Increasing opportunities for women could boost regional economies

December 8, 2013 8:27 am

FIKR 12 annual conference addresses unemployment issues in the Arab world

Increasing the economic opportunities for women is critical to creating more productive economies in the region this was with the theme of a recent workshop in Dubai.

Rethinking Economic Growth towards Productive and Inclusive Arab Societies was held as part of the FIKR 12 annual conference last week, which was based on the theme ‘Job Creation: 80 Million Jobs by 2020 in the Arab World’.

“More economic opportunities for women mean a more productive economy. However, in the Mena region, women are less likely to have a job, work in fewer sectors than men and work for poorer salaries than men in the same sector,” says Emanuela Pozzan, senior gender specialist at the International Labour Organisation, Italy.

According to Pozzan, a lot of work done by women remains unpaid and there is a significant loss of productivity talents. It is estimated that up to 19 per cent of women in Arab countries are in the workforce, while in the North African region, they make up 27 per cent of the working population. At the same time, a considerable amount of work done by women is unaccounted for in the informal economy.

“The general perception in the region is that women are doing complementary work. Besides, women are less likely to negotiate for their salaries than men. It is estimated that nine per cent more men than women negotiate for better salaries and job prospects,” says Pozzan.

Calling for increased governmental intervention to remove gender-based discrimination and create a secure workplace environment for women, the workshop stressed that increasing opportunities for women in the labour force through an adequate legal frameworks will lead to productive returns and a more competitive economy.

Identifying youth unemployment as another critical area that needs to be addressed, the workshop stressed the need for more socio-economic framework and proactive policies.

“Unemployment in the region is not a new phenomenon. In fact, the region has been experiencing one of the highest unemployment rates for the past two decades. The real issue is why this has not been attended to for such a long period of time,” says Mary Kawar, executive director and senior regional employment policy specialist at the International Labour Organisation, Jordan.

The workshop stated that the government’s role needs to become more conducive to solving the unemployment problem. Currently, for the youth of the region the government is the first employer of choice due to lucrative salaries and benefits when compared with the private sector.

“Economic security is deteriorating as salaries are not increasing in the private sector, which is leading to increasing inequality in the society. A large segment of people in the region survive on $3 per day and it is unlikely that their salaries will increase. In the possibility of economic slowdown, chances are high that many will fall below poverty line in such circumstances,” says Kawar.

Calling for increased social dialogue to make Arab countries more productive, the workshop pointed out that any effort towards transition faces potential difficulties, as those benefiting from such situations are unlikely to accept changes. However, measures to build transparency and create a social dialogue could help solve the issue, it was stated.

Speaking on the main issues behind the unemployment problem in the region, Rania Bikhazi, senior enterprises specialist at the International Labour Organisation, Lebanon, stressed the need to develop a culture of entrepreneurship in the region and increase access to funding for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SME).

“The region suffers from limited non-financial business development, limited services and expensive access to finance. According to the World Bank, the average share of SMEs lending in the Mena region form less than eight per cent of the total lending, while SMEs lending in the GCC region is even lower, at only two per cent. There is also absence of entrepreneurial education programmes to foster an entrepreneurial culture,” says Rania.

The workshop highlighted that while numerous initiatives are being implemented at all levels to improve participation in the SME sector, there is a clear need for integration and co-ordination of such initiatives. It called for policy level intervention and measures to help change the mentality by inculcating entrepreneurship skills and attitudes early among the youth.