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Tunisian and Jordanian Women: Common on Campus, Rare in the Workplace

Women have made big leaps in educational progress in Tunisia and Jordan compared to other countries in the Levant and North Africa. But after graduation from university they slam into a barrier: employment.

In both countries, the ratio of female to male tertiary enrollment is even more favorable to women as it reaches 159 percent in Tunisia and 115 percent in Jordan according to the World Bank statistics. Still, they made less than up 35 percent of the local labor force in 2014.

“Unemployment rises with the level of education for women, while men with higher education are less likely to be unemployed,” the World Bank said in a report published last year. (See a related Al-Fanar Media article: Women in the Gulf: Better Educated But Less Employed.)

In Tunisia, where the 2011 revolution was partly fueled by the massive levels of youth unemployment, the situation has not improved—especially for women. The unemployment rate for Tunisian women reached 22 percent versus 11 percent for men last year. Higher education decreases the chance women will get jobs: 40 percent of women with bachelor’s degrees are unemployed versus 21 percent for men in the same year according to a survey by the National Institute of Statistics.

Last month, two women began an open-ended hunger strike to protest unemployment in Gabès, south east of Tunis. Marwa Hamed got a bachelor’s degree in accounting in 2007, while Shaheria Abdullah got her Ph.D. in biology in 2003. Both are still unemployed. “We called for job opportunities years ago,” said the two women in a statement. “We decided to go out for our silence and claim our rights and raising the slogan of our revolution: Work, freedom, and dignity.” After 30 days of the hunger strike, both women were taken to the hospital and promised jobs.

The fear of unemployment worries university students. “Getting a job in Tunis depends on luck and nepotism. A university degree is not enough,” said Rim Goli said who studies literature. “My fate is unknown.”

In contrast, Hazami Sassi is more confident about her future. “I’m not pessimistic, I will certainly find a job,” said Sassi, who is a fifth-year student at the faculty of medicine in Tunis. “Medical students do not usually face difficulties in finding jobs,” she said.

As with all students, academic disciplines play a role in women’s employment. “One problem is that women tend to concentrate on studies in the humanities, which are not necessarily what employers are looking for,” said Fethiye Saidi, a Tunisian sociologist who studies gender roles.

Women also need to work more on their character in a male-dominated society, some observers say. “They need more self-confidence and also possess the spirit of challenge to prove themselves,” said Sakina Bouraoui, the executive director of the Center of Arab Woman for Training and Research (CAWTAR).

In a report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released last month, unemployment in Tunisia was described as “a true social tragedy that urgently needs to be addressed.”

In Jordan, 50 percent of young women with university education are unemployed compared to 25 percent of their male counterparts according to the World Bank.

Many educated women in the Kingdom have been classified as inactive due to an unfriendly labor market, analysts say. “In Jordan, 37 percent of university-educated females are classified as inactive, compared with 10 percent of males,” says the UNESCO-backed International Institute for Educational Planning in a “briefing paper” on the status of education in Jordan.

“I’m studying to be a housewife in the future,” said Sana Moussa, a third- year student at the sociology faculty at the University of Jordan. “My father is against the idea of women working unless it’s in the public sector, which is difficult to achieve today,” she said.

In turn, Rouaa Qawasmi, a fourth-year law student, doesn’t have family restrictions. But her road to the labor market looks rough. “My older sister graduated from university four years ago with excellent degrees. She is without a job for today,” Qawasmi said. “Men and experienced people have always the priority.”

Gender barriers are forcing women to look for employment in the two sectors of the labor market where they seem welcome—education and health. Those two areas are responsible for 38 percent and 12 percent respectively of all female employment in Jordan, according to the World Bank study.  Unfortunately, the job growth in those areas has been stagnant.

The Jordanian women who are lucky enough to get jobs often suffer from poor working conditions, and the absence of the institutional, societal support. “My suffering has no end,” said Samira Saleh, an Arabic language school teacher, who waited for 11 years to get a job. “I face a big challenge every day I go to work as I do not know what to do with my 5-months-old baby. There is no nursery at my work and I have to leave her with some of my relatives.”

Women in Jordan also face pay inequality. They are paid on average 41 percent less than men in the private sector and about 28 percent less in the public sector, according to the International Labor Organization, an agency of the United Nations.

“”There is a clear responsibility of institutions and companies to set [fair] wages and incentives,” said Tayseer Abu Arja, head of the journalism department at Petra University.

Women’s unemployment is a drag on Jordan’s economy, as the country will miss out on the “growth premium” that female employment can yield to per capita income. The country’s GDP is only expected to grow 0.5 to 0.9 percent per year. “Government policies support women’s education, but not women the labor market,” said Saidi, the Tunisian sociologist. “Entering the workforce is women’s biggest challenge today,” she added.

*Aya Alayan reported in Jordan, Ibtissem Jamel in Tunisia.
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