Throughout the Mediterranean, women have often suffered the effects of the recent regional crisis disproportionately. From addressing the gender pay gap to ending the gender based-violence, there is much that can be done to not only protect women and girls, but empower them to lead and shape their communities for a more inclusive and sustainable future.
In 2020, the 42 members of the Union for the Mediterranean established a first-ever regional monitoring mechanism on gender equality to assess the progress made on women’s rights and provide policy recommendations to close the gender gap in the region. According to the latest report, from March 2022, women’s economic participation remains a stumbling block on the road to gender equality.
Even before the onset of COVID-19, women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region spent six times more on domestic work and unpaid care. The data confirms that the female unemployment rate remains well below the global average and that more than half of working women are employed informally, with low-wage jobs and fewer rights than men. According to estimates by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and the World Bank, increasing female employment could increase the GDP in this region by an impressive 57%.
Digitization can help create more jobs in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), which would boost the employment of the many young women currently studying at university. Indeed, between 34% and 57% of STEM graduates are women in the MENA region, compared to only 20% in the United States or 30% in Europe.
The pandemic didn’t help with the rise in remote working and education resulting in women spending more time than ever doing unpaid work. Prior to the pandemic, women employed within the EU spent about 3.9 hours per day on unpaid care, compared to 2.6 hours for men. By July 2020, these numbers had risen sharply for employed women with children under 12 to 54 hours per week (7.7 hours per day).
According to the report, both Europe and the MENA region are well below the global percentage of 6.2% of women entrepreneurs who own established businesses (5.3% and 4.5%, respectively). Even in countries at the higher end of the spectrum, like Croatia and Portugal, women still account for less than 40% of entrepreneurs. A 2019 OECD report also states that women in the MENA region face some of the highest levels of discrimination in accessing productive and financial resources at 45%, compared to the global average of 27%.
Naturally, we’ve already seen the pioneers, from the founding members of the MENA Women’s Business Club to Tunisia becoming the first Arab state with a female head of government in 2021 but there is still so much more to be done.
Ministers from the Union for the Mediterranean signed a declaration in Madrid, committing to taking the necessary steps to promote gender equality both in and beyond economic terms. Governments must acknowledge that in a context affected by several crises (health, energy, environment), more efforts must be made to support the active role of women in sustainable and inclusive development.
In addition to financial incentives that will help families facilitate a fairer care structure, the declaration will require the members to review and potentially reform laws on violence against women and girls. Before you can fully participate in society, you must fundamentally feel safe, which is sadly not the case for women and girls around the world.
This ties in with the additional commitment to promoting inclusivity in all fields – women of all ages need to feel that they can belong in any space, especially those that are historically male-dominated, like STEM. It’s not just about meeting set targets like sustainable development goals. It’s about making sure that the Mediterranean reaches its full potential. Given the opportunity, women can lead the way to a brighter, more inclusive and sustainable future.