Published on Arab Voices

MENA countries can no longer afford to leave women behind

Les femmes travaillent ensemble au Liban. Les femmes travaillent ensemble au Liban.

Accelerating women’s empowerment is a necessary imperative for countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Of the region’s 450 million people, nearly two-thirds, almost 300 million people, are under the age of 35. Unfortunately, this vast human resource is highly "untapped," and nearly 80% of women are not participating in the labor force.

The costs of exclusion are enormous. Women generate less than one-fifth of the region’s GDP, which is less than half of the average that women generate in the rest of the world. The result is that MENA is losing out nearly $575 billion per year, according to the OECD.

Helping MENA countries realize their economic potential by empowering women is a top priority for the World Bank. In 2019, we expanded our regional strategy to explicitly target creating more and better economic opportunities for women, especially for young women. Through our advocacy, project financing, and technical assistance, we are helping countries open up markets so that women entrepreneurs can compete on a level playing field; prioritizing the development of 21st-century skills inside and outside of the classroom; and expanding access to broadband internet and new technologies to support MENA countries’ transitions to knowledge-based economies.

We are seeing some tangible and important results.

In Egypt, the Takaful and Karama Cash Transfer Program, launched in 2015 with World Bank support, has covered 2.26 million households. Nearly 90% of the program’s beneficiaries are women, with beneficiaries receiving pre-loaded smart cards that boost women’s financial inclusion and financial decision-making while improving household consumption.

In Jordan, the Second Equitable Growth and Job Creation Programmatic Development Policy Financing is supporting the removal of legal restrictions for women’s work via changes in laws impacting women’s ability to choose types and hours of employment and addressing harassment in public transportation and at the workplace.

And in Yemen, the Emergency Electricity Access Project is helping to ease the disproportionate impact of lack of access to energy that it is having on women while also supporting financial inclusion. Thousands of women are being provided access to new or improved electricity service, while efforts are ongoing to extend accounts to previously unbanked women.

MENA countries are making serious efforts to step up as witnessed by the recent World Bank’s 2020 Women, Business, and the Law Index, where six of the 10 top-reforming countries are from the MENA region, making changes such as introducing equal pay and female representation in corporate boardrooms, protecting women from employment discrimination and prohibiting employers from dismissing a woman during pregnancy and maternity leave.

More will need to be done over the coming months and years to ensure that these legal changes are transformed into behavioral changes. The economic impacts of action are significant as is the importance of today’s working age women in the MENA region paving the way for girls (and boys) in the region to grow up with equal opportunity, voice and hope.


Anna Bjerde

World Bank Managing Director of Operations

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