Expert Commentary

Leading commentators offer their perspectives on the key findings of the ASDA'A BCW Arab Youth Survey 2020.

More efforts needed to help women secure greater rights

Afshin Molavi

Mina Al-Oraibi

In this year’s ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey, most women interviewed said they had the same rights as men in their country. Of the 1,700 women respondents in the Main Survey, 64 percent said that they have the same rights as men. In the Gulf Cooperation Council, that figure is at 71 per cent, while in North Africa that figure is 62 per cent and in the Levant, it rests at 60 per cent. Strikingly, 11 per cent of women believed that they had more rights than men, while 25 per cent said men have more rights than women in their respective countries. Among the 3,400 of 18-24-year-olds interviewed across 17 Arab countries in the Main Survey, there was a general sense of optimism on gender rights.

The results of the survey are compelling. However, there are still major challenges to be met, including how rights are exercised, and whether they are available to women from all sections of society. The influence of cultural norms and social expectations cannot be overlooked in how women fare in their societies.

This past year witnessed significant steps taken to secure women’s rights in a number of countries. There has been a rise in Arab women voicing their concerns about instances of harassment, in part reacting to the global #MeToo movement.

This was most pronounced in Egypt, where hundreds of women have spoken publicly about cases of harassment and some of these have been tackled in the courts. Furthermore, a bill was passed this August in Cairo that granted women anonymity in sexual abuse cases, protecting more women to tackle subjects often considered taboos not to be discussed. This was also an important year for women’s rights in Sudan, where the transitional government has been moving towards tackling injustices women face. For example, on May 1, 2020, Khartoum criminalised female genital mutilation. While the practice continues in too many areas of Sudan, the state is now clear in outlawing it. These are among the steps that can help to build more rights and protections for girls and women in the region.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index Report for 2020, the Middle East and North Africa region ranks the lowest in the world, with 61.1 per cent on overall performance when it comes to closing the gap between men and women. However, interestingly, the region ranks among the highest on educational attainment at 95 per cent, and 97 per cent for health and survival. It is in economic participation, at 42 per cent, and political empowerment, 10 per cent, that the region fares badly. The World Economic Forum predicts it will take 150 years to close the gender gap in the Middle East and North Africa if the current rate of progress continues.

The discrepancy between educational gains and participation in the workforce is a salient point to note. According to this year’s Arab Youth Survey, 70 per cent of women believe that boys and girls have the same opportunity at getting a quality education, with only 19 per cent believing it is easier for boys to get a quality education, while 11 per cent believe it is easier for girls. However, when it comes to professional opportunities, only 52 per cent believe that men and women have the same professional opportunities, while 35 per cent say men have better opportunities. A small minority, 13 per cent, believe women have greater opportunities in the professional realm. While the Arab Youth Survey tackles perceptions, in reality women’s formal labour force participation rate is estimated to be at 20 per cent in the Arab world. This means the region has the lowest participation of women in the workforce in the world.

The pandemic and the ensuing measures that have been taken have largely impacted women, the primary care-givers for children and the elderly. With children studying at home and elderly people being warned to shelter at home, women have largely been required to provide for both groups. The full extent of that impact is yet to be accounted for. However, in June 2020, the OECD issued a report stating that COVID-19 will have major repercussions for women. “The MENA region has the second largest gender gap in unpaid care and domestic work worldwide. On average, women spend six times more on unpaid care and domestic work compared to men”. It adds that on average “MENA women allocate 89 per cent of their working day to unpaid care work, leaving them barely any time to work for pay, compared to 20 per cent for their male counterparts”. The correlation between these duties and female participation in the workforce is a strong one – and it does not appear to be moving in the right direction.

Women’s workforce participation is vital for Arab economies to grow – as is the case globally. Perceptions around women having full-time jobs impact that participation, especially in terms of women getting the right support network. In this year’s Arab Youth Survey, 76 per cent of the women interviewed believe that a woman “can benefit her family most if she works,” however the larger portion of those believed that this is true if she works part-time. Among women, 46 per cent believed part-time work benefited the family most, 30 per cent believed full-time work did so, while 24 per cent believed that staying at home full-time would be of the most benefit to the family. Among men, 43 per cent believed that a woman benefits her family most working part-time, but only 27 per cent believed that were the case if she worked full-time. The remaining 30 per cent of men believed that a woman benefited her family most if she remained at home full-time. The fact that both men and women see women working part-time as beneficial, coincides with global research that shows women benefit from flexible and part-time working conditions. However, these conditions often mean women can be underpaid and have less job security. COVID-19 and the ramifications it has had means that flexible working is on the rise.

The UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA) estimates that women in the Arab World will lose approximately 700,000 jobs as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. However, it could also be an opportunity for more reforms that include flexible working conditions and financial support for start-ups, opening up the private sector to women. The coming years will require public and private sector support for women to recover from the impact of COVID-19. Efforts will be needed to ensure that this does not lead to a loss of achievements attained but rather to build in practices borne out of the crisis that could help women secure greater rights and opportunities.

Mina Al-Oraibi is the Editor-in-Chief of The National, a regional news outlet based in Abu Dhabi. An Iraqi-British journalist, Al-Oraibi has more than 18 years of experience covering Middle Eastern, European and American current affairs. Prior to joining The National, she was a Senior Fellow at the Institute for State Effectiveness. At ISE, Al-Oraibi worked on developing policy recommendations for improved governance in the Arab world, with a focus on Iraq and Syria. She was previously the Assistant Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Alawsat. In 2015, Al-Oraibi was a Yale World Fellow and she is a trustee of the American University in Iraq - Sulaimani. She was named as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum and is a member of the International Media Council.