IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2006


Panorama : The Mediterranean Year


Female Employment in Mediterranean Arab Countries: Much More Than An Economic Issue

Iván Martín

Carlos III University of Madrid

In the Euro-Mediterranean Summit of November 2005, the Chairman’s Statement claimed that « only determined action will enable the region’s young people to fulfil their aspirations of a better future ». Half of those youngsters are women, and their aspirations for a better future presuppose their access to a job. Amongst the twelve objectives established in the Five-Year Work Programme approved jointly by the participants in the above-mentioned Euro-Mediterranean Conference regarding « Sustainable Socio-Economic Development and Reform », after proclaiming that « Euro-Mediterranean partners will take measures to achieve gender equality, preventing all forms of discrimination and ensuring the protection of the rights of women », they proposed (letter h) « a significant increase in the percentage of women in employment in all of Euro-Mediterranean partner countries ». However, as far as the specific actions provided for with a view to contributing to the above objectives are concerned, they reiterated the need to design and implement a road map to complete the Euro-Mediterranean Free Trade Area by 2010, to assess the possibility of the incorporation of a Euro-Mediterranean subsidiary of the EIB or develop a regional transport and energy infrastructure network and promote environment sustainability, amongst others, as well as strengthen impact analysis of economic reform and cooperation in the region, but it did not make any specific reference to female employment (in contrast, as far as education is concerned, they did mention specific actions to « expand and improve education opportunities for girls and women, as a basic right »).

In the Arab Mediterranean countries, there are 50 million women in working age (between 15 and 64 years old). They form half of the working age population, but less than a third of the labour force and less than a fourth of the employed population. Almost three quarters of working age women are excluded from the labour market, confined to under-valued domestic tasks, banned from the job market – and from any possibility of financial emancipation -, doomed to join the informal economy or unemployment or simply discouraged by the scarce job opportunities available to them in the market. It is common to address this question as a consequence of cultural, religious and even deeply-rooted legal discrimination against women, but in reality, it is the main cause of such discrimination.

Although more and more Arab women are accessing not only primary education but also higher education (with black spots like a rate of illiteracy of 62% among Moroccan women of more than 15 years of age and 56% in Egypt), their employment perspectives are not improving accordingly. Arab women barely participate in the job market (their rate of activity, that is to say, the percentage of working age women who belong to the labour force, is extremely low, barely above 30%, the lowest rate of all the regions in the world and more than ten points below the average of the less developed countries, 41%, as opposed to close to 80% of men; see Graph 1 and Chart 1).

GRAPH 1. Male and female rate of activity by regions of the world

Source: World Bank, 2004

CHART 1. Rate of activity by gender

 Rate of activity
Morocco41.8 %78.9 %
Algeria30.9 %73.4 %
Tunisia37.5 %78.1 %
Egypt35.7 %79.3 %
Jordan27.6 %76.7 %
Syria29.2 %76.8 %
Lebanon30.9 %77.7 %
Palestinian Authority9.5 %67.9 %
Turkey50.8 %81.9 %

Source: Human Development Report 2004, UNDP/ILO

But furthermore, those women that participate in the job market suffer from a 60% higher rate of unemployment than men (see Graph 2) and, unlike the men, growing rates of unemployment as their level of studies increases, although this largely reflects their increasing rate of participation in labour force as they become more educated (see Graph 3 for Morocco and Tunisia). Notwithstanding, young women in particular are not conforming to this state of affairs, and since the mid-1980s it is possible to observe a sustainable increase in the rates of participation in the labour force amongst young women between the ages of 15 and 29. The demographic projections anticipate that for 2020, the rate of activity amongst women will increase by more than ten points reaching up to 43%, which will make it necessary to create close to 8 million jobs in addition to the 34 which are necessary as a consequence of the general increase in the working age population at current activity rates (see Med.2003, Mediterranean Yearbook, p.151).

GRAPH 2. Unemployment Rates by Gender (most recent year available)

Source: World Bank 2004. Data for CCG countries referred only to nationals.

GRAPH 3. Rates of Female Unemployment by Level of Education

Source: World Bank

However, the current economic and political trends do not favour female integration into economic life. The two main sources of female employment in the majority of countries of the region, obviously apart from agriculture, are the State sector (where there is an almost equal participation of women, at least concerning the number of employees, although wage and promotion discrimination persists) and the manufacturing industry, especially in the textile and garment industry (for example, in Morocco, 68% of the workforce in the textile industry are women). Both of these sectors are suffering a decrease in jobs as a consequence of privatisation policies and the reduction of public expenditures in the former and a loss in competitiveness in European markets due to the expiring of the Multifibre Agreement as from the 1st January 2005 in the case of the textile industry, and the higher rate of temporary contract work prevailing amongst women as compared to men in the manufacturing industry makes women more vulnerable to this phenomenon.

On the other hand, as shown by various studies commissioned by the German GTZ (Agency for Technical Cooperation) on the gender impact of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership and on the economic and social situation of women in Magreb countries, the progressive implementation of Euro-Mediterranean Free Trade Areas, which in the following years will enter into the last phase of its transitional period in which customs duties will be dismantled on European products which compete directly with local industrial production (Tunisia in 2006, Morocco in 2008, Jordan 2010, Lebanon 2011…), runs the risk of having more than a proportionate effect on women, causing massive job losses in those sectors where there is a larger female workforce representation. These are precisely the sectors where progress of participation of women in the labour force has concentrated over the last decade. Interestingly, the question of female employment is notoriously missing within the framework of the mise-à-niveau or industrial modernization programmes financed throughout the region by the MEDA funds. All of this runs the risk of increasing the already more than proportional high vulnerability of active women to falling into the informal economy, agricultural underemployment or the precariousness of unpaid family support.

In view of this situation, in the year 2005 the initiatives, forums and studies on women’s employment in the Arab world have proliferated, from the fourth and last Arab Human Development Report 2005, especially dedicated to the question of female Arab participation in social and economic life (UNDP, 2005), up to the conference organized by the Arab Women’s Forum on « Women as Engines of Economic Growth in the Arab World. Ten Years After the Barcelona Process: Empowering Women as a Catalyst for Economic Development » (in July 2001 a regional forum of governmental experts had already been held on this question) and the EuroMed Women’s Conference held in Barcelona on 24th and 25th November 2005. Ten years after the Barcelona’s Declaration which recognized « the key role of women in development » and engaged the Partner countries to « promote their active participation in economic and social life and in the creation of employment », the first report by FEMISE, the Euro-Mediterranean Forum of Economic Institutes, on « Women and Economic Development in the Mediterranean » has been published. The report concludes that, without the women’s contribution, mainly through her work, there can be no development in the Arab Mediterranean countries (Radwan, S., and Reiffers, J.-Louis (cords.), 2006).

According to World Bank estimates published in the first big study on this question carried out in the region, the lower participation rate of women in the labour force recorded in Arab Mediterranean countries taking into consideration their age structure, level of education and fertility rates (the main factors determining the rate of female labour force participation throughout the world) results in a loss of 25% of the average family revenues and, on a macroeconomic level, results in a smaller rate of economic growth of 0.7 percentage points a year. Thus, we are facing one of the main explanatory factors for relative Arab economic backwardness (World Bank, 2004).

All of this will culminate in the organization of a Euro-Mediterranean Women Ministerial Conference to be held in Ankara, Turkey, on 13th and 14th November 2006, which has been preceded by a preparatory conference held in Rabat on 14th and 16th June 2006, and which should lead to a Euro-Mediterranean Plan of Action on Strengthening the Role of Women in Society. The big questions dealt with in these forums and conferences are logically girls’ and women’s access to education, women’s political participation or the elimination of persisting legal discriminations contained in the legislation of too many States in the region. But there is no other policy that could have a bigger impact on women’s life’s prospects, and on their contribution to economic development in their countries, than simply offering them decent job opportunities which are conpatible with their family life. And the MEDA Programmes, barely gendered so far, should be a spearhead in that direction.


UNDP, Empowerment of Arab Women. Arab Human Development Report 2005.

RADWAN, Samir, and REIFFERS, Jean-Louis (cords.), Women and Economic Development in the Mediterranean, April 2006

World Bank, Gender and Development in the Middle East and North Africa. Women in the Public Sphere, Washington, 2004. Summary in$File/GENDER-REPORToverview.pdf