Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Gender Gap in MENA: Cultural, Legal and Institutional Barriers

Despite efforts to address the gender gap in MENA, institutional, legal, and cultural impediments still limit the employment of women.

Gender Gap in MENA
Mask-clad Saudi women work at the command and call center. Fayez Nureldine / AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic.

There is a sizable gender gap in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. In comparison to all other regions of the world, men and women have dramatically different employment and unemployment rates. Despite efforts by governments, international organizations, and women’s rights organizations to address this issue, institutional, legal, and cultural impediments still limit an increase in the employment rates of women.

Currently, women’s participation in the labor force in the Middle East and North Africa region is at an all-time low, with only 19 per cent of women employed. In Arab countries, the unemployment rate for young women is as high as 42.5 per cent, twice the unemployment rate of young men, which stands at 21.5 per cent. This rate is three times higher than the global average of 14.9 per cent, underscoring the severity of this issue in the Arab region.

Different proportions, similar reasons

The status and rates of women’s employment vary across the countries of the Middle East and North Africa region. However, there are common factors that limit the increase in women’s employment rates in the majority of these countries. Discriminatory laws against women, social customs and lower wages for women compared to men are among the leading factors. The current state of affairs is further made worse by the inadequate anti-harassment provisions in legislation and judicial processes.

Women’s career possibilities are further hampered by discrimination in the hiring process and a lack of administrative bodies to address these gender-based biases. In many circumstances, women’s exclusion from the workforce is a result of a lack of accessible, safe transportation. In addition, women have unequal job prospects and fewer opportunities for education than men.

Jordan has the highest rate of female unemployment at 31.7per cent. With a second-place ranking of 20.5per cent, Saudi Arabia is followed by Tunisia (20.1per cent), Egypt (19.3per cent), Morocco (18.8per cent), and Bahrain (10.2per cent). Although it is difficult to make concrete comparisons within the region due to the absence of accurate statistics, according to available data, Yemen, Sudan, and Syria also have alarmingly high rates of female unemployment.

Overall, the Middle East and North Africa region is home to 13 of the 15 countries with the lowest levels of female labor force participation in the world, according to the World Economic Forum’s “Global Gender Gap” report.

Family, sexual and reproductive role, and early marriage

The International Labor Organization estimates that women in Arab nations devote nearly five times as much time to unpaid domestic and family care as do males. These tasks include cooking, caring for and educating children, cleaning, and other work relating to the household. Cultural traditions in the majority of Arab nations require that women perform reproductive and caring responsibilities while men are largely responsible for productive employment. Gender disparity is largely an outcome of this societal norm, which severely restricts women’s ability to compete on an equal basis with men in the labor market.

The cost of reproductive care throughout this period has decreased somewhat as a result of this drop. Early marriage, however, is still prevalent and frequently prevents women from pursuing an accredited university degree. Their capacity to contribute to the workforce and engage in economic activities is further hampered by a lack of access to education.

In the Middle East and North Africa region, one in five women are currently married before the age of 18. According to UNICEF figures, 17per cent of women in Egypt, 13per cent of women in Morocco, and 28per cent of women in Iraq get married before the age of 18. In Jordan, Lebanon, and Algeria, the percentages are, respectively, 8per cent, 6per cent, and 3per cent.

Up to one in three women were married before the age of 18 approximately twenty-five years ago. However, as women’s educational rates increased, this number has gradually fallen. Despite these developments, several nations with high rates of child marriage, including Egypt, Morocco, and Iraq, have yet to address the issue head-on.

The difference in wages and job stability between women and men

Discrimination and wage disparities between women and men greatly limit women’s potential in the labor market, particularly in societies that assign women to low-paid sectors such as cleaning and some types of agricultural work.

According to the “Women, Business and the Law” report’s wage index, the MENA region has the lowest index score globally, with an overall average of 37.5 points. Comparatively, high-income nations score 89.8 points; Latin America and the Caribbean score 69.5, East Asia and the Pacific score 67 points, while Central Asia and Europe score 67 points.

On the other hand, some rural areas, such as those in Sudan, Egypt, Iraq, and particular parts of Turkey and Iran, support women’s labor force involvement through family-focused agricultural endeavors. Women make up 43 per cent of the overall agricultural labor force in developing nations, according to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. This specifically lowers the unemployment rate for women and boosts their contribution to the GDP.

While women’s involvement in rural agricultural activities can help lower female unemployment, it does not always equate to pay parity with men. Throughout these nations, there are still fewer administrative jobs and chances for women in the service industry, perpetuating the gender gap. Furthermore, the nature of the jobs that women perform in rural areas tends to be more precarious, such as seasonal or part-time work, and often limited to contributing to their families’ agricultural activities, which are typically owned by men.

In fact, men control the majority of agricultural lands in said nations, with ownership rates ranging from 3per cent to 20per cent in developing nations and rural areas, according to data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Because of the gender ownership gap in land, women’s economic options are constrained and they are unable to contribute fully to the agricultural labor force.

Economic factors in high-income Arab countries

In the wealthy Arab oil countries, the demand for women to work has decreased due to the rise in per capita income and the availability of high-paying positions for men, notably in the public sector. In contrast, women continue to participate more actively in the labor force within rural areas. Consequently, the rate of women’s participation in the labor market in Gulf countries is low, ranging from 20 per cent in Bahrain, 25 per cent in Saudi Arabia, 35 per cent in Oman and 36 per cent in Qatar.

In comparison to the global average of roughly 53per cent, the participation of women in the labor market in Gulf nations is generally still much lower. This can be attributed, at least in part, to conservative cultural norms that limit women’s opportunities for employment outside the home.

The importance of increasing women’s involvement in the job market has been acknowledged by all Gulf countries. As a result, they have included particular objectives in their strategic economic plans to boost the proportion of women working in the public sector and encourage their engagement in both the economy and politics.

For instance, Qatar’s National Vision 2030 aims to increase the influence of women in political and economic decision-making. Similar to this, Kuwait’s development plans include narrowing the gender gap and increasing the proportion of women in positions of economic and administrative decision-making.

The need to reform laws and institutions

A key issue that needs to be resolved throughout each Middle Eastern and North African nation is the legislative stumbling blocks that hinder efforts to narrow the gender gap. The vast majority of nations in the region do not currently have the requisite legislation to address discrimination against women in the workplace, in both the public and private sectors. Moreover, the principle and priority of gender equality have not been integrated into local legislation and laws.

While many Arab nations, including Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon, Tunisia, and Jordan, have ratified laws to prevent harassment, violence, and exploitation in the workplace in recent years, these laws have flagrant loopholes. Additionally, these laws’ implementation processes are flawed, which further discourages women from working. Additionally, in many societies, local practices and law enforcement mechanisms limit women’s ability to own, purchase or invest in means of production, particularly in rural and agricultural settings.

Post-COVID-19 challenges

The Arab Human Development Report for 2022, issued by the United Nations Development Program, highlights the exacerbation of the gender gap in Arab labor markets due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic challenges. The impact of the pandemic was particularly severe on women, who were more likely to lose job opportunities, given their concentration in relatively precarious jobs.

Moreover, the pandemic has increased the amount of unpaid domestic work imposed on women, significantly reducing their participation in the labor market. Although the pandemic has subsided, its effects on the labor market persist.

The report also reveals that women’s share of unpaid domestic care work has reached unprecedented levels in many countries. For example, in Morocco, women perform nearly 87.5 per cent of unpaid domestic care work, compared to only 12.5 per cent for men. Similar figures were reported in Iraq, Tunisia, Algeria, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, highlighting the significant gender disparity in home care burdens, which hinder women’s participation in the labor market.

Given the economic realities, nations in the region must work for full gender equality as a goal in and of itself, not just out of moral respect for human rights. Integrated methods that address the cultural, institutional, and legal barriers present in local communities are necessary to achieve these objectives.