they were growing quickly, failed to provide
enough jobs for men or women. The International Labor Organization
(ILO) says the Middle East and North Africa are the only two regions
of the world where unemployment is estimated to exceed 10%. Among
young people, the rate is more then 26%.
The ratio of female to male unemployment rates in most regions
exceeds 1.0, but in the Middle East and North Africa the regional
ratio was as high as 2.3 in 2011, it estimates.
The job gender gap and its causes vary around the region. Among the
highest-income countries the difference between men and women is the
widest, with just 28% of the young women employed, compared with 81%
of the men. In the poorest countries, the differential narrows to 36%
But the education gap, ironically, disappears in the region’s richest
countries. More women in the age group (80%) have a secondary or
better education than men (79%). While their prospects for entering
the workforce are higher in middle-income and low-income economies,
women are less likely to have advanced education credentials. In
middle income economies, just 54% have more than nine years of
education (versus 6% for men) and in low-income economies just 33%
have it (versus 48% for men).
The survey was based on face-to-face interviews with 7,670 young
adults conducted in the spring and fall of 2011.
Arab women in Israel have lower labor force participation rates than
almost anywhere elsewhere in the Arab world. Yossi Tamir, executive
director of the Tevet Employment Initiative, says that has to do with
the lack of jobs in agriculture, which in Israel comprises only a
tiny part of the economy. Lack of public transportation and social
attitudes create barriers to finding jobs in other sectors.
“It’s really a severe problem,” he told The Media Line. “They have
the ability [to work] and an increasing number have higher education,
so they can be moved into the labor force.”
The ILO report published in January pointed to North Africa as the
home of the world’s worst unemployment rates for young people.
Overall, the rate stood at 27.1% and for young women at 41%.
“The situation for young women is particularly worrisome, given that
there are only very few who are actually either working or looking
for work,” the ILO commented, noting that the female youth labor
force participation rates in North Africa was as low as 8.9% in 2010.
Tara Vishwanath, an economist for the World Bank, worries that
whatever progress women have made in recent year is being jeopardized
by the Arab Spring. On the one hand, financially hard-pressed
governments, whose sprawling bureaucracies have long been a source of
jobs for women graduates, are no longer able to hire. On the other
hand, the growing power Islamist movements threaten to roll back
“Throughout the region, there is a concern that efforts to advance
women’s rights may be halted, and even reversed, as new governments
come to power,” Vishwanath wrote in a blog posting March 9.
Not everyone thinks the situation for women is as bleak as the
numbers suggest. Hazami Barmada, chief executive of Al-Mubadarah:
Arab Empowerment Network, said in response to Vishwanath’s posting
that many women are working or are self-employed in the informal
economy and don’t show up in official statistics.
“There are many thriving networks of women-owned businesses, namely
in the service and home goods sector. In our work … we are learning
about many great initiatives of women that are sadly being
marginalized by studies such as this!” she said. (© 1995-2011, The
Jerusalem Post 04/04/12)
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