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.
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MENA women are at the forefront of the fight against COVID yet persisting discriminatory legal frameworks hinder women’s empowerment.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fragility in our entire systems. The economic outlook remains exceptionally uncertain. According to the latest interim OECD Economic Outlook, this year may witness a fall in global GDP by 4.5% and many economies might not recover their 2019 output levels until 2022 at the earliest. Beyond our economy, the social cost could be far long-lasting as the crisis magnified some pre-existing inequalities.
As in most countries of the world, women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have been disproportionately affected by the crisis. While women in the region have been at the vanguard in the fight against COVID-19, leading the charge on the health front and making up 79% of nurses, they they face particularly harsh conditions during the crisis. In addition, women have taken on the bulk of rising care responsibilities at home due to social stigma and family laws during lockdown. Although MENA women are playing a decisive role in tackling the pandemic, more needs to be done to tackle discriminatory legislation on marriage and divorce, family decision making, inheritance and property rights as well as on freedom of movement for the greater women’s empowerment. To ensure real progress in women’s economic empowerment (inter)national and constitutional commitments to equality and non-discrimination should be included in domestic legislation and effectively implemented.
The COVID crisis has shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that MENA women are a force to be reckoned with and that no recovery can be sustained without them. During the crisis, they have spearheaded community initiatives to provide neighbours with support and nourishment, which have often sparked the creation of new service-oriented micro-enterprises. And it is in large part thanks to women’s active lobbying that governments have enacted stronger measures to protect them against escalating gender-based violence, even in lockdown conditions. For example, Egypt has opened eight new shelters to harbour women and children and provide them with social and legal support, Tunisia has expanded the capacity of its domestic violence helpline and launched a free psychological support service via phone and Morocco now enables women to report incidences of violence by email.
Women in the region are “change-makers” in the recovery process. Now is the time for them to take their rightful place in the economy and in leadership roles in the region.
The OECD and the MENA region: Partners for a woman-powered recovery
The good news is that momentum for gender equality has been building in the region over the past decade. There has been impressive progress towards gender equality in education as women surpassed men in tertiary education enrolment, and some MENA countries surpassed OECD countries in the number of women pursuing Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) studies (up to 57% of STEM graduates in the region are women, compared to the OECD average of 30%). Many countries have reformed their labour codes to expand women’s access to quality jobs and ban wage discrimination. A number of MENA countries have extended social protection to vulnerable workers and expanded childcare options for working mothers to improve work-life balance. These are but a few isolated examples among many from a region that, despite numerous challenges, is on the move.
To ensure that this crisis does not reverse decades of gains made for women’s empowerment — and to harness the dynamism and grit of the region’s women to rebuild post-COVID — political will, resources and decisive action are needed. Some governments in the region have taken steps to include women in decision-making concerning the COVID-19 response. Some of the recovery measures have specifically been targeting women, including by providing support for women workers by means of paid leave, flexible working arrangements, unemployment and sick leave benefits, income support and access to loans. Towards an inclusive recovery, governments should continue ensuring that all response measures apply a gender lens.
The OECD is actively working with the region to make this vision a reality. We have been providing evidence, exploring the connections between women’s empowerment and overall economic performance and sharing best practices to advance women’s economic empowerment. Our engagement with change agents in the region has yielded significant results and constitute a solid basis to make a fundamental difference for women in the COVID and post-COVID period.
Our most recent report, Changing laws and breaking barriers for women’s economic empowerment in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia provides policy makers with a toolkit for action, based on three years of research on best practices and initiatives that have unlocked tangible results for women in the region.
The report highlights ten “Success Factors” that have been a common among all of the high-impact projects. Correctly sequencing reforms — i.e. enacting policies first to spur legal reforms vs legislating first to drive wider policy and cultural changes — is one essential factor. Fostering women’s leadership in both the public and private sectors is another cornerstone for progress. Further alignment with international standards is key to helping close gaps between existing legislation, policies “on paper”, and real benefits for women. Finally, rallying the support of media is critical to help mentalities evolve, perhaps one of the region’s stickiest challenges.
Even before COVID, MENA governments were aware of the strong business case for women’s economic empowerment — just bringing women’s labor force participation up to that of men’s could raise the region’s GDP by as much as 47%. Achieving gender equality in earnings over the lifetime of the current generation of working-age women in MENA could add as much as USD 3.1 trillion to regional wealth. Yet, the crisis has demonstrated that women are not only potential drivers of GDP growth, but that they are also leaders for social and economic transformation. At a moment when all hands are needed on deck to shape a cleaner, fairer and more prosperous world post-COVID, MENA governments must tackle the remaining roadblocks to women’s economic empowerment. The OECD is proud to collaborate with the MENA region in this historic effort and are grateful for the leadership of the co-Chairs of the MENA-OECD Women’s Economic Empowerment Forum, H.E. Dr. Hala El Saeed, Minister of Planning and Economic Development of Egypt and H.E. Mr. Jan Thesleff, the Ambassador of Sweden to Egypt.
Learn more about the MENA-OECD Initiative on Governance and Competitiveness for Development
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