Legal and social barriers holding back women’s empowerment in Middle East and North Africa


07/09/2017 - Women in the Middle East and North Africa are better educated and better skilled than ever, yet legal and social barriers mean the share of them in work is still the lowest in the world. Bringing family and labour laws into line with gender goals would enable more women to enter employment and would make MENA economies more competitive and inclusive, according to a new OECD report.


Women’s Economic Empowerment in Selected MENA countries: The impact of legal frameworks in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia finds that progress has been made in women’s education, in ratifying international conventions promoting human rights, and in incorporating gender equality into national constitutions. But not enough has been done to bring legislation and social norms into line with these advances.


Just 24% of women in MENA countries are in employment – a level that compares to 60% in OECD countries – and gender-based discrimination in laws and social norms costs the region USD 575 billion a year according to the OECD Development Centre’s SIGI gender index. Failing to harness the talent of working-age women means lost economic potential and less inclusive growth. It is estimated that raising women’s participation in the labour force to the same level as men could boost global GDP by USD 12 trillion, or 26%, by 2025.


“Gender equality is not only good for women and societies, it is a vital opportunity to make economic growth stronger and more inclusive,” said OECD Chief of Staff and G20 Sherpa Gabriela Ramos, who leads the Organisation’s work on gender equality, launching the report at the inaugural MENA-OECD Women’s Economic Empowerment Forum in Cairo. “The MENA region has made real progress enshrining gender equality into constitutions, but women will only be able to properly access jobs and entrepreneurship if these principles are embedded in legal systems and enforced by giving women better access to justice.”


A global OECD report, The Pursuit of Gender Equality: An Uphill Battle, launched by Ms Ramos earlier in the week at the Women’s Forum in Paris, underscores the fact that gender equality remains a global challenge, with deep-rooted gender gaps persisting across countries in all areas of social and economic life.


The MENA report released today finds that among discriminatory elements in the region, women often do not share the same rights as men to make decisions, pursue a profession, travel, marry or divorce, head a family, receive an inheritance or access wealth. For example, in Egypt, Jordan and Libya women must still obtain authorisation from their husbands or fathers if they wish to work.


“Protective” labour laws that restrict women’s working hours or which sectors they can work in, combined with social expectations that place the brunt of housework and care on women’s shoulders, result in a preference for hiring and promoting men. Women entrepreneurs face many gender-specific obstacles to business development ranging from access to finance to business registration and freedom of movement.


Unequal access to family assets and ownership also seriously limits women’s economic development. Separation of assets rather than community property is the default marriage regime in the six countries, and property is usually in the man’s name.

The report recommends that MENA countries:


  • Update labour laws to combat discrimination against women in all types of work and throughout their working lives. Reinforce monitoring and sanctions to bridge gaps between labour laws and practices.


  • Review maternity leave and childcare provisions. Provide incentives for employers to support part-time employment, remote working and flexible hours.


  • Guarantee women a safe environment at and on their way to work by ensuring strict enforcement of sexual harassment regulations and punishing offenders, penalising harassment in public places and improving public transport.


  • Reduce barriers to women’s entrepreneurship through policies that support equal access to finance, prohibit discrimination based on sex or marital status, encourage credit registries and credit bureaux and increase women’s financial education.


  • Support the application of community property between spouses and allow women equal rights to assets acquired during marriage in the event of a divorce. Reconsider inheritance laws to ensure gender equality.


  • Reinforce awareness of women’s rights among judges and legal professionals and improve women’s access to justice systems.


  • Harmonise personal status codes with the principles of gender equality and non-discrimination in line with national conventions and international commitments.


  • Gather data to better understand the impact that family laws and resulting gender stereotypes have on women’s ability to make decisions and fully engage in the economy and society, and develop policies to help women fulfil their full potential. 


For further information, journalists are invited to contact Catherine Bremer in the OECD Media Division (+33 1 45 24 8097, [email protected]).


Read more on the cost of gender discrimination in MENA countries:


Read more on the MENA-OECD Women’s Economic Empowerment Forum:


The MENA-OECD Initiative on Governance and Competitiveness is a partnership between 18 MENA countries and OECD members working to improve investment, competitiveness, public governance, integrity and transparency in the MENA region.


Working with over 100 countries, the OECD is a global policy forum that promotes policies to improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world.







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