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Women’s labor force participation in the Mashreq countries remains among the lowest in the world and is likely to be exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Addressing prevailing social norms,

legal constraints, and market failures can boost women’s share of the labor market participation in Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon and help their economies grow, according to a new World Bank report released today.

In fact, if the three countries’ targeted increases in participation of five percentage points over five years are not only met but also continued for a further decade, annual economic growth would be increased by 1.6 percentage points in Iraq, 2.5 points in Jordan, and 1.1 points in Lebanon by 2035.

The State of Mashreq Women report provides a comprehensive, data-driven picture of women’s access to economic opportunities in the region. It examines the reasons behind low women’s labor force participation and calls for action to provide the needed support systems, services, and legal framework to incite more women to access the labor market.

Less than 15 percent of women work in Iraq and Jordan, placing these countries among those with the lowest female participation rates in the world, only after war-torn Syria and Yemen.

In Lebanon, only 26 percent of women work. Participation is particularly low for the less educated. While two-thirds of women with tertiary education are either employed or seeking a job, this amounts to only a small proportion of the total female population in these countries (around 12 percent in Iraq, 27 percent in Jordan, and 31 percent in Lebanon). Labor force participation is generally higher among younger women.

In Lebanon, women aged 15 to 44 are twice as likely to participate than those aged 45 to 64, suggesting a generational shift that is not seen in Iraq and only partly in Jordan. Younger women are also more likely to work in Jordan, but for those aged 25-34 participation rates reach only around 35 percent.  In contrast, for those older than 35 it is 20 percent or lower.

In all three countries, getting married and having children is associated with lower probability of participating in the labor market, albeit with some noticeable differences. It is worth noting that in all three countries men experience the opposite profile, with higher participation rates for married men and those with younger children than their unmarried counterparts. 

“Securing and expanding economic opportunities for women is at the heart of the World Bank’s agenda,” said Saroj Kumar Jha, World Bank Regional Director for the Mashreq. “Women should have equal chances to engage in economic life, make their voices heard and fulfill their aspirations. This can promote growth, prosperity, peace and stability in the Mashreq countries.”

While low female labor force participation rates are partly due to low job creation in Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon due to structural economic problems and challenges, additional barriers related to the role of women in society and within their families specifically affect the access of women to the labor market.

The report summarizes the barriers to women’s economic participation—combining a life-cycle approach to analyze each constraint as it occurs at a particular critical point in a woman’s life, while recognizing that this experience will be different for women of different socioeconomic backgrounds. It argues that women encounter barriers at four critical turning-points of their lives: getting ready, entering and remaining, getting married and having a child. At each of these turning points, societal views and expectations of the role of women can influence how they see themselves and what they aspire to and significantly affect their decision to withdraw from the labor market or never enter it. Additional barriers that restrict women from taking on paid work include employer discrimination, legal restrictions, violence against women in the workplace, access to assets, and mobility constraints. The report also quantifies how relevant each of these barriers are. 

Going forward, the report offers policy recommendations to enhance female labor force participation in Mashreq countries. Beyond the creation of additional jobs, governments can boost women’s access to the labor market by making public transportation safer; reviewing certain laws and regulations and closing certain gaps between the law on paper and the law in practice; increasing the supply of childcare services of good quality; and addressing social norms that prevent women from earning their own income. 

“The digital economy can also contribute to promoting women’s labor force participation by allowing women to work from home with flexible hours," saidMatthew Wai-Poi, one of the lead authors of the report. “However, the prevailing digital gender divide means women have less access to the internet and mobile connectivity and fewer digital skills than men.  This issue is exacerbated for less educated women. Without action to close the digital gender gap, those opportunities could become another barrier.”

This first State of the Mashreq Women report was produced as part of theMashreq Gender Facility, which provides technical assistance to Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon to enhance women’s economic empowerment and opportunities as a catalyst towards more inclusive, sustainable, and peaceful societies, where economic growth benefits all.