Published on Arab Voices

Public transport is key to strengthening women’s economic participation in MENA

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Women of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have outperformed many other regions in terms of life expectancy, infant mortality, and tertiary education. Their performance in education has, in some cases, led to a “reverse gender gap” with women outnumbering men in tertiary education. Yet paradoxically, this increased educational attainment has not uniformly led to an increase in their economic participation across all MENA countries. Today, approximately 40 percent of women attend university but on average only 19% participate in the labor force (compared to 75% of men). The economic gains of removing gender differences in labor force participation and reducing gender gaps in hourly productivity would be immense: estimates project it could increase MENA’s output by 50%.

As countries look at measures to bring more women into the workforce, public transport systems must be considered and placed high on the agenda. The World Bank forthcoming study sheds light on this issue and more specifically the role that a well-functioning public transport system plays in women’s economic empowerment.  The report examines the effect of accessibility (in terms of physical proximity), availability (close to where people live), and safety of public transportation on women’s labor market outcomes in three metropolises:  Amman, Beirut and Cairo.

How accessible are jobs through public transport systems?

For cities, accessibility to economic opportunities is a key ingredient for enabling efficient labor markets that foster economic development and social inclusion. The study finds that accessibility to jobs via public transport (and walking) is low in all three metropolises. The residents of Amman, Beirut and Cairo can only access respectively 18 percent, 30 percent, and 13 percent of jobs within 60 minutes using public transport and walking. The maps below also demonstrate that access to job opportunities by public transport is also uneven within the cities.

Regularly monitoring how graduates are doing in the labor market is very important. Photo Credit: TVTC | Saudi Arabia


These low accessibility levels point to the need for:

  1. Prioritizing public transport through integrated corridor management or the creation of/improvements to mass transit.
  2. Improving existing land regulations to foster dense, diverse, and well-designed urban development.
  3. Enhancing the walkability of the cities by improving sidewalks and walkways and developing pedestrian-first policies.


What role does the public transport system play in enhancing women’s labor force participation? 

In each of these cities, there are constraints and influences affecting women’s use of public transport in accessing employment opportunities, and these differ by income level.

  1. In Amman, safety appears to be the most important constraint that women face while accessibility to jobs is more important for women hailing from low-income households. Therefore, in Amman creating a safer environment on public transport with investments such as well-lit and visible public transport stops, better walkways and bicycle paths would help make transport safer. Enhancing the network coverage of public transport system would also make jobs more accessible.
  2. In Beirut, accessibility to jobs matters for women hailing from low-income households. Therefore, enhancing network coverage of the public transport system would make jobs more accessible.
  3. In Cairo, both accessibility and availability of public transport close to home appears to play a strong role in determining women’s labor force participation. Addressing these constraints requires reassessing the placement of public transit stops and enhancing the frequency of public transport vehicles in addition to enhancing the network coverage of the public transport system.

Improving public transport systems is an important and necessary step for increasing women’s participation in the workforce – but alone, it is not sufficient.  Countries must also look at unblocking the constraints that women face with work environments, society, and households. The private sector can play a role and tap into MENA’s largely unexplored potential of highly educated women by providing an equitable, supportive, and inclusive workplace. This includes labor policies such as reducing the gender wage gap, flexible work arrangements, the availability of suitable jobs for women that allow them to balance personal, family and work lives, and high-quality day-care at or close to work. Finding ways that make it possible for women to balance the important role that they play in the home with being actively economically engaged, would bring dividends for families, communities, businesses, and countries.

For MENA region to capitalize on the demographic dividend of increasingly educated women, it must be correlated into jobs for, and entrepreneurship by, women.  Taking action to strengthen public transport systems – with a focus on accessibility, availability, and safety – is a critical factor for reaching this goal.



Ferid Belhaj

World Bank Vice President for Middle East and North Africa

Paul Noumba Um

Regional Director of Infrastructure MENA

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