How serious is COVID-19 for women in the Arab World?

Jordanian female plumbers enter a religious school to fix a water tank on the rooftop in Amman, Jordan, May 2017. Banner image: Shutterstock/ Sebastian Castelier

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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While the current health crisis has shaken economic and the social frameworks to the ground in all countries of the world, the fallout has put exceptional pressure on the Arab countries. The region has yet to overcome economic instabilities, political corruption, civil wars and humanitarian crises.

Despite the gaps in data, and despite that the virus is genderless, several studies project that the crisis discriminates more strongly against those who were already marginalised: women, and especially women and young girls in conflict and war zones.

How serious is this crisis for labour markets and for the female population in the Arab world? Are we prepared to tackle women's low employment levels and ensure that they are given equal opportunities? How should the private sector respond, and where exactly does its responsibility lie? What governmental responses are needed?

Some countries in the MENA region have the highest levels of informal activity in the world.  According to the World Bank, “a typical country in MENA produces about one-third of its GDP and employs 67% of its labour force informally”[1]. This one third of undeclared economic output results in a general lack of health security for more than two-thirds of all workers and a lack of income security once they retire, as well as an impediment to the economic growth of the whole region.

Find more about the MENA-OECD Ministerial Conference “Designing a Roadmap to Recovery in MENA”, celebrated in April 2021

Find more about the MENA-OECD Ministerial Conference “Designing a Roadmap to Recovery in MENA”, celebrated on April 2021

Informal economies in the MENA region are on the rise. One of the explanations for this phenomenon is the decline of public sector employment, though it still represents a substantial portion of employment in the region, especially for women. Research has shown that countries with stronger public sectors have lower percentages of informal employment. On the other hand, countries with weaker and narrower public sectors, and/or where agriculture is the main economic resource, often have larger informal sectors. This is exacerbated by a general lack of growth and investment in the private sector and the great difficulties experienced when setting up a business in the region.

Some of the key barriers include political instability, corruption, overly complex bureaucracies, poor infrastructure (notably electricity), restrictive access to credit, lagging technologies and high taxes. In addition, there is a lack of support for new, dynamic small and medium-size firms in the region. All of this has resulted in a heavily informal private sector, and a concentration of small firms of which only few are able to grow larger and more productive.

Women in the job market: challenges to access formal employment

Women employees in MENA are particularly vulnerable, with almost 62% working informally. Further, they are over-represented in the most at-risk categories of informal employment, with 33% working as contributing family workers compared to 6% for men.

Read more on the Forum Network: "Towards a Woman-Powered Recovery in MENA: Now is the time to break remaining barriers for women's empowerment" by Juan Yermo, Chief of Staff to the Secretary-General, OECD

Read more on the Forum Network: "Towards a Woman-Powered Recovery in MENA: Now is the time to break remaining barriers for women's empowerment" by Juan Yermo, Chief of Staff to the Secretary-General, OECD

Women in the MENA region have traditionally been employed in the public sector, as it is considered socially acceptable; it is also secure, especially in terms of education, services and health care. However, the continuous downsizing of the public sector across the region and the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis have reduced these employment opportunities, and women have become even more vulnerable. Coupling this with rising difficulties in accessing the private formal sector has pushed them progressively further into informal employment.

Women’s participation in the private sector is limited

Women in MENA are often employed in low-paid jobs, with few responsibilities and rarely in leadership roles. When setting up their own business, women face even more difficulties compared to men due to a lack of access to training and knowledge networks, complicated legislation and a lack of alternative banking services.

Another deterrent stems from social norms and restrictive legal frameworks. In some countries of the region, marriage represents a barrier to women's participation in the private sector, as it can constrain women to traditional roles as mothers and limit their agency.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit women workers and entrepreneurs harder as their economic activity tends to be concentrated in consumer-facing sectors. Government actions to contain the virus—partial or total lockdowns, curfews, school closures and switching to e-learning—have not only put a greater burden on women in terms of the sky rocketing levels of unpaid care they are required to perform, but they have also limited their access to education and increased female drop-out rates.

Read the report "Changing Laws and Breaking Barriers for Women's Economic Empowerment in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia" and see the latest OECD data, recommendations and policy advice on the MENA region

Fostering the participation of women in formal employment

As we look beyond COVID-19, governments need to take urgent action to bring women into the formal labour force.  Some key priorities include:

  • Build and implement supportive legal and regulatory frameworks. A strong legal and regulatory framework is essential to guarantee women’s legal access to property and control over their assets, as well as to promote their marital and social independency and mobility.
  • Enforce regulatory frameworks to protect women working in the private sector. Building and enforcing strong legal and regulatory frameworks that specifically address safety measures in the private sector can play a crucial role in promoting women’s economic participation.
  • Invest in women’s initiatives. Governments and the private sector should develop programmes to incentivise investments in women-led businesses, both to create them and support their growth.
  • Support the livelihoods of informal workers. Governments should develop methods to support women employees in the informal sectors. This could be through compensatory payments, financial assistance, cash transfers and by formalising their home and care work. In parallel, social and psychological assistance programmes should be provided.
  • Involve women in policymaking. Women’s participation in policymaking and decision making is essential to guarantee recovery policies that work for women.
  • Promote remote working. Governments should promote the development of remote forms of working, both in the public and private sectors, in light of the increase in women’s household responsibilities due to COVID-19 crisis. Investing in remote working can help women to balance their professional and personal lives without being forced to leave their job, and enable them to care for children, elders and the home.
  • Improve women’s access to financial resources. Women’s access to financial resources should be improved to foster their financial inclusion and economic empowerment. Women experience greater difficulties than men in accessing and leveraging bank loans, a factor that discourages them from developing micro-businesses, which are key levers for women’s economic empowerment.
  • Use gender-disaggregated data. Governments should promote the collection of gender-disaggregated data, especially on the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on women, to develop gender-sensitive recovery plans that can boost women’s participation in formal economies.
  • Improve women’s digital education. Training, mentorship and fellowship programmes should be promoted to support women’s acquisition of soft and hard digital skills. Digital literacy plays an essential role in fostering women’s participation in the private sector, and especially in formal entrepreneurship.

I am pleased to work closely with the MENA-OECD Women's Economic Empowerment Forum to advance meaningful reform, ensuring a recovery that unleashes the long-underutilised potential of women for the greater benefit of MENA societies.

Find more about the work of the OECD in the Middle East and North Africa

Savoir en plus sur l'OCDE et la région MENA

[1] World Bank. (2011). Striving for Better Jobs The Challenge of Informality in the Middle East and North Africa Region.

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Sana Afouaiz

Founder & Director, Womenpreneur Initiative

Sana is an award-winning, gender expert, women advocate. In 2016, she established Womenpreneur Initiative, an organisation with a community of 13,000 across 20 countries, that aims to advance women’s place in the entrepreneurial scene, technology, innovation & society. Through her work, Sana reached thousands of women, to drive visibility, social impact, and resources for women in the ecosystem and beyond. For the past 7 years, Sana advised the United Nations, European Commission, corporate institutions and organisations on gender issues. She was heavily involved in SDGs discussions, she helped draft several resolutions and recommendations on gender in New York, Bali, Geneva, and Paris and presented them to UN representatives.