Greater Economic Independence for Women
Could this level of empowerment have a positive impact upon society at large?
by Amal Daraghmeh Masri and Annemarie Robson
Women face many challenges, most urgent of which are independence and empowerment. This is particularly pertinent in our region, particularly in the spheres of the economy and politics, where participation remains the lowest on the globe. Some decades ago women were less educated and constituted only a fraction of the region’s human capital. This has undergone an enormous change.
Now, women account for nearly half of the regions human capital following years of investment in education, especially for the younger generation.
A cadre of extremely intelligent women entrepreneurs have made their mark in the region. Policymakers, governments and international donors have put much effort into promoting women entrepreneurs – but many have gone it alone and have worked tirelessly, often coping with a family whilst also trying to nurture their own business. Women entrepreneurship works well in our region, particularly given that women have strong economic rights in Islam and there is a long tradition of women in business. Islam has a powerful role model for women in the first wife of the Prophet Mohammed, Khadija – a wealthy trader and powerful businesswoman of her time – who was pivotal in the creation of Islam.
Promoting Women’s Empowerment
Many international and regional organisations claim to fly the flag of women empowerment, in particular at the economic level. I actually prefer the term ‘women economic independence’. But when observing the realties on the ground, one quickly notices that its just window dressing – in reality, slight change has happened.
Many of these organisations have policies to give “donations” to NGOs working with women, and in general, its either in the form of capacity building and in some cases in the form of a bank guarantee for loans taken by women – with high rates of interest and most cases requires collaterals that most women lack!
Generally, what matters most in any society – from the poorest to the richest – is the well being of society, usually composed of families and individuals in the Arab world and the Middle East region. If a woman is asked about what she holds most dear in life, most will answer that it is their family and children (especially so if they are a mother).
It is as crystal clear that an empowered, economically independent woman will surely have more say concerning her own life, both inside her family and in the community at large. She will also be more likely to hold her own political opinions.
From this particular point, economic independence of women becomes crucial. Entrepreneurial studies shows that women might quit their own business in the first three years, one of the reasons being the lack of available finance. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) recently announced US$4 million in microfunding would be made available for women entrepreneurs.
A recent estimate of the impact this might have on a society showed that if women participated more in economic life, GDP could be boosted by up to 1.9%.
Meeting women politicians from across the region
Middle East Business was lucky to meet with three women Arab Ministers: the Jordanian Minister of Social Development, Ms Reem Abu Hassan; Palestinian Minister of IT and Telecommunications, Dr Safa Nasser Edin; and Tunisian Minister of Women’s Affairs, Ms Nayla Shaban. The Magazine also met women from Morocco, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon to find out their views on the subject.
We begin with the views expressed by Jordanian Minister of Social Development, Ms Reem Abu Hassan:
The issue of the empowerment of women in the economic sphere is one shared by many countries. We realised in Jordan that, although we have the highest percentage of women in education, we also have one of the lowest percentages of women participating in the economy. This dilemma is an issue that the Jordanian Government, civil society and womens groups are working on collaboratively and at many levels. The first level of cooperation is that theres a need to change our laws to enable women to have a better balance between work and family, because in our culture, although women might work outside of the home, she is still responsible for childrearing, as well as all the social aspects of taking care of the family and sometimes also elderly relatives! We are working to change this.
The next point is equipping women with the required skills to enable them to participate in the economy, such as entrepreneurial and leadership skills. By having such training, a woman can learn to believe more in her own capabilities and develop her own style of leadership. One of the things we are doing right now is encouraging leadership training skills, whereby women in middle management can reach decision-making positions. We also are working to amend laws that will help women find a work-life balance by licensing more childcare centres. By improving our laws on social security, we are hoping to develop a fund through which all maternity leave is paid by the government, rather than the business owner having to fund this from his/her own business. This should make women more ’employable’. As for other laws, we believe that improvements to the Personal Status law will protect working women; previously, the fact that a woman was working outside of the home or had a profession could be cited as a reason for men to apply for a divorce or annulment of a marriage. We already managed to make amendments to this back in 2010 so now we want to go even further.
Middle East Business interviewed the Palestinian Minister of IT and Telecommunications, Dr Safa Nasser Edin:
Women can reap direct economic empowerment by using Information, and Communications Technology (ICT). ICT is critical in that it offers women knowledge, one of the most important tools a woman can have. I am convinced that with access to technology, many opportunities can be accessed – a woman can find out whats going on in the world and this can open up further opportunities at work. Women can work from home or acquire more skills to enhance her work by studying online. ICT can enhance a womans life; it can empower her to have an effect at the decision making level, it can help her to start her own business and have a direct impact upon both the economy in general, and more importantly, for her family.
Middle East Business also met with the Tunisian Minister of Women and Family Affairs, Ms Nayla Shaban:
The basis of true citizenship for any woman is her independence. If we want a future where all women citizens play an active role in society, they have to be fully aware of their rights. Each woman should be autonomous – and this only exists with economic independence. It can be difficult to take part in economic, social and political life all at once. Economic independence must be the foundation, thus supporting her journey towards playing a greater role in society.
We work with all levels of women – with rural women, women from cities, graduates and those who had little education. We must be ready to work with those who have an abundance of knowledge and with those with no expertise whatsoever. Economic independence is essential to enable all these differing types of women to develop, to play their roles as mother, sister, daughter and active citizen in our society.
Civil society and women entrepreneurs speak out
As part of this study on the economic independence of women in the region, Middle East Business took time to speak with a selection of women from across the region – from Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon.
Mrs Laila Miyara Berrada, businesswoman and President of Association of Businesswomen of Morocco, shared her enthusiasm and interesting ideas concerning womens economic issues:
“I think that as long as there is no economic independence, there is no social peace. There will be no social cohesion without the integration of women in our countries.
The integration of women today is indispensable because women are the main factors for change and a core indicator of a nations progress. When we educate a woman, this means educating the whole generation to come. Women showed this following the events of the Arab Spring. Women have played an extraordinary role in revolutions”.
Didem Altop, Managing Director of Endeavor Co. from Turkey spoke passionately about the importance of being able to control ones own income. According to Didem, women have a great amount of economic independence in Turkey … but she can still see room for improvement.
We also spoke in depth with Ms Hanan Saab, General Manager of Pharmamed, in Beirut:
“It is a proven fact that women spend more on their families than themselves. However, I feel that if they have one, they should use their education – something in which theyve invested a lot of time and effort – in order to take their rightful place in the workforce or as an entrepreneur. The contribution of women to the economy increases GDP considerably, not to mention helping with the well-publicised (and often discussed) need for millions of jobs across the Arab world.
“But how are we going to create these jobs, if women don’t create businesses and employ more people and contribute to the flourishing economies across the Arab world? Now that that we are experiencing tough economic times, women cannot afford to stay marginalised! They have to come out of their comfort zones and invest their energy in creating their own business: be creative, innovative, and most importantly, think out of the box!”
Ms Manar Agha Al-Nimer, Chief Administrative Officer and board member of MedLabs Consultancy Group, Jordan, was keen to express her views:
“Everything begins with the women herself – her confidence, her strong personality. In Jordan, incredibly in this day and age there have been debates on a radio show asking whether women have the right to their own salary! One man who called the radio show mentioned that his wife had worked for twenty years and had never had access to her salary – and he thought that this was normal!! A womans independence and destiny really is in her own hands and hers alone – she needs to take control of her income to achieve this”.
Women forging ahead with plans for their future
After speaking with and obtaining such a range of positive opinions from official level to civil society level to businesswomen, it is clear that the most important step for women is to play an active role in society – as it is no longer an option for half of the available workforce to stay at home/ remain under employed. It is clear that women can take their future into their own hands to improve their lives and that of their children. With this comes an overall benefit for the whole of their community. By being financially independent and playing an active role at the political level, women really can change society for the better.