Published on Arab Voices

#EmpowerHer: Combining technology and the creativity of youth to promote the economic empowerment of women in the Maghreb

 Zzvet /
In common with many other countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, Morocco and Tunisia have a huge untapped source of human talent.

Underperformance of labor markets over the years has left many people, especially young men and women, with a sense of exclusion. In the Maghreb, women still are unable to compete on an equal footing as the limited economic opportunities that do exist generally go to men. The World Bank gender strategy aims to help countries remove constraints for more and better jobs for women and remove barriers so that women have access to finance, technology, land and other productive assets. Tackling these challenges requires new ideas and experimentation to provide avenues for change and to open up opportunities. Women in the rural regions are hardest hit.
“EmpowerHer: Maghreb” is the latest bold initiative put forth by the World Bank that re-imagines a way forward to leverage technology and the brainpower of the region’s youth while economically empowering women who are often left behind. “EmpowerHer: Maghreb,” a series of hackathons that will take place in Morocco and Tunisia, will bring together volunteer technologists and associations who work with women in rural areas to address some of the region’s thorniest issues when it comes to women’s economic empowerment.

ImageThe Hackathons will enable youth to huddle, code, tap, think and imagine for hours in the hopes of solving some of the most complex and age-old problems for women in the least developed areas.  The initiative applies concrete measures to change perceptions and create solutions. Instead of youth being viewed as a problem, hackathon participants will be creating solutions for disadvantaged women and others, for example girls and young women with secondary or tertiary education who are often left behind.
When it comes to paid work, women still struggle in the Maghreb.  About one quarter, 26 percent, of all women work, which is half the level in similar middle-income countries. This rate has stagnated for more than two decades.  Microenterprises aside, women’s entrepreneurship is rare. In Morocco, only 4.3 percent of firms have a female top manager compared with 7.1 in Egypt and 19 per cent in Brazil .

Making matters worse is the high unemployment rate for young people in the Maghreb. Social attitudes dictate that for women only some jobs -- usually in government --are suitable.  So many young women remain unemployed for a long time.  In Tunisia, while the average length of school-to-work transitions for men is 3.6 years, an equivalent figure for women cannot be calculated because, even by age 29, only one-third of women work.
Women in the poorer regions and rural areas are hit even harder. Most women who work on farms do so as unpaid family workers – over three quarters of those who give their primary occupations as unpaid family workers in Tunisia are women. Permanent paid work in agriculture is almost exclusively a male domain. Making matters worse is the huge gap in salaries. In Morocco, women earn 30 to 50 percent less than their male counterparts with agriculture holding the dubious title for largest pay gap of any sector. There will be a special focus in the hackathons on addressing the specific circumstances of women in rural and underdeveloped, or ‘lagging’, regions.
In preparation for convening the hackathons, the World Bank went on a listening tour across Morocco and Tunisia to try to identify the specific obstacles that prevent women in the lagging regions from accessing economic opportunities. What we heard was a desire for better infrastructure to be able to communicate with urban areas, educational opportunities and training in technology and business.
When the next generation of technologists convenes in Tunisia and Morocco for the hackathons, they will try to develop applications that address many of the issues raisedthe hackathon participants will gain experience, contacts and skills while developing applications that can then help develop and strengthen women’s business acumen.
“EmpowerHer:Maghreb” has caught the attention of the private sector. Major technology firms will sponsor the hackathons in Tunisia and Morocco. These companies will be on the lookout for the most talented youth and their applications. Prizes will include internships that offer an opportunity for the local youth to get exposure and to prove their abilities to excel. These opportunities, in addition to the coaching and training the youth will receive as part of the Hackathon process, are priceless.

This World Bank Group initiative “EmpowerHer: Maghreb” demonstrates the Bank’s commitment to supporting developing countries in the Middle East and North Africa to map a path forward to enable the empowerment of women economically. The World Bank Group’s strategy on gender equality set forth at the end of 2015 zeros in on poverty reduction and inclusive growth, and how the MENA region will tackle these issues will be further spelled out in the upcoming Regional Gender Action Plan. We can no longer afford to omit those furthest behind.


Marie Francoise Marie-Nelly

World Bank Country Director for South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho and Eswatini

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