This year, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) became the first country in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region to introduce paid parental leave for employees in the private sector. This historic reform was part of a broad reform package enacted by the UAE to support women’s labor force participation.
Although the female labor force participation rate in the UAE — 57.5% in 2020 — is one of the highest in MENA, it is still considerably below male labor force participation, which stood at 92% that same year.
Over the last few years, the government of the UAE has made gender equality and women’s economic empowerment a top policy priority. In 2019, under the leadership of the UAE’s Gender Balance Council, the country introduced historic reforms to enhance women’s economic empowerment including: equality between women and men in applying for passports; allowing women to be heads of households, like men; introducing legislation on combating domestic violence and criminal penalties for sexual harassment in the workplace; prohibiting gender-based discrimination in employment and dismissal of pregnant women; and removing job restrictions in sectors, such as mining, imposed on women.
However, legal gaps remained related to women’s mobility, their rights within the marriage, parenthood, and their ability to manage assets. To address these deeper legal inequalities, the government of the UAE requested the World Bank Group’s support to introduce further legislative reforms. Despite the challenges presented by the COVID-19 crisis, the government successfully enacted a historic reform package. Fully paid parental leave available to female and male employees in the private sector was introduced for the first time in the MENA region. The Personal Status Law was amended to remove the provision on women’s obligation to obey husbands. New provisions were introduced to allow women to choose where to live and travel outside the home in the same way as men. The Personal Status Law was also amended to lift the restrictions on women’s ability to travel outside the country. The Labor law was amended to mandate equal pay for work of equal value across different industries and sectors.
The reforms were championed by the UAE’s Federal Competitiveness and Statistics Authority in collaboration with the Gender Balance Council, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization, and Ministry of Community Development. Strong government commitment, effective collaboration across ministries and the World Bank Group’s technical expertise were at the heart of the success of the reform effort.
To support the effective implementation of these reforms in the courts and to ensure accurate interpretation of the new provisions by judges, the government of the UAE updated the Explanatory Note of the Personal Status Law. The implementation effort also focuses on strong communication and dissemination campaigns.
The reforms were captured by the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law 2021 study, which reported the improvement in the UAE’s overall score from 30 out of 100 points in 2019 to 82.5 out of 100 points in 2021. The MENA region still has the lowest scores on the WBL index, with women in the region having less than half the rights of men in the areas measured.
The ambitious reforms implemented in the UAE were preceded by groundbreaking reforms in Saudi Arabia. In July 2019, Saudi Arabia enacted historic measures changing women’s roles in society and giving them unprecedented economic freedoms. The measures include a wide range of reducing restrictions on women’s right of freedom of movement within the country and outside the country, as well as the freedom to choose a place of residency. The reforms also tackled household dynamics. For example, the reform now allows women to be heads of households, like men, and removes women’s legal obligation to obey their husbands. Additionally, a set of reforms introduced greater protections for women at the workplace and in accessing financial services. Employers now are prohibited from discriminating based on gender in recruitment and job advertisement and financial institutions are prohibited from discriminating based on gender in providing financial services. A year later, amendments to the Labor law followed, which lifted restrictions on women’s ability to work at night and opened all industries to women, including work in mining.
What is even more inspiring is the ripple effect of the UAE reforms in other countries. Jordan equalized passports procedures and the Central Bank of Jordan prohibited gender-based discrimination in access to financial services. Egypt and Tunisia are now starting similar reform efforts to introduce gender neutral provisions in the Labor Law, the Personal Status Law, and in Banking Regulations.
Locally driven reforms lead by champions such as the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the UAE are some of the keys to achieve positive results and to boost women’s economic inclusion. This is not just important for inspiring reforms, but also for sharing reform experiences, success factors, and lessons learned from the reform effort. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are, so far, the front-runners in the MENA region when it comes to reforming laws for greater women’s economic empowerment. This historic set of reforms will inspire other governments to prioritize reforming legislation to reduce gender inequalities and to boost women’s economic opportunities.