Employment: Job market participation is lowest in the world By Abigail Fielding-Smith (Financial Times – May 15, 2012 3:50 pm)

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.
Now, after receiving training from Education for Employment (EFE), a network of non-profit organisations in the Middle East and north Africa (Mena), Riham is setting up her own company, but her success story is far from typical.

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.
And although the region has made significant strides in female literacy and education (school enrolment rates are now almost equal between the sexes), its women’s labour market participation rates are the lowest in the world.

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.
“When women are looking for a job, it takes them much longer than men,” she says.
“The most overwhelming reason is not that they choose not to work, but the constraints they face in the labour market limit their opportunities.”

The same patterns of economic exclusion apply as much in conservative, Saudi Arabia, as they do in supposedly cosmopolitan Lebanon and legally liberal Tunisia.
The reasons for the so-called “Mena paradox” are complex but are thought to boil down to the way the limitations of the labour market interact with social and cultural norms.
“You have states and communities that are incredibly patriarchal,” says Lina Abou Habib, the director of CRTD-A, a Lebanon-based NGO campaigning for social justice and gender equality.

“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.”
Partly because of the lack of opportunities in the private sector, and partly because its practices are seen as more family-friendly, the public sector has been a big employer of women in Arab countries. In Egypt, it provides 56 per cent of jobs for urban women.
However, with countries trying to rein in public sector spending, this is not a sustainable pathway for women’s economic integration in the long term.

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.
The private sector job growth rate in the region also struggles to match the flood of new labour market entrants, and women are hampered in competing for these jobs due to social and cultural factors.

“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.
“That is what vulnerable young people in general are missing, and women in particular, because they’re not congregating in the cafés.”

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.
Although the turmoil that has wracked the region for the past year has contracted economic opportunities, some hope that the political awakening experienced by women during the Arab spring will provide the impetus to drive change.

“We’re still seeing a lot of things forming,” says the World Bank’s Ms Vishwanath.
“There are tremendous opportunities, as well as risks.”

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