Women in the Middle East and North Africa are more educated than ever before, but their participation in the workface is 25 percent – about half of the world average, according to a new report by the World Bank. “Often what stands between women and jobs are legal and social barriers,” said Manuela Ferro, Director for Poverty Reduction and Economic Management in the MENA region. But even some educated women lack the relevant skills currently in demand. Policymakers could begin to undo the inequalities that women face through “bold policy shifts, legal change and education,” according to the comprehensive 200-page report. The following are excerpts, with a link to the full text at the end.

            Facing popular pressure to be more open and inclusive, some governments in the Region are considering and implementing electoral and constitutional reforms to deepen democracy. These reforms present an opportunity to enhance economic, social, and political inclusion for all, including women, who make up half the population. However, the outlook remains uncertain. In 2011, Tunisia mandated that an equal number of women and men run as candidates on the electoral list, and women have secured one-quarter of the seats in the constituent assembly. In the Arab Republic of Egypt, millions of women turned out to vote in the 2011–12 parliamentary elections but, ultimately, made up only 2 percent of the lower house of parliament…

            With higher levels of education and lower fertility rates than ever before, women in the Region increasingly are looking for work. The public sector long has been the dominant source of employment, especially for women in the Region, who typically earn significantly more there than they would in the private sector. Indeed, women’s typical fields of study, such as education, health services, and humanities, are geared toward employment in the public sector, thus reinforcing their preference and suitability for government jobs. However, further expansion of the public sector is increasingly fiscally unsustainable, especially in the labor-abundant, oil-poor countries.

            Moreover, job creation in the private sector so far has been too limited to absorb the large and growing number of young jobseekers. In addition, within this limited sphere, women are unable to compete on an equal footing due to several interrelated factors. First, women in the Region continue to face significant restrictions on mobility and choice. These constraints are held in place by legal frameworks, including regulations that restrict work and political participation; and by social and cultural norms.

            A second constraint is the poor quality of education and critical skills mismatches between what is studied in school, especially for girls, and what the private sector demands. Third, employers often perceive women as more costly and less productive than men. For their part, women have concerns about their reputations and safety in private sector jobs. This report focuses on the incentives and constraints generated by the economic and institutional structures that prevail in MENA countries.

            The economic and political environment arising from the Arab Spring has created an unprecedented window of opportunity for change. Given the growing labor, demographic, and fiscal constraints, and the changing aspirations in the Region, policy reforms urgently are needed to boost job creation for all.

            For women, these reforms alone will not suffice. Even as jobs are created, additional measures will be required to address the myriad constraints to women’s participation in the workforce. Targeted, coordinated efforts are needed on multiple fronts to increase women’s participation in the economic and political spheres, and these efforts must be specific to country context. These efforts include changes in policies to secure women’s equality under the law, to bridge the remaining gender gaps in health and education, to redress the skills mismatch in the job market, and to promote women’s civic and political participation.

            Changes in laws alone will do little if jobs are insufficient, or, as noted above, if few women possess the requisite skills that jobs demand. Furthermore, a continuation of policies that increase subsidies, public sector pay and benefits, or public sector employment will not help. On the contrary, these policies will further distort the incentives for private sector job creation and for women to seek work in this sector….

            Across the world, higher per capita incomes have been accompanied by progress in human development. MENA is no exception. For instance, MENA countries have, on average, female life expectancy at birth that is 9.1 percentage points higher than other non-OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, a difference explained primarily by wealth. This correlation between human development outcomes and per capita incomes also is evident within MENA. For example, just as they have relatively lower per capita incomes, Djibouti and the Republic of Yemen have lower human development outcomes than the rest of the Region. Progress has been uneven within countries as well. For instance, in Upper Egypt, the rate of illiteracy among youth is higher than the national average: 17 versus 11 percent. Female youth in Upper Egypt have illiteracy rates of 24 percent—twice those of their male counterparts and 10 percentage points higher than the national average for young women (World Bank 2011a).

            Paradoxically, these considerable investments in human capital have not yet been matched by increases in women’s economic participation. While gaps in economic opportunities for women persist in all countries in East Asia and Pacific, Europe and Central Asia, Latin America and Caribbean, and Sub-Saharan Africa, more than 50 percent of the women aged 15 and above participate in the labor market. In contrast, the corresponding figure in MENA is only 25.2 percent. Almost all MENA countries have female labor force participation rates below the average for lower and middle income (LMI) countries (figure O.3). Not surprisingly, the lowest participation rates are in fragile or conflict-affected countries, including Iraq, the Palestinian Territories, and the Republic of Yemen, where concerns about women’s safety and mobility clearly are more salient. For the Region as a whole, female labor force participation has increased slowly: by an average of only 0.17 percentage points annually over the last 3 decades

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