Gender Equality in MENA: Where Are We Now?

Posted on 13 September 2022

Gender equality should no longer be the goal, but the norm. To make impactful change, equity must be expected and woven into our ideas and behaviours, in addition to annual milestones and benchmarks. Despite encouraging progression toward moving the needle in this direction, countries in the MENA region still have a long way to go.

Encouraging progress?

It is fitting and appropriate to rejoice over the fact that governments in the MENA region have taken a number of constructive initiatives toward achieving gender equality. This includes the enactment of more gender-sensitive legislation, the promotion of women to top positions in the civil service, and the codification of equal rights for both men and women in the constitution. Nevertheless, as compared to other nations, the MENA region remains a long way behind when it comes to data suggesting transformation. Given the worldwide threats to gender equality that are on the line right now, there needs to be more progress made in this area.

Gender equality in MENA

The United Arab Emirates leads the MENA region in gender equality. According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2021 published by the World Economic Forum, UAE leads across the Arab world and ranks first in four of the report's indicators, including the number of women in parliament, the sex ratio at birth, the literacy rate, and the number of students enrolled in primary education. The United Arab Emirates moved up 48 places, moving from the 120th position all the way up to the 72nd place, in just one year. 

In addition to this, the World Bank's study titled "Women, Business and the Law 2020" identified Saudi Arabia as the economy that has made the highest progress toward gender equality.

The Middle Eastern region is making progress toward making gender equality a primary area of concern. In Saudi Arabia's "Vision 2030," gender equality is a foundational component of the Kingdom's attempts to expand and diversify the Saudi economy, as well as to increase the number of jobs available in the country. 

Other Gulf countries, such as Bahrain and Qatar, have also committed to a number of socioeconomic blueprints in line with the 2030 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These include Economic Vision 2030 for Bahrain and National Vision 2030 for Qatar. Saudi Arabia is leading the way in this regard. Meanwhile, in 2015, the United Arab Emirates founded what is now known as the Gender Balance Council.

All of them are impressive and forward-looking markers of good change. Yet, the process itself is delayed since it is affected by the powerful influence of the patriarchal society that predominates the dialogue and the decision-making bodies.

Gender equality indicators 

Interestingly, according to the World Bank, women in the GCC region have some of the highest levels of education in the Arab world. Despite this, increased access to education has not resulted in gender equality, nor has it led to a proportional increase in the number of women participating in the workforce. 

According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2021 published by the World Economic Forum, the cultural expectation that women play the role of primary caregivers in these nations makes it impossible for them to participate actively in the job market. In a similar vein, the educational accomplishments of women in GCC countries are not dissimilar to those of their contemporaries in the top 20 countries listed in the report. If the women in this country made the decision to actively participate in the workforce, they would have the same opportunities as the women in the top 20 countries. Since this is the case, lack of education is no longer the primary factor preventing women from making a contribution to the economy of their country.

In addition, the report reveals that when it comes to determining whether or not there is a pay gap between men and women, the GCC countries have managed to catch up with the majority of the top 20 countries, which means that pay is equal for both men and women in these nations. 

A third distinguishing criteria is the participation of women in politics, which appears to be substantially lower for nations in the GCC and the wider MENA region compared to the top 20 countries in the report. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) continues to be the only country in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region that appears to be doing well in this area. It is also the only country in the GCC region to place in the top 100 (ranked at 72) of the Global Gender Gap Index, recording a significant increase over the previous year.


Global Gender Gap Index

According to the World Economic Forum's 2021 Global Gender Gap Index, Saudi Arabia scored 147 out of the 156 nations that were measured, while Oman ranked 145, Kuwait 143, Qatar 142, Bahrain 137, and the United Arab Emirates ranked 72.

In this report's index measuring economic participation and opportunity, the MENA region fared poorly overall, with Bahrain coming in at position 134, Qatar at 136, Kuwait at 137, and Oman at 143 respectively.

Even though Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman initiated changes in 2016 aimed at promoting gender equality, Saudi Arabia is still placed 149, which is only seven points behind Afghanistan, the country with the lowest overall ranking.

The gender gap that is the highest in the world may still be found in the Middle East and North Africa region (60,9%). At the present time, women in the region only account for 21% of the total labour force and only make up 18% of the total contribution to Mena's overall GDP.

When it comes to gender equality, it is abundantly clear that the MENA area as a whole needs to join together to recognise, comprehend, and overcome these glaring imbalances that have put it in a tremendous position of disadvantage. Women in this area have high levels of education and are fully capable of supporting themselves financially. Nevertheless, in spite of this fact, the man is expected to shoulder the majority of the household's financial responsibilities. Why are there such large voids in responsible financial behaviour? Sadly, this disparity has been and will continue to be caused by the region's traditional patriarchal mentality.

Closing the gender gap

As we try to create an environment that is more gender fair, there are other important questions to consider. What are the real barriers that prevent women from entering the workforce in this region? Should women be considered the primary caregivers for young children? What are the most effective ways for us to help women become more independent decision-makers? Do we typically approach the upbringing of our sons and daughters in different ways? How do we make sure that men and women make roughly the same amount of money?

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