Riham, a young Palestinian entrepreneur, discovered after graduating that, in common with many other Arab women, her education did not match the needs of the labour market.
Only 25 per cent of working-age women in Mena are estimated to be participants in the labour market – either employed or looking for work.
According to Tara Vishwanath, lead economist in the World Bank’s Mena poverty reduction group and lead author of a forthcoming report on women’s economic opportunities, this cannot be explained away as a lifestyle choice.
The same patterns of economic exclusion apply as much in conservative, Saudi Arabia, as they do in supposedly cosmopolitan Lebanon and legally liberal Tunisia.
“You merge this with economic policies that do not produce jobs, where women’s unpaid work is not recognised as work, then, as a result, you automatically get the lowest participation of women in the formal economy and in the job market.”
Moreover, say analysts, over-reliance on the public sector has encouraged a mismatch to develop between skills and the labour market, with many women graduating from humanities programmes that are of limited use outside the public sector.
“It’s about more than training and skills – it’s also about access to social capital and networks,” says Jasmine Nahhas di Florio, vice-president for strategy and partnerships at EFE, which works with employers to provide training to get young people into work.
As well as difficulty gaining access to private sector jobs, women can view them as “unsafe”, says Ms Vishwanath.
Some businesses require women to work later at night than it is socially acceptable for them to be travelling, or, in the case of small companies where the other employees are male, are seen as exposing themselves to sexual harassment.
Women’s participation in the formal labour markets of the Arab world is a misleading indicator of their economic activity, however.
“Women do work, but they work in sectors that are not regulated,” says Ms Abou Habib. “They work in sectors where they are invisible.”
The exact size of the Arab world’s informal economy is hard to gauge, but it is thought to account for a large slice of overall employment, particularly among women.
In Yemen for example, the UN Development Programme’s Abdo Seif estimates that 80 per cent of the agricultural labour on smallholdings is conducted by unsalaried women working on behalf of their families.
Strengthening the rights of women in the informal economy would be one way to improve their economic empowerment, analysts say. There is also a need to give women better access to credit to try to boost entrepreneurialism.
But improving structural conditions to make existing employment opportunities more attractive to women is also seen as vital, whether it is creating safe, affordable public transport or reforming workplace regulations.
Ms Di Florio of EFE says: “We have started a labour rights programme specifically for the needs of women, because employers were making them work overtime, and that particularly affects women,” says , which aims to place as many women as men on its training schemes. “Being out for too long and coming back late is not socially acceptable.”
In spite of the obstacles, there are grounds for optimism, experts say.
“We’re still seeing a lot of things forming,” says the World Bank’s Ms Vishwanath.