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Meeting the Middle East II: The Bad News

Uschi Schreiber, our panel moderator at the Ernst & Young Growing Beyond 2012 Summit, held in Doha last week, made an observation that resonates with my own:  every country in the world struggles with gender.  Today, I want to elaborate on this observation to show the ways in which the Middle East and North Africa are similar, even to the West, in their gender divide, but then to go forward and highlight some of the differences.

One phenomenon observable in the Middle East North Africa region is also confounding virtually every country in the world:  investments in the education of females are not translating into labor force participation.  Now, on the one hand, one should not assume that the only benefit to education is work.  It is important for women to be sophisticated enough to be good citizens and to be aware of their own rights.  It is also important for children that their mothers be educated.  Nevertheless, if the global goal is economic autonomy for women–and that is the global goal–then we have a problem.

There really can only be one answer:  use of abortion to terminate unwanted pregnancies.  And, indeed, a report from the Population Reference Bureau says that the incidence of abortion in the Middle East and North Africa is 25% higher than the global average.  This is true, even though restrictions against abortion are more stringent here than most places.

The situation is particularly troublesome because women in the region have very few protections against sexual violence.  Of all the countries in the list, only the UAE has a law against marital rape, according to the UN’s 2011 report.  Only Bahrain, Egypt, and the UAE have laws against domestic violence.  Overall, the WEF gives most countries a score of .75 on a scale where 1.0 is the worst, when it comes to having laws that protect women against violence.

So, essentially, the women of  the Middle East and North Africa still have very little control over their own reproduction.  And this, no doubt, affects their employment.  In this group of countries, most have laws against discrimination in pay (as do most countries in “the West,” where such laws are also not enforced) and most protect pregnant women from being arbitrarily fired.  However, according to the World Bank’s Women, Business, and the Law 2012 report, several (Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, OMan, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and UAE) do not have laws against discriminatory hiring practices.  Only Bahrain and Turkey have made it illegal to ask questions about family planning intentions in job interviews. Furthermore, again according to the World Bank report, very few on this list have made sexual harassment in the workplace illegal (there is some disagreement between the UN and the World Bank reports on this matter).

What we see here is an exaggerated example of the whole picture, worldwide:  the convergence of reproductive circumstances to keep women disadvantaged in the workplace.  The issue of maternity leave or childcare is only one manifestation of this phenomenon.  As long as women can’t go to work without being sexually bullied, can’t plan their own families along with their careers, can’t go to a job interview without detailing their pregnancy plans, and so on, then they are being disadvantaged economically via reproductive mechanisms.  The lack of control over childbirth also clearly affects the amount of gender segregation, because women go into jobs that can be managed along with the reproductive situation, including part-time work.  Lack of protection against sexual harassment keeps women in “pink” jobs, as well–it is too risky to go into male-dominated industries if you can’t even be physically safe.  In countries where women have little or no protection even against being impregnated against their will by their own husbands, this whole situation is that much worse.

The idea that reproduction and economic participation are separate issues is a neoclassical fantasy, an artificial compartmentalization that keeps us–that is, the women of the world and the men who would help them–from seeing what we need to do next.

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