Friday, 30 September 2011

Women need a voice to progress in the Middle East and North Africa region

Last Tuesday morning I attended the first session of the OECD-MENA Women’s Business Forum conference on “Policies and Services to Support Women’s Entrepreneurship Development in the MENA Region – Government and Private Sector Responses in Times of Change”. In a nutshell, the event was organised to discuss how to best promote women’s entrepreneurship in the region.

The Middle East and North Africa region is currently seeing an unprecedented period of change both at the political and social levels, and in particular women’s involvement in the Arab Spring was noticeable at all levels. Such a context clearly represents an opportunity to strengthen both existing private sector development efforts and to allow young women to shape public policies and actively contribute to the economy in the region.

This first session on “adapting policy advocacy tools to respond to a changing political and economic context” gathered a very rich panel of speakers representing a variety of countries, such as Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. What I heard reinforced what we have been reading a lot lately in the press: US Ambassador Kornbluh highlighted that there are “two dusts of wind” – first with the Arab Spring, which is giving hope to other neighbouring regions and second with the growing recognition that women’s prosperity is key to economic growth. And while the OECD focuses on access to finance, markets and business services in the region, legal obstacles to women’s access to those areas must also be tackled, as in the case of discriminatory inheritance rights. How can we adapt policy advocacy tools to each country’s political environment?

Yes, the panelists agreed that there are still big hurdles to women’s active involvement in entrepreneurial activities. In Iraq, the results of a survey pointed out that 54 % of women would like to work but are unable to find a job. Sometimes the negative interpretation of Islam constrains women to stay at home and excludes them from participation in the economy. In other cases, women themselves refuse to take a job if they are not segregated from men in the working environment…

However, throughout this morning session, many positive examples were also given, reflecting that there is a process of change happening in many countries: for example, someone mentioned the recent announcement by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah that women will have the right to vote in the 2015 elections for the first time; it was highlighted that in Iraq, women today represent 25% of the Parliament, and they are also involved in decision-making at city council level; The extremely positive advances in Tunisia with regards to the status of women were also brought to the fore. Maybe the key, then, is simply to give women a voice and let them participate at all levels of governance?

The session ended by broadening the discussion on the links between institutional changes and development outcomes: it was stressed that we need to learn from past achievements in this regard, especially where women played an active role. Success stories in Liberia – with a woman president elected following the war, Rwanda – with its high number of female parliamentarians, or Chile – with the election of President Bachelet were mentioned. Those examples show that sometimes regime changes can bring about positive outcomes for women. But this is not always the case, and gender equality should be looked at as a policy advocacy tool that encapsulates broader notions such as creating an inclusive growth and fostering social cohesion, especially with the younger populations that are the most affected by unemployment.

This brings me back to the current context in the region and the Arab Spring movement: nothing should be done without ensuring that civil society plays an active role in the process of change – and this cannot be realised without the participation of women. The importance of using social media to participate, make voices heard and create networks is also crucial for women as well as to help them start businesses and work together, as was mentioned throughout the session. We need to exchange experiences, discuss policy lessons and focus on issues that are relevant to MENA economies in the current context. To promote women’s entrepreneurship in the region, women need to first have equality of voice and participation. I would go further by saying that if women are more involved in this process of change we will get a more representative view of how well a society is doing as a whole and achieve greater gains.

Wikiprogress has included a section on “Progress and the Arab Spring” in the following countries: Tunisia, Yemen, Libya and Syria. I invite you to edit the section in these countries to include a gender perspective, or to create your own article in Wikigender, and continue the discussion.

Estelle Loiseau

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