It is too soon to tell if the Arab uprisings have improved women’s economic conditions, but women represent a formidable economic force that must be included in the re-building process. That was the resounding message at a high level meeting of business women and entrepreneurs in London.
Experts warned against repeating previous patterns where women were expected to retreat from public life after playing a key role in protest movements.
“Arab women have been told before, when they had public participation in revolutionary change, to go back home and focus on domestic issues,” Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International told Al Arabiya. “This is a crucial time for us not to repeat the patterns of the past, to demand a very public role for the Arab woman.”
The Middle East has one of the lowest female labour market participation rates in the world, about 26 percent according to the World Bank, which is well below the 39 percent rate in low and middle income countries.
Unemployment is also significantly higher among women, even among those who hold degrees. For example, in Egypt, the percentage of women holding university degrees increased between 1998 and 2006, but strikingly, their participation in the economy remained unchanged and their unemployment rate increased, according to a World Bank study.
In the West and Gaza, the same study showed women with higher education accounted for 82 percent of female unemployment in 2007, while among educated men, the rate was only 12 percent. In Jordan, 26.5 percent of educated women were unemployed versus 9.1 percent of educated men.
Gender pay gaps are also higher in the Middle East, around 28 percent, compared with other emerging markets, with pay gaps in some countries like Tunisia and Morocco thought to be as high as 40 percent.
In Egypt, the gender pay gap is around 38 percent according to United Nations and government figures, and the labor participation rate is 24 percent, the lowest in the region.
But many at the London meeting said those figures don’t tell the whole story. Actual participation rates are thought to be higher because many women in the Arab world work in the ‘informal’ sector of the economy.
“We’ve heard how strong [women’s] participation is in the informal sector of the economy and that isn’t sufficiently measured,” Afshan Khan, CEO of Women for Women, told Al Arabiya.
What is needed, Khan says, is more accurate statistics that capture the real value of women’s work as well as a focus on increasing access to funding and credit for women entrepreneurs so they can be brought into the formal market.
Rania al-Mashat, deputy governor of Egypt’s central bank, said that one way of including women into the formal sector is by creating databases of small and medium enterprise or SMEs, many of which are headed by women and operate under the radar. By making such databases available to banks and lenders, women-led businesses could have a better chance of accessing financing.
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), host of the London event and one of the institutions channelling international funds to ‘Arab Spring’ countries, suggests targeting micro, small and medium enterprises that are female-led.
Erik Berglof, the bank’s chief economist, told Al Arabiya that one way of improving women’s access to micro-finance is by making it the objective of a particular project where loans become contingent on achieving that goal.
“The role of women is very important, they are a large unused capacity,” Berglof said. “Women are doing a lot of work outside the official sector, but if you can bring them into the formal sector, there is a huge potential for economic growth in the Arab region.”
Women’s participation in the economy is thought to be directly connected to their role in public affairs. Arab women are severely underrepresented in politics, holding only 9 percent of seats in parliament according to 2011 World Bank figures.
The uprisings appear to have had a negative effect on women’s role in political life, with the number of women in parliament decreasing in Tunisia and Egypt after the revolutions. This has fuelled fears that women face expulsion from the political arena, despite taking to the streets in protest with men and playing a key part in the uprisings.
The rise of ultra-conservative Islamist movements is also cause for concern.
Some, like Reem El Saady, the EBRD’s program manager in Egypt, say the extremist Salafi discourse is dangerous because it pushes women out of the work place and attempts to segregate them.
Saady is more optimistic about the Muslim Brotherhood.
“We have yet to be ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood, their discourse has yet to be seen, we’ve got to give them the benefit of the doubt,” Saady told Al Arabiya.
Women’s rights groups say that Arab parliaments should focus on governance and policy matters rather than domestic issues such as age of marriage or divorce laws.
Many businesswomen and campaigners say the verdict is still out on the effect of the uprisings on women, but all agree that women’s participation is essential to Arab economies in transition.
“If we really want to be prosperous countries, with jobs and good living standards, then we need to include women,” said Salbi.
“At the end of the day, the Arab Spring was about jobs, it was about livelihood and dignified living, it wasn’t only about oppressive dictatorships,” Salbi said. “If we don’t want to repeat the revolution, then we need to include women, from now, in the re-building process.”
(Carina Kamel is a Senior Correspondent for Al Arabiya based in London and can be followed on Twitter @Carina_bn)