By Reem Aliessa 

Equal access to employment opportunities in MENA remain a crucial barrier for the economic growth and women’s economic empowerment in the region as it faces the lowest percentages of women’s participation in the labor market.

The 61st Session on the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW61), held from March 13-24, 2017, focused on addressing challenges facing women’s economic empowerment in a globalized workforce. In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), unequal access to employment and low percentages of Arab women in the labor force are crucial issues facing women’s economic development in the region, as seen through the structural and systemic challenges to economic growth in MENA. Female labor force participation rates in MENA have increased to 32 percent in the last decade, but remains the lowest rate in the world compared to the average of 58 percent in other regions according to a report from the World Bank.

The lack of female participation in the workforce is highly affected by unequal access to employment caused by systemic structures, including legal frameworks limiting women’s individual rights, poor infrastructure such as the lack of transportation services thus limiting women’s mobility, and cultural norms that influence gender segregated workforces. The key to increasing women’s participation in the labor force is by “making women partners in the markets for the economic advancement of the region” as stated by Haifa Abdulaziz Al Mogrin, Sector Head of Sustainable Development Goals at the Ministry of Economy and Planning in Saudi Arabia.

Priorities for the economic advancement of women and the economic growth of MENA vary as different voices at CSW61 advocate for various channels of structural change to identify effective mechanisms to create equal access to employment. Dr. Amal Jamel Fatani, Council Member on the Human Rights Commission of Saudi Arabia and Head of TATA, an all Women Business Processing Services Center, explains that a priority facing equal employment opportunities is providing incentives for women to join the private sector in MENA. Dr. Fatani explains most women find comfort in the public sector because of employee benefits, occupational segregation upholding cultural norms, the incentives of decent wages, and flexible hours. Dr. Fatani further explains that barriers facing equal access to employment are reduced by occupational segregation in workforces, such as schools and markets, as women and men not competing for a given opportunity. Furthermore, Dr. Fatani explains sexual harassment in the cultural context of work in Saudi Arabia is reduced by segregated workforces – allowing women to feel an individual level of comfort at work in respect to their personal cultural norms and religious views.

In addition, the lack of transportation and poor infrastructure is overlooked as a structural barrier causing unequal access to employment. The lack of women’s access to public spaces, the absence of public transportation systems, and poor infrastructure limiting women’s mobility to and from workplaces are shortages of fundamental public resources to ensure women’s economic engagement. Therefore, infrastructure development and enhancing transportation systems is critical for the independent mobility of women in relation to equal access to employment in MENA.

To level out opportunities for equal access to employment, economic reforms and policy initiatives should focus on improving the quality of work and education in the region to for women to accelerate in technological and scientific innovation. However, education is only one aspect of increasing the prospects of equal access to employment. Cultural and structural barriers limiting women’s participation need to be addressed in consideration of women’s economic empowerment. Nevertheless, it is crucial to harness cultural sensitivity in respect to “not applying universal principles” without considering how suitable economic reforms for women are in a local context – “one size does not fit all” as Haifa explains. It is vital to measure women’s economic engagement through a wide lens accounting for variables of economic empowerment in the concept of cultural relativism.

Though “one size does not fit all,” it is clear that significant structural barriers continue to block women’s access to employment and thus economic empowerment. CSW61 reinforced the necessity of reforms to ensure equal employment opportunities, including but not limited to: social protection, policy reforms eliminating gender-based discrimination, and improving the quality and access to education for girls and women. Women can be agents of a nation’s economic growth; it would be of great benefit to governments across the MENA region to acknowledge this and address the challenges blocking equal access to employment opportunities and women’s broader economic empowerment.

Reem Aliessa, a Syrian-American is an M.S. candidate at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs with a concentration in the Private Sector, and an interest in corporate social responsibility and community engagement.

Written by Reem Aliessa