Mideast, North Africa trail behind globe for working women

Only 22% of women with job or business, despite economic rights

26 October, 19:04

    (ANSAmed) - Rome, October 26 - Just 22% of those who work in the Middle East and North Africa are women. The average is 27% in Egypt, Jordan, Lybia, Morocco and Tunisia.

    North Africa and the Middle East have the lowest rate of female participation in the workforce in the world, whereas the highest is in the Far East and the Pacific, where 70% of women work. The Sub-Sahara - thanks to farming - has a rate on par with the European Union of 64%, whereas in Italy, just 46% of women work. Starting from these figures, a study on the economic rights of women in Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia was presented in Rome by Serena Romano, a consultant for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The figures are based on data from the OECD, the World Bank, the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Labour Organization (ILO); and the presentation was timed to coincide with the visit of seven Libyan women entrepreneurs, organized by the Pari o Dispari, an association promoting diversity and gender parity, with the backing of the Italian energy giant ENI and the Italian foreign ministry.

    Romano said an increase in female employment and entrepreneurship could significantly boost economic growth in underdeveloped countries. The GDP of Egypt would rise 34% by 2020 if Egyptian women, who currently have a work participation rate of 24%, reached parity with Egyptian men, according to a report in The Economist magazine a few days ago - not bad for an economy that suffered recent political upheaval. All five countries in the study guarantee women - at least legally - all of their economic rights, from the possibility to hold a job or own property or take out a loan to launching a business. "The problem is that the right to sign a contract conforms badly to the obligation to obey the husband," explained Romano. In short, everything recognized by State law is at risk of clashing with marital rights or the status of the person as defined by religion - in particular, the Islamic religion. Islam dictates that a woman inherits from her parents half the amount to which her brother is entitled, for example. It gives women very limited custody rights over her children. A married woman in Egypt and Jordan can obtain a passport only with her husband's consent.

    The real possibility of women working outside the home or starting a business collides with limits like these. It is difficult to start a business or a job if one can not travel, obtain citizenship or access public services for one's children in the case of a sojourn abroad. It's hard to do business or work in a factory if one can't freely leave one's house and if one must return home by a certain hour. Then there is the problem of the legislative system in the five countries on certain questions like equal pay with men, which is not formally guaranteed in Tunisia, sexual discrimination, which is not banned in Egypt and Jordan, defense against sexual molestation at work, which is only enforced in Morocco, and the right to initiate legal cases, which women don't entirely enjoy in Egypt and Jordan. Contradictions arise too with respect to the CEDAW treaty - the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. All five of the countries in question have ratified the treaty - as did Saudi Arabia, among others - but always added provisions linked to the status of persons and Sharia law (Morocco lifted reservations in 2011).

    "Customary or Sharia law will often regulate personal status law and can have a decisive impact on womens' economic rights and their capacity to develop their business or pursue their career. But equality can only be one," Romano said.


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