Only one in four women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are employed or searching for work, which is half the global rate.
A new World Bank report, Opening Doors: Gender Equality and Development in the Middle East and North Africa, pinpoints and offers proposals to overcome the economic, legal, and cultural barricades which have kept women unemployed.
Paradoxically, the report notes that over the past four decades women have become healthier, better educated and now outnumber men in the universities.
So, what exactly is the hold-up?
These women still face a number of challenges, the biggest of which is the difficulty of balancing a career while raising a family.
This is evident in the rates of unemployment among young women which is as high as 40 percent. If MENA employment rates remain where they are, by 2050, there will be an estimated 50 million unemployed men, and an astounding 145 million unemployed women.
The World Bank conducted a survey in 2010 of women graduating from community colleges in Jordan, and found that 92 percent intended to look for work and 76 percent expected to work full time post-graduation.
In 2011, the follow-up survey showed otherwise. Out of the graduates who had married, only seven percent were employed; out of those who had become engaged, only 14 percent were employed; and, 21 percent of single women were employed. Yet, all, even those who were married, still wanted to work.
One woman managed to escape this destructive cycle.
Rhama grew up in a small town in Yemen, where there is a local saying: “To educate a woman is wrong because she has no place but her husband’s home.”
Yet, Rhama wanted to, and did receive an education. She became the first woman in her town to finish high school, and she later enrolled in a healthcare training program in Sana’a, the capital city.
She paid for her classes in Sana’a with the money she earned from a paid position at a private medical clinic in her hometown. This made her unique, as other women in her hometown only worked unpaid positions.
Rhama also wanted to marry and raise a family, and like the other women in her hometown, she did not believe that she could have a family of her own and work. So, she returned home and married.
But, Rhama discovered that she could balance work and a family. Rhama is now married and runs her own business delivering babies in a special room added to her house.
She has had a profound impact on how girls in her town view their prospects. Many girls in the town have showed signs of reconsidering their future options, and Rhama’s younger sister is already studying at a nearby health institute.
Rhama was able to break out of the confining gender roles in her small town and became the first women to have a paying career.
The World Bank Report offers proposals so that other women in the MENA can be like Rhama and attain the lives they want. One of the biggest hurtles is legal. Current laws that were designed to protect women, actually limit their likelihood of being hired as they limit where and when women can work. These laws must be altered so that the women in the MENA who wish to balance a career and household demands are able to do so.
– Kasey Beduhn