SOURCE: General Electric (GE)
The Middle East and North Africa is home to a growing number of women who are, uncharacteristically, demanding equal citizenship and a greater role in society. The impetus? Women are getting educated—and getting online.
It might surprise most Westerners to know that women in MENA are, in fact, more educated than women in most other regions. Between 1980 and 2010, the average years of schooling for girls between the ages of 15 and 19 in the MENA region more than doubled from 3.5 years to 8.1 years—among the fastest increases in the world—according to a recent World Bank report on gender equality and development. And since 1975, the ratio of females to males enrolled in post-secondary education in the region tripled to 112 percent—eight countries even have a “reverse gender gap.”
Staying in school, delaying marriage, and having fewer children typically opens doors, but women in MENA have not yet had the opportunity to walk through them. Half of women worldwide participate in the labor force, on average, but in MENA female participation is just 25 percent. Young women in particular find their professional development stunted—nearly 40 percent are unemployed, which is approximately twice the rate of young MENA males and almost three times the global average (15 percent).
“Today we see that some men would find it insulting for women to work and provide for themselves while men can provide for them,” said Shareefa Fadhel. “The other is the conservative environment that surrounds us, making women working alongside men unwelcome to some families, but all this is changing.”
Fadhel is the founder of the non-profit Roudha Center, a hub of change in Fadhel’s home country, Qatar. She is also an early-entry prize winner in the “Women Powering Work: Innovations for Economic Equalty in the MENA Region” competition, co-hosted by Ashoka Changemakers and General Electric.
Opening the center was “an uphill battle” for Fadhel, who worked with the Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar to develop the right sort of programming to “emphasize a culture of entrepreneurship and increase the number of women in business.” Qatar is a progressive country in the region—women have the right to vote. And under the leadership of the previous emir, Sheika al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the country even began efforts to support entrepreneurial activity from women, something that isn’t expected to change under the current rule of his son, Sheik Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. Even so, when pitching her venture to private and public organizations for funding, she was often asked “the dreaded question”: Why women?
Another part of the struggle for Fadhel is that young Qataris—like their neighbors in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—have shown little interest in becoming entrepreneurs. According to a Booz & Company survey, just three percent of high school and university students expressed interest in entrepreneurship, compared to 11 percent in the region—and 62 percent of that interest came from males.
“It’s really a sad story when you think of all the attention being put on women today around the world—and the country’s own national vision explicitly emphasizes women’s economic development and empowerment—but you see the general public unsupportive,” Fadhel said.
“Yet women are in need of our services more than ever, and that is evident from the number of women that attend our workshops and events. And their push for us to do more for them, by stating their exact needs.”
The Roudha Center has worked with more than 6,000 women since it launched in 2011, delivering business, financial, legal, and related services, along with “incubational assistance to drive women towards entrepreneurship and economic self-sufficiency.” Fadhel says that the majority of women she has worked with hold jobs to this day.
“Change takes time, it happens in small steps, but we have been very aggressive on putting our voice out. Today more women are considering opening businesses—if not officially, they are doing business through their homes.”
In Pakistan, where women are often educated but discouraged from working or too busy with family lives to have full-time careers, the chance to run a business from home is becoming an increasingly attractive option for ambitious women. That’s according to Maria Umar, the social entrepreneur behind the women-owned Women’s Digital League (WDL), a virtual firm and pilot project that has trained hundreds of women with the tech skills they need to gain economic empowerment, even if they live in the most remote areas of the country.
Women in places like Karimabad in the mountains of north Pakistan are trained in data entry, data conversion and accounting by partnering nonprofits like KADO (Karakoram Area Development Organization). They then work for U.S.-based firms at local IT centers, which have UPS devices and generators in case of power outages. Women in cities with better Internet connections and “home offices” are able to work full-time on more advanced tasks, including updating content management systems like WordPress, graphic design, social media management, and SEO. Courses in e-marketing and Web design, for example, are available, and by 2015 Umar expects to reach around 2,500 young women and men (because “men have been demanding to join the program since the Digital League started three years ago”).
In rural Pakistan, even simple work at a rate of $3 per hour is a welcome, and more rewarding, alternative to tilling the land. Opportunities in the digital marketplace can make a world of difference not only for women in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, but also for women across MENA. Umar herself can attest to that. She was forced to leave a teaching position after the birth of her second child, but found a way to get back in action on the Web as a content and service provider.
“That was the beginning of a new life for me,” Umar said. “There has been no looking back.”
The Women’s Digital League was also named a second early-entry prize winner last week in the “Women Powering Work” competition by Ashoka Changemakers.
Ashoka Changemakers and General Electric are searching for social innovators who are unleashing economic opportunities for women across the MENA region. Follow #womenWork on Twitter to receive the latest on trends and competition news.
Photo credit: Maria Umar and the Women’s Digital League
Editor’s Note: A version of this blog post was originally published on Forbes.com and is cross-posted here with permission.
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