Despite a few years of sweeping social changes and being the home of some of the world’s most resource-rich countries, the MENA region sits dead last among other parts of the world in closing the gap between women and men’s social and political status.
But a report released this month by the World Economic Forum and titled “Global Gender Gap Report 2013,” highlights gradual improvement in women’s educational attainment compared to men’s. The report’s basic premise is that no country can be truly competitive without taking advantage of the female half of its talent pool.
“Closing the gender gap in education is a positive indicator, however, these kinds of indicators should always be looked at in the context of legislation and practice in other indicators,” said the United Nation’s Development Programme’s Regional Team Leader for Gender Practice, Maya Morsy.
Out of the 136 countries assessed in the report, the 14 Arab countries occupy the same, bottom quadrant in the overall rankings, stretching between the highest ranking country, the United Arab Emirates (109) and the lowest ranked Arab country, Yemen (136).
By the time of the report, the Arab world closed 59 percent of its total gender gap this year, or achieved 59 percent parity between men and women. That was down slightly from last year, but an improvement from 2006, when the report began. North America is in first place having closed 74 percent of the gap.
While the Arab region cannot be analyzed monolithically, especially due to the large disparities in average income, the report makes its comparisons between men and women within countries, so that it is looking at gender gap, not the country’s development level. The annual report’s eight edition seeks “to measure how equitably the available income, resources and opportunities are distributed between men and women.” The report is assembled by leading academics from Harvard, Berkley and the World Economic Forum and looks at four categories: health/survival, political participation, economic participation, and educational attainment.
Richer countries in the Arab world fare better in closing the gender gap in educational attainment. Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Algeria, Oman, Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia enroll more women than men in universities. Many of these countries, along with the United Arab Emirates —which the report says has “fully closed” the educational attainment gap—have invested heavily in women’s education. Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain are not far behind in fully closing their own education gender gaps.
“It is something that I noticed teaching in places like Qatar and the UAE— female access and participation on university campuses is very high,” said Omaima M. Abou Bakr, a professor of English at Cairo University and a board member of the Women and Memory Forum, a nonprofit organization that seeks to improve cultural representations of Arab women and to give them power.
For Maya Morsy, this trend is cause for applause when it is accompanied by increasing the quality of education. “Qatar and the UAE, for example, have actively accompanied their spending on women’s education with enhancing the quality of higher education. Which makes decreasing the gender gap all the more relevant,” said Ms.Morsy.
While the MENA region has made some progress in closing the gender gap in educational attainment, it still has a ways to go. MENA ranked second to last in this category, above Sub-Saharan Africa. Morocco and Yemen, in particular, still seem to offer more opportunities to men than women in education. (Egypt and Saudi Arabia did not provide statistics on enrollment in secondary education.)
Many of the countries in the MENA region saw their overall rankings decrease over the past year. Some regimes in the region have stepped backwards in terms of supporting the political participation of women. In Egypt, alone the participation of women in Parliament decreased from around 13 percent in 2010 to fewer than 2 percent in subsequent years. Egypt’s overall gender gap index dropped 0.4 percent from last year.
Despite the advances made by women in some countries in getting an education, they are not always successful in joining the workforce, earning as much money as men, or participating in politics. Morocco, Mauritania, and Syria occupy low positions in the rankings primarily for very poor placements in the economic participation index. Arab countries occupy ten of the bottom fifteen slots in that category.
“Working on education especially in transition countries will be a root remedy,” said Morsy.
In order, the position of Arab countries on the index is: The United Arab Emirates (109), Bahrain (112), Qatar (115), Kuwait (116), Jordan (119), Oman (122), Lebanon (123), Algeria (124), Egypt (125), Saudi Arabia (127), Morocco (129), Mauritania (132), Syria (133), Yemen (136).
A full copy of the report can be downloaded here.