showCASE No. 115 I Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Middle East and North Africa Amid the Covid-19 Pandemic. Difficult Situation Made Worse
The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has profoundly affected societies and economies all over the world, and the Middle East and North Africa Region (MENA) has been no exception. Considering that even before the outbreak of the pandemic female economic participation rates in MENA were one of the lowest in the world, women are expected to be disproportionnally affected in both short and long terms.
Therefore, this edition of showCASE discusses dynamics and framework of women’s economic participation in the MENA countries and analyses potential effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on the existing gender gaps throughout the region.
Written by Katarzyna Sidło
The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has profoundly affected societies and economies all over the world, and the Middle East and North Africa Region (MENA) has been no exception. The International Monetary Fund predicts that the economies in the region will have contracted by -5.0% in 2020 and will only grow by 2.1% in 2021 (down from 3.5% forecasted back in July 2020), while the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) anticipates that the pandemic will cost 1.7 million jobs in the Arab countries. Women are expected to account for approximately 40% of this number, despite the fact that they make up only slightly above one fifth (21%) of the labour force in the region.
Pre-pandemic Women’s Labour Market Participation
Indeed, the region scores second-worst globally (behind South Asia) on the Economic Participation and Opportunity subindex of the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index. Even before the outbreak of the pandemic, female economic participation rates in MENA were one of the lowest in the world, ranging from (as of 2019) 12% in Iraq, 16% in Jordan and 19% in Algeria through 23% in Morocco, up to 52% in Kuwait and 58% in Qatar. In most countries in the region, the gender gap in labour force participation rates exceeds 50 percentage points. On average, just around one in five women aged 15-64 in the region participates in formal workforce. In comparison, the global average amounts to 52.6% (as of 2019). Even more worrying is the fact that these numbers have not gone up in 15 years and have only increased by a mere 2.8 percentage points since 1990.
Young women are at especially precarious situation – youth unemployment rates in the region are high in general, but for young women reach as high as 42.8%. Already, 72% of Arab youth think that it is more difficult to find a new job since the outbreak of the pandemic; in Jordan and Lebanon this number is as high as 90% and 91% respectively.
Women in MENA are also less likely to own their own businesses than men. According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor Women Entrepreneurship Report 2018/2019, at 40% the region has the largest gender gap when it comes to established business ownership. Just one in seven start-ups created in 2019 in the region had a female founder (admittedly, if sadly, the situation is not much better in the global scale). One of the reasons for this situation is the fact that it is more difficult for women than men to secure funding to start a business, not least because they lack networks and links to the “old boys clubs”. While low financial inclusion rates have long been a serious problem in the region in general, women are still less likely than men to own a bank account (38% compared to 58% of men). It is also more difficult for women to obtain a bank loan and fewer women than men have access to formal forms of savings. As such, preserving their businesses amid the pandemic may be more challenging for female than male entrepreneurs. This holds true outside of the region as well; the World Bank estimates that SMEs owned by women are 6 percentage points more likely to close down due to the pandemic than those owned by men.
 Countries analysed for the benefit of this text include: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and West Bank and Gaza.
The original version of this article appeared in an e-book “Gender Gap in the Mediterranean during the Covid-19 pandemic" published by the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats in the European Parliament.