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MENA economies have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, with declines in growth and jobs. This is especially true in my country, the Palestinian Authority, where economic growth in the second quarter of 2020 declined to about 19.5%, year‐on‐year (Palestine Monetary Authority, 2021).
Palestinian women have paid the heaviest cost, as the pandemic’s impact on the agricultural sector has deprived them of opportunities in their traditional sector of employment. They have also traditionally faced difficulties in accessing work in other, male-dominated sectors and in becoming entrepreneurs and business owners.
Women entrepreneurs in the Palestinian Authority report a variety of barriers, from mobility issues (38%) to lack of contacts (38%) or financing (48%) (UNIDO, 2017). They also often lack the necessary legal and technical skills to set up businesses in industrial sectors, and are generally not encouraged to acquire them. This is partly due to long-held social beliefs about women’s employment, as well as to families pushing their daughters to study education, nursing, or social sciences, because these are seen as more suitable career paths for future mothers and housewives.
Read more: The COVID-19 Crisis: A vital moment for gender equality in the Middle East and North Africa by Gabriela Ramos, Assistant Director General on Social and Human Sciences at UNESCO & former OECD Chief of Staff, OECD
These skills, however, are all too frequently either not greatly in demand or the market is already saturated with qualified workers. As a result, women are overrepresented in industries with high levels of casual work, such as retail, hospitality or personal services. Many others work in informal sectors, such as agriculture or food and flea markets. They may also work for a family business or be self-employed as producers and distributors of small-scale goods and services.
Employers in these areas are not legally obliged to abide by the Palestinian Authority’s labour code, which means women face gender discrimination, long working hours, unfair wages compared with those of their male co-workers, and harsh working environments. And when working in their family business they might not be compensated at all.
COVID-19 may yet prove to be an opportunity in disguise for women’s economic empowerment in the MENA region.
Although accessing the job market is challenging for women in the region, the benefits of their economic empowerment are clear, however. Women’s earnings support their families. Their participation in the workforce helps to create new economic opportunities in their communities and countries, promote sustainable development and reduce gender-based violence in both public and private spheres.
Interestingly, COVID-19 may yet prove to be an opportunity in disguise for women’s economic empowerment in the MENA region. The pandemic has brought rapid change, making digital services more readily accessible for women and advancing digital transformation in the region.
The good news is that such digital tools can unlock women’s entrepreneurship in the MENA region, especially in my country where restrictions on mobility are a matter of everyday struggle. Digital talent platforms, online government services or remote learning can provide Palestinian women with greater access to the resources and skills they need. New technologies can help women to realise entrepreneurial projects from home, allowing for greater flexibility in working hours and place and offering a better compromise between paid work and family responsibilities. Online payment and e-commerce innovations facilitate trade across borders and enable Palestinian women entrepreneurs to reach new markets.
With the benefits that digital transformation is bringing MENA women, how can the Palestinian Authority help achieve women’s economic independence and inclusion?
First, all sectors must work together. Government departments must push to close the gender wage gap between genders and creating a motivational policy to help women access the job market or open their own business. Financial institutions, commercial banks, thrift and credit unions, can also encourage women to open accounts and seek loans or investments. Business incubators, investors, and donors that support small business should consider giving women’s businesses preferential treatment for seed funding and technical assistance.
Second, the Palestinian Authority should support the development of special training programmes, designed to give women insight into how to launch and run a business. Campaigns about women’s economic independence and entrepreneurial opportunities can help raise the population’s awareness, making society more tolerant and encouraging of women entrepreneurs.
Finally, the most important step of all is to build connections between women working in informal sectors and women with business ideas. This could bring the innovations of women entrepreneurs into more industries and sectors. It could also help women working in informal sectors to secure better jobs, offering them protection from unsafe working conditions, sexual harassment and low wages. Furthermore, for some, working for other women may be more socially acceptable than working in a male-run business.
Equipping Palestinian women and men alike with the knowledge and skills needed to work and succeed will help both individuals and the Palestinian Authority to thrive. My country does not lack brilliant innovation, and although it has a long road ahead, it is taking steps towards the betterment of its environment and citizens. Women must be equal participants in this journey.
MENA-OECD Women’s Economic Forum is organising a series of regional dialogues on “Women’s Economic Empowerment and Digitalisation in the post-COVID-19 MENA economies”. The next virtual event will be held on 17 March 2022, from 13h- to 14h (CET). Register here. For more information, visit the website.
The OECD Gender Initiative examines existing barriers to gender equality in education, employment, and entrepreneurship. Find out more!
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