Published on Arab Voices

Legal reforms are key — but not enough — to empowering women across MENA

Femme arabe parlant à un groupe. Black Kings / Femme arabe parlant à un groupe. Black Kings /

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, women and girls in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region were at a disadvantage. MENA is home to the lowest female labor force participation rate in the world — 22% in 2020, compared to 77% for men — and unemployment among women is much more severe than among men.  Laws in MENA countries have prevented women from owning assets, working in certain sectors deemed dangerous for women, and even traveling without the permission of a male relative.

But there is good news: According to the World Bank’s latest “Women, Business, and the Law” report, MENA was among the top two regions with the most legislative and regulatory changes to strengthen women’s economic opportunities — 17 such changes across the region. For example, the UAE is now the only country in MENA with paid parental leave. Saudi Arabia removed restrictions on the types of jobs women could have and removed the ban on women working at night.

Over the last 10 years, the pace of reform has picked up in MENA; however, women continue to enjoy roughly half legal rights of men in most of our countries. MENA’s Women, Business, and the Law index value is 51.5 compared to the global average of 76.1 — with 100 being parity. On top of this disparity, the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities that disadvantage women, threatening their health and safety and leaving them even more economically insecure. A legal environment that encourages women’s economic inclusion could have made them less vulnerable to the crisis.

As countries face economic stagnation due to COVID-19, there remains great gender disparity in the region, particularly when it comes to the employment of women. In addition to legal discriminations, women face constraints that influence their decisions such as mobility, access to technology and finance, and child and elder care.

So what can be done to remove these barriers?

Based on an assessment of where countries are lagging, several reforms could help. For instance, countries can pass legislation to:

  1. Ensure that laws do not discriminate, such as those laws that restrict the types of sectors or even the times of day in which women can work.
  2. Facilitate family-friendly work environments and public spaces by supporting parental leave, flexible work schedules, transportation, child care, and anti-sexual harassment policies.
  3. Expand women’s rights to ensure women can access finance and obtain collateral through ownership.

The World Bank is supporting MENA countries to enact such reforms. For instance, in Jordan, our Development Policy Loan program is working to sustain recent legislation to promote and regulate flexible work. The program also supports removing regulatory barriers that affect women’s labor force participation, especially mobility obstacles (such as high transportation costs, safety concerns and inadequate infrastructure) that disproportionately affect women.

Our US$500 million project to support Egypt with affordable formal housing for low-income households has contributed to increased gender inclusion, as 20% of the beneficiaries are women. This is vital: Only 5% of women in Egypt own assets (either alone or jointly) versus 95% of men, according to the 2019 Women’s Economic Empowerment Study.

Legal changes such as these can make a big difference to help women make positive contributions to the well-being of society. But they’re still not enough.

We need to ensure that we address all issues that hold women back, including social norms such as child and elder care and other challenges including gender-based violence (GBV). In the wake of COVID-19, I have been struck by the importance of the care agenda. We know that women are first to lose their jobs to stay home and take care of older parents and children. Sadly, we’ve also seen an uptick in GBV across the region. For instance, in Lebanon, the domestic violence hotline received twice as many calls during the first three months of 2020 than in all of 2019; and similar reports of increased cases and reporting of GBV can be found in Jordan and Tunisia.

Progress, again, is taking place, though not at the pace that we need. I am heartened to see some changes take hold. For example, in December 2020, the Lebanese parliament criminalized sexual harassment, and the World Bank supported this reform through our Mashreq Gender Facility.

The pandemic has certainly heightened the challenges facing women and girls, but we don’t have to wait to act. It is time for us to move forward to strengthen economic opportunities for women. It’s not only the right thing to do — though that alone should compel us to take action. It’s simply smart economics. A country cannot grow if 50% of its population is not fully participating in the economy. 

To mark International Women’s Day this year, we’re hosting a panel to discuss these issues with leaders who are working to strengthen women’s economic opportunities. I look forward to learning from them and identifying new ways that the World Bank, and others, can do more to advance opportunities for women and girls, help change the trajectory of their lives, and make sure that women are at the center of our efforts to secure a sustainable and resilient recovery.


Ferid Belhaj

World Bank Vice President for Middle East and North Africa

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