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The education of an estimated 110 million children and young people in the MENA region has been affected by school closures and lockdowns. Approaches to adapting the school year have varied, but it is unlikely education systems will return to pre-COVID conditions for a while. Countries that reopened their schools at the start of the academic year are threatened with closures. Whereas others that implemented distance learning programs from the start faced hurtles reallocating infrastructure and resources. This poses significant challenges to low-income households and particularly women, who bear the lion’s share of homeschooling and other household responsibilities.

The states of the region have been experiencing serious economic crises. Consequently, neither the families of the middle class, increasingly affected by these crises, nor poor families have the economic means to set up distance learning measures.”

Low income households are mostly at risk due to lack of funding to provide basic educational tools such as books and internet access, in addition to the lack of space at home. According to Lilia Labidi, Professor at Université de Tunis, “The states of the region have been experiencing serious economic crises. Consequently, neither the families of the middle class, increasingly affected by these crises, nor poor families have the economic means to set up distance learning measures.” Further, the digital divide that plagues communities and state institutions will lead to significant inequality in remote learning capability. Further, the transfer of education to the household will have an impact on women’s economic prosperity. “Homeschool was transferred to families without giving the resources or support,” said an expert at UN Women-Palestine, “this left the burden on women… a lot of people are already worried about drops in female participation in the workforce, which might return to the same levels we saw 30 years ago.”

Families are suddenly faced with fulfilling their child’s round-the-clock needs. Sending children to school grants professional women the time and space they need to pursue a career and offset the double burden of work inside and outside the home. “There are reports from Palestine that women are the first to be let go because there is the expectation that they will go home and care for their kids,” said Stephanie Chaban, Regional Advisor on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment at UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA). In fact, initially in the Palestine Authority, only female employees with children working in the public sector were relieved of their professional duties to care for their children.

Consequently, the region suffers from the lowest female participation rate in the world, a mere 20 percent, compared to the global rate of 47 percent."

The expectation for women to take on caretaking emerges from the legal, economic, and sociocultural environment in the region. A lack of legal protection puts women in a weak position to ask more from their husbands. Radwa Elsaman, Law Professor and Legal Consultant at Cairo University School of Law notes that constitutions in the region rarely include a clause on gender equality. “I am not optimistic about an equal share or even contribution by men in childcare and home duties,” she says, “The majority of laws do not grant women equal rights in terms of marriage and family burdens.” Consequently, the region suffers from the lowest female participation rate in the world, a mere 20 percent, compared to the global rate of 47 percent.

School closures are likely to reinforce this dynamic. Women will be expected to meet the demands of distance learning with no legal or social leverage over their husbands. Labidi adds, “The uncertainty regarding requirements to be applied among the return to schools has had a serious effect on women… Working women often find themselves unable or less able to fulfill their professional obligations.”

Women’s resources will be unduly impacted. They will be expected to take on more at home while being pushed out of the workforce. In Jordan, working mothers staged a protest in response to the ministry’s decision to close nurseries until the end of the year. Nurseries provide a vital solution for women to meet their child’s needs and professional obligations. Jordanian mothers and women advocates fear without this resource, many women will be forced out of the workforce. Fortunately, women’s voices were heard, and the government decided to reverse its decision on closing nurseries.

Additionally, remote work may also be out of reach for women. While offices around the world have adjusted to digital environments, infrastructure is very limited in MENA households, restricting women’s ability to work from home. Discriminatory norms prioritize male access to the family computer. Given the inequity in access to technology, many women might not have the skills to properly fulfill job duties remotely.

During the pandemic, the barriers have and will continue to increase for women who aspire to work. Employers are likely to keep only the most experienced and productive candidates, giving older men an advantage. Given no one knows the duration of the pandemic, “there might be this expectation women will just stay home.” Chaban says, yet because “men are already considered the primary breadwinner, there will be a space for them returning to work.” If there is only a limited number of jobs, the fear that women will be unable to permanently remain in the workforce will fuel a tendency to hire male candidates over female ones. The uncertainty around the delivery of education will only add to this fear. ESCWA estimates that 700,000 Arab women will lose their jobs, a stunning figure in a region where women are so severely marginalized from the workforce already.

Refugee women & girls

The impacts of COVID-19 adds to an already strenuous life of more than six million refugees and over 10 million internally displaced people who fled Syria and Yemen. Women and children refugees are among the hardest hit, as their daily lives are now compounded by isolation, scarce employment opportunities, and strained humanitarian assistance. School closures add another level of complexity to their lives. In some instances, refugee children are not fully integrated into the school system to begin with. For example, in Jordan only a quarter of secondary-school-age Syrian refugee children are enrolled in the school system. Access to education in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic is anything but certain.

The loss of a proper education adds to the pressure refugee children live with that stems from the trauma of fleeing their homes, political and cultural persecution, and absence of a stable shelter. Inadequate access to distance learning programs threatens a disruption to refugee children’s education, with potentially permanent impacts. In fact, 50 percent of girls worldwide are at risk of dropping out of school entirely because of COVID-19.  

This is especially concerning for that large number of female-headed households amongst refugees. Citing the Vulnerability of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon, Nathalie Khaled, Economic Affairs Officer at ESCWA, says “75 percent of Syrian refugee households living in low humanitarian standards are headed by women. COVID-19 creates additional pressures and burdens on them, escalating their harsh humanitarian conditions.” According to Khaled, most of these households live on less than $0.90 per day. COVID-19 presents new pressures, both in terms of diminished humanitarian assistance and the resources required to meet proper hygienic needs to remain healthy.

For women who must earn an income to ensure their family’s survival, their only option is to turn to informal work."

Without having the ability to send their children to school, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of refugee women will be left in an impossible situation. Moreover, the informal sector was severely hit by the pandemic, making it even more difficult for women to generate income. Refugee women are already one of the most excluded groups from the formal labor force. A representative of UN Women mentioned, “Before COVID-19, many Syrian women were interested in finding a job to support their families, but they were hard to come by. Only 13 percent of Syrian refugee women in Lebanon were working, 5 percent in Jordan, and 4 percent in Iraq.” For women who must earn an income to ensure their family’s survival, their only option is to turn to informal work.

Long-term economic implications

Patriarchal social norms toward women interact with the pressures of the pandemic to put women in an unfortunate position. As economies across the region begin to reopen fully, employers will not hire candidates they anticipate will leave the workforce to care for their children at home. Coupled with the lack of assistance in facilitating distance learning programs, women will have no support in childcare. As more and more women are marginalized to the household, progress in recent decades to encourage female representation in the workforce will lapse. The interruption to women’s careers will make it ever more difficult to reenter the workforce once employment opportunities return to pre-COVID levels.

Public authorities must look critically at how school closures impact economic revenues when women leave the workforce and disrupt the education for children. Policies that enable flexible working arrangements and encourage shared childcare responsibilities will enable women to keep a foot in the workforce as they navigate pandemic restrictions. Increasing the resources to households to keep the children enrolled in distance learning will help ensure women have a free hand to work and that children won’t fall behind on crucial education milestones.

More importantly, actors must use this as an opportunity to change the structures and norms in place that prevent women from enjoying economic freedom – this starts in the home. Governments must implement policies that prevent gender-based violence in households. ESCWA recently simulated the impact of GBV in the economy by assessing the costs associated with women foregoing education, failures to fulfill childcare responsibilities, and increased necessity for healthcare and psychological services.

Humanitarian organization and NGOs are among the strongest advocate for women in the region. Ensuring these organizations have adequate funding and resources will allow women to take part of the economic recovery through job creation and support services. In the wake of the pandemic, these organizations are finding new ways to provide assistance to women, for example UN Women-Jordan adjusted its cash-for-work program to unrestricted cash assistance.

Speaking at the Haleh Esfandiari Forum at the Wilson Center on September 10, Dr. Rola A. A. H. Dashti, Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of ESCWA discussed the need for women to advocate “and invest in themselves to make sure they have ambition in the decision-making process.” In this moment, the MENA region can either lose decades of progress of women’s representation in the workforce or use it as an opportunity to redefine women’s roles. Women must be at the table for that discussion.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect an official position of the Wilson Center.

About the Author

Brooke Sherman

Brooke Sherman

Program Assistant
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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more

Middle East Women's Initiative

The Middle East Women's Initiative (MEWI) promotes the empowerment of women in the region through an open and inclusive dialogue with women leaders from the Middle East and continuous research.  Read more