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. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge.
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During my past three years as a champion of the MENA-OECD Women’s Economic Empowerment Forum, I have been awed by the commitment and leadership of so many women (and men) in the region to making gender equality a reality. Progress has been real, as over the past decade we have seen MENA women play greater roles in parliaments, surpass men in tertiary education and make their voices heard more than ever before.
However, the COVID-19 outbreak has brought the region to a critical crossroads. If decisive action is not taken now to preserve past gains and protect women from the exacerbated impacts the pandemic has on their health, well-being and livelihoods, hard-won progress could be rolled back by decades. While this risk is global – in that women across the world have been disproportionately affected by the crisis – MENA faces its own specific set of challenges.
Confinement conditions in MENA have re-centered life around the home and reinforced traditional family roles, which in the region are not only defined by restrictive and discriminatory social norms but also enshrined in legal frameworks. In many countries, laws constrain women’s ability to move freely, work in different industries, achieve financial autonomy and make basic life choices. These challenges are exacerbated in conflict-affected countries, and further for the most vulnerable categories of women such as domestic workers, refugees and rural women.
Read the OECD's analysis on Women at the core of the fight against COVID-19 crisis
Heavier care burdens threaten women’s current and future access to economic opportunity. On average, even before the crisis, women in the MENA region spent six times more time on unpaid care and domestic work than men, as tending for the home is still considered to be women’s main responsibility. With schools closed due to the pandemic the burden on women has expanded, further constraining their access to the job market. Increased care responsibilities at home during confinement can also limit girls’ study time compared to their brothers and may hinder their return to school, limiting their future economic prospects.
Women suffer from greater unemployment, income loss and poverty. While the regional female formal labour force participation rate of 20% is already the lowest worldwide, it is estimated that women in the Arab World will lose approximately 700,000 jobs as a result of the outbreak. These concerns are compounded by the prevalence of discriminatory social norms in the region supporting the belief that men, as heads of households, should have greater access to jobs than women when work opportunities are scarce. In Jordan and Lebanon, for instance, when initial government measures were announced to close schools and restrict movements in both public and private sectors, employers sent women employees home first to attend to their domestic care duties.
Women have less access to social protection schemes, essential for cushioning income loss. Given MENA women’s low participation in the labour force, and the fact that many women who work do so in the informal sector, women are often excluded from contributory social security schemes (including old-age pensions, health insurance and disability, maternity and sick leave), which further increases their vulnerability in times of crisis. Efforts undertaken in recent years by many MENA countries to reform their social protection systems – and in particular develop non-contributory, targeted public social protection schemes (such as cash transfer programmes) – have allowed an increased number of disadvantaged women in the region to benefit from some form of social safety net. These will be of particular importance to mitigate the impact of the crisis on the most vulnerable segments of the population.
Read the OECD's analysis on COVID-19 crisis response in MENA countries
Confinement measures paired with economic slowdown increase women’s vulnerability to domestic violence. Official figures indicate that around 35% of married women in the MENA region have experienced intimate partner violence at some point in their lives, which is slightly higher than the world average. Since the beginning of the crisis, NGOs and governments across MENA countries have noted an increase in calls through hotlines for reporting domestic violence as well as in the number of cases reported. Data suggest that social norms in the region may contribute to tacit tolerance of domestic violence; one study documented the belief by both women and men in some countries of the region that women should tolerate violent treatment by their spouse to keep the family together, while another documented the justification for the use of domestic under certain circumstances, such as burning a meal.
Policy makers have deployed a number of targeted measures to mitigate the gender-specific impacts of COVID-19. While most measures specifically targeted at women focus on addressing the surge in gender-based violence, a few economic and employment support measures have been taken (e.g. cash payments to rural women, paid leave for female employees or support to women entrepreneurs). Some governments have also taken steps to increase women’s participation in decision-making for COVID-19 responses. However, the bulk of measures taken focus mainly on general economic responses to the crisis. It is important that governments realise that these policies can have unforeseen impacts on women and take this opportunity to ensure that gender considerations are mainstreamed into all policy measures.
It is also critical that governments target measures that can have “multiplier” effects on women’s empowerment during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond. These include greater financial support to women-led SMEs; ensuring the provision of basic school services to enable working women, especially in the health sector, to remain in the workforce and girls to stay in school; and reinforcing whole-of-government commitment to ending violence against women once and for all. The COVID-19 crisis can also provide a unique window for tackling underlying discriminatory legal frameworks, social norms and other barriers that are holding back progress toward gender equality across the region.
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My experience with the region gives me great hope that at this crossroads, MENA policy makers will choose the route toward the greater empowerment of women as engines for the region’s recovery. We have seen numerous examples of the central role that women have played during the crisis – on the frontline as health workers, as caregivers holding families and communities together, as entrepreneurs starting new businesses to fill gaps in public social protection. With an estimated loss of USD 42 billion in regional GDP, it will be essential to leverage the talents of all of the region’s men and women to build stronger, more inclusive MENA economies post-COVID and beyond. The MENA-OECD Women’s Economic Empowerment Forum is an ideal platform for exchanging views on ways to achieve this. As a trusted partner of the region for over 15 years, the OECD stands ready to support MENA governments and citizens to seize this vital opportunity.
- For more, read the policy note COVID 19 crisis in the MENA region: impact on gender equality and policy responses
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