Key findings and recommendations

Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia have demonstrated their commitment to accelerating women's economic empowerment through a number of deep reforms. The four countries are aware that creating societies that are more inclusive will lead to more competitive economies. Indeed, unleashing women’s potential can have significant economic benefits; if women were to play an identical role in labour markets as men, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) regions could see its gross domestic product (GDP) boosted by as much as 47%. Hence, empowering women economically is not only the right thing to do – it is also the smart thing to do.

In 2017, the OECD released Women's Economic Empowerment in Selected MENA Countries: The Impact of Legal Frameworks in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. The publication gave an overview of the various types of laws in place in the six countries covering different aspects of women’s lives. It concluded that since the 2011 uprisings, countries had included provisions on non-discrimination and/or gender equality in their constitutions. While this is a significant step forward, discriminatory legal frameworks remain that are not in line with the constitution and that are holding back women’s economic empowerment. The challenges in moving towards greater gender equality are not unique to MENA, since no country worldwide has achieved full gender equality. Reports show that Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 on gender equality and women’s empowerment is the SDG where the world is making the least progress.

To follow up on the 2017 report, from 2017 to 2019 the OECD undertook in-depth national consultations with a variety of stakeholders in MENA countries to discuss recent reforms in further detail, including their implementation, and to identify go-forward reform priorities in support of women’s economic empowerment, with a particular focus on legal equality. During the national consultations, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia requested the OECD to conduct action-oriented research that would provide tools to policy makers and lead to concrete impact on the ground. This report is one of the responses to their request.

The report includes 24 case studies that analyse specific recent legislative, institutional and policy reforms for women’s economic empowerment in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia. The case studies examine how and why the reforms came about, the actors involved, their implementation and impact, as well as key success factors. They are based on discussions with stakeholders in the countries concerned. The report also includes in-depth boxes based on desk review that analyse initiatives on women’s economic empowerment, as well as boxes highlighting reform tools for legislators and policy makers.

The report draws out ten factors for success in reform, as well as a wealth of detailed and concrete policy recommendations.

The way in which MENA countries have reacted to the COVID-19 crisis illustrates the progress that has been identified throughout this report in achieving gender equality. The COVID-19 pandemic represents an opportunity for governments in the region to go even further in their efforts to address the structural issues faced by MENA women, and which have been exacerbated in light of the crisis.

In the past decade, educational attainment of women and girls has advanced a great deal in the MENA region – girls are catching up with boys at all levels of education in terms of participation and performance. Some countries have witnessed significant improvement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.

Such progress, however, will need more time to be translated into better market outcomes. Women in MENA have much fewer opportunities than men to contribute to and benefit from economic activities. They trail behind men in the labour market in every industry, sector and occupation. The region’s female labour force participation rates remain among the world’s lowest. Female unemployment rates, especially ratios of young women who are not in education, employment or training, exceed global averages. Women in MENA devote disproportionately more time to unpaid care and domestic work than men, leaving them little time for paid work.

When women do work, they are paid less than their male counterparts in the private sector. They are generally more likely than men to work as contributing family workers, and their social protection coverage is inadequate. Prominent gender segregation continues to undermine their career choices and professional progression. Women in MENA are less active in entrepreneurship than men due to limited access to assets and finance, among other factors.

Persistent restrictive social norms are at the root of women’s weak economic activity. Most men in the region still uphold traditional attitudes towards women’s economic empowerment, though some positive changes are taking place among more educated groups. Gender-based violence persists and undermines women’s agency and freedom of choice and has high social and economic costs.

Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia are well aware that enhancing women’s economic empowerment is a pathway towards building economies that are more competitive.

All four countries have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) – the main international standard devoted exclusively to women’s rights (although Egypt, Jordan and Morocco still have reservations to some CEDAW articles). The four countries have also ratified relevant international standards on women’s labour rights, such as the ILO Equal Remuneration Convention (C100) and the ILO Discrimination Convention (C111). In addition, the constitutions of the four countries and the labour codes of Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia guarantee the principle of non-discrimination. The case studies analyse additional reforms and initiatives that the four countries have undertaken to translate these principles into practice. All four countries have amended their labour legislation, economic legislation, and/or social protection frameworks to encourage women’s labour force participation and promote greater gender equality at work. Additional policy improvements and initiatives have facilitated the implementation of these reforms. In practical terms this has meant:

  • Equality for women at work is improving. Countries have taken initiatives to encourage decent work for women. While the labour codes of Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia include generic non-discrimination provisions, those of Egypt and Morocco explicitly prohibit wage discrimination based on gender. Yet only Morocco and Jordan give full legislative expression to the principle of “equal remuneration for work of equal value” in line with the ILO Equal Remuneration Convention. The MENA region overall has stepped up its efforts to close the gender pay gap through the recent launch of the Equal Pay International Coalition, led by Jordan. Most countries have introduced flexible work options. A number of countries have taken initiatives to promote gender balance in corporate leadership, with the corporate governance codes of Jordan and Morocco mentioning the importance of gender diversity on boards. Most countries covered by the publication have taken measures to address sexual harassment in the workplace.

  • Women’s work-life balance is being eased. The four countries are working towards addressing women’s unpaid care burden and restoring women’s work-life balance. Some countries are working to reform their overall social protection systems. Jordan has developed coherent national social protection policies and Morocco is in the middle of a social protection reform. Egypt and Tunisia are focusing on enhancing selected social protection benefits such as maternity and/or paternity leave. In addition, countries are making registration for these systems easier. Countries also aim at providing better options for childcare, and maternity and paternity leave, while Tunisia and Morocco are promoting the “social and solidarity economy”.

  • Women are increasingly involved in social dialogue and tripartite processes. This allows MENA’s women workers and employers to have a say in the laws and policies that address their needs. The case studies show that the four countries are making efforts to increase women’s participation and leadership in workers’ and employers’ organisations. In this way, collective bargaining can have more positive outcomes for women. Ministries of Labour from Egypt and Jordan have established specific units that focus on including a gender equality perspective in labour matters.

  • The private sector is pushing for decent work for women. An important challenge in the region is to strengthen the private sector and make it more attractive for women. While women in MENA prefer to work in the public sector, the case studies show that the private sector – from banks to agribusiness – is increasingly taking gender equality initiatives to encourage women’s participation in the labour force. This approach offers much potential for creating broader economic benefits.

  • Female entrepreneurship is being boosted. Women face many barriers to setting up their own businesses. Countries have adopted specific measures to facilitate women entrepreneurs’ access to information, markets, investment opportunities, financial services, land and other assets. In addition, countries are encouraging women entrepreneurs to formalise their businesses.

  • Conditions for vulnerable women are being improved. In line with the provisions of Agenda 2030 on leaving no one behind, MENA countries are taking initiatives to improve the protection and economic empowerment of women who are particularly vulnerable in the labour market. Specific measures have been put into place to improve the situation of domestic workers, rural women and women refugees. These efforts have been reinforced in the context of the COVID-19 crisis, which prompted governments to take exceptional measures to reach vulnerable groups of women who generally fall outside social assistance schemes, including women in the informal sector, rural women and domestic migrant workers.

  • The key actors in reform are being strengthened. Legislative reform for women’s economic empowerment is often a complex undertaking, involving parliaments and governments, but also civil society organisations, the media and national human rights institutions. Parliaments have developed initiatives to facilitate the drafting, introducing and passing of gender-sensitive legislation as well as overseeing its implementation. These reform efforts have often taken place in a complex political climate that is sometimes in opposition to a reform agenda to support women’s economic empowerment. Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia have banned media institutions from showing negative gender stereotypes and are encouraging them to show more women leaders in the media. Civil society organisations (both at local and national levels) in the four countries are key actors at all stages of the reform and implementation process, but often face important constraints to their functioning. Women’s rights activists have worked tirelessly to advance the agenda, in some cases with support from the international community.

The promising reforms on the policy, legislative and institutional fronts described above are proving difficult to implement as restrictive social norms and stereotypes continue to hold back women’s economic empowerment and condone violence against women and girls. The OECD Social Institutions and Gender Index provides ample evidence that social expectations surrounding gender roles still negatively affect women’s economic empowerment around the world. Although attitudes towards women’s economic empowerment in MENA are evolving among certain population groups, MENA remains the only region in the world where younger generations of men do not hold more liberal views than older generations when it comes to gender equality.

Some of these norms are also enshrined in the (personal status) legislation of the four countries. As long as discriminatory legislation remains in place on marriage and divorce, family decision making, inheritance and property rights as well as freedom of movement, greater economic empowerment for women will be difficult to achieve. This legislation is contrary to the constitutional guarantees on non-discrimination and gender equality, and women’s rights activists have been advocating for years to amend discriminatory provisions so that women can take up their rightful place in families and the society more broadly. Violence against women is still pervasive in the region and carries significant social and economic costs.

There is momentum for legislative change in the following areas, though social norms still threaten to undermine the implementation of these laws:

  • Protecting women’s inheritance rights. Tunisia’s late President Essebsi has commissioned a report that proposes further aligning national legislation with constitutional guarantees on gender equality, including in inheritance. This has sparked important and unprecedented discussions across the region on equal inheritance, with some countries taking measures to protect women’s inheritance share. Nevertheless, legislation in the four countries still prescribes that female heirs are entitled to only half the share to which men are entitled.

  • Nationality and rights. Countries have also taken action to enhance women’s rights to transfer their nationality. In Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, women have the right to transfer their nationality to their children. Tunisia is the only country covered by the publication that gives the wife the right to transmit her nationality to a foreign spouse, while husbands in all four countries can transfer their nationality to a foreign spouse.

  • Violence against women. The four countries have undertaken reforms to address violence against women and girls in the private sphere, in public, and in the workplace. The constitutions of Egypt and Tunisia prohibit violence against women. While Morocco and Tunisia have issued new specific legislation on violence against women, Egypt and Jordan have amended their existing legal frameworks. The reforms range from very comprehensive in some countries to minimal in others. Morocco and Tunisia have made economic violence punishable, meaning that in theory it is illegal to prohibit women from working, to control women’s income or to affect their economic rights in any other way. Countries’ commitment to addressing gender-based violence has been illustrated during the COVID-19 crisis, as governments have taken rapid action to enhance support mechanisms for victims in light of the surge in domestic violence resulting from the confinement measures.

Economic and social transformation go hand in hand. Enhancing women’s economic empowerment is a prerequisite for boosting economic growth in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia. It is clear that the momentum for change exists, with a number of reforms in favour of women’s economic empowerment undertaken recently or under discussion. This regional momentum is driven by global impetus for progress on gender equality, exemplified by the Sustainable Development Goals, the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and the United Nations Secretary General’s High-level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment.

The report shows that countries have adopted different approaches to bringing about reforms and ensuring that they are implemented in practice. In some cases, a clear strategy was behind a certain reform effort, while in other cases it was very much a “trial and error” approach. The report has identified some common factors that contributed to the success of the initiatives related in the case studies. The list is non-exhaustive, and not all case studies deployed all of the strategies and mechanisms mentioned below. However, the list does provide some interesting insights for policy makers into what “success factors” they may choose to prioritise to ensure that reforms actually translate into greater gender equality and more opportunities for women. These ten success factors for reform are accompanied by specific recommendations to help implement them (more detailed recommendations can be found in the thematic chapters, Chapters 2 to 5):

Countries’ adherence to international standards and instruments with gender relevance is crucial. Adherence/ratification signals political will for enhancing gender equality and implies an obligation to align national legal frameworks with international standards. These standards allow countries’ progress to be measured against ambitious benchmarks since countries must report on their progress. The progress reports are also an important advocacy tool for further reforms. Other types of international commitments and mechanisms, such as Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development and the Commission on the Status of Women, have also turned out to be key factors in pushing for reforms to support women’s economic empowerment in the four countries.

Specific recommendations:

  • Remove reservations to CEDAW and ratify its optional protocol. Consider ratifying other relevant international standards, such as selected ILO conventions as well as the 2013 OECD Council Recommendation on Gender Equality in Education, Employment and Entrepreneurship and the 2015 OECD Council Recommendation on Gender Equality in Public Life.

  • Align national legislation with gender equality provisions outlined in countries’ constitutions and international commitments. More specifically:

    • Include a non-discrimination provision in the labour code together with special provisions on women’s rights at work, such as equal remuneration for work of equal value.

    • Remove all discriminatory legal provisions related to women’s participation in the labour market, such as those that prohibit women from entering certain professions, working at night or working the same amount of hours as men.

    • Work towards mainstreaming a gender equality perspective in different types of economic legislation including investment laws and tax laws.

    • Continue social protection systems reforms with a focus on addressing gender inequalities and promoting women’s participation in the labour force. Introduce measures that allow informal sector workers to access social protection.

    • Provide protection to categories of workers that fall outside the scope of the labour code. This can be done through issuing separate laws for specific categories of workers, such as domestic workers and agricultural workers. These laws should guarantee the same rights as offered in the labour code.

    • Introduce reforms to more equally distribute unpaid care work and improve women’s work-life balance (e.g. promote flexwork, childcare, uptake of paternity/parental leave). Guarantee that non-monetary contributions made during marriage are valued at the time of dissolution of marriage and of distribution of assets

  • Actively engage in global initiatives and dynamics that can inspire reforms in support of women’s economic empowerment, such as the fifth anniversary of Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development and the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.

Building the evidence base on the current situation in society that calls for change is crucial in advocating for and securing legal, policy and institutional reform. A solid and rigorous evidence base also allows progress to be measured over time. Countries have made extensive efforts to improve their data collection and analysis of particular aspects of women’s economic empowerment. Specific studies have been carried out, for example, on violence against women and girls, social norms, and the image of women in the media. However, achieving more regular data collection, analysis and dissemination that is consistent over time and is comparable across countries remains challenging.

Specific recommendations:

  • Fill gaps in the data needed for measuring SDG indicators related to women’s economic empowerment: e.g., statistics on informal employment, sex-disaggregated data on the average number of hours spent on paid and unpaid domestic work, sex-disaggregated shares of those employed part-time, gender statistics in the area of business ownership and the percentage of firms, by size, owned by women.

  • Collect gender data more regularly through additional surveys that can be compared across countries and over time.

  • Continue building the evidence base on vulnerable groups of women. This means disaggregating data not only by gender, but also by location, age, etc.

  • Disseminate the evidence. This is crucial. Incorrect information has sometimes deliberately been publicised in order to negatively influence public opinion on the need for further reforms on gender equality.

Since the 2011 uprisings, the four countries have included provisions on non-discrimination and/or gender equality in their constitutions. While this is a significant step forward, discriminatory legal frameworks remain that are not in line with the constitution and that are holding back women’s economic empowerment. While gender policies usually have a legal dimension, a specific feature of the MENA region is the existence of discriminatory legal provisions which require specific strategies in order to remove them.

Legal reform often happens gradually and interacts in different ways with the policy cycle. Different types of policies on women’s economic empowerment exist and the case studies confirm that countries are taking advantage of wider policy reforms to include a gender aspect. The report also indicates that drawing up policies on women’s economic empowerment is often an important step towards legal reform.

Specific recommendations:

  • Adopt a systematic approach to institutionalising gender equality concerns and mainstreaming a gender equality perspective in relevant policies and legislation, at both drafting and adoption stages.

  • Take advantage of a policy reform in a relevant area (e.g. employment/entrepreneurship policy) in order to mainstream a gender equality perspective.

  • Provide special attention to vulnerable groups of women (e.g. women refugees, domestic workers, rural women) in relevant policy frameworks.

  • Ensure that national gender strategies are up to date and include all aspects of women’s economic empowerment. In some countries, it may be beneficial to put into place a specific strategy for women’s economic empowerment.

  • Build on regulations, instructions, circulars and collective bargaining agreements in support of women’s economic empowerment that do not need to go through the parliamentary process. This can be the first step in moving towards deeper reform.

In order to make reform happen, political commitment at the highest level is necessary. The case studies demonstrate that the heads of state of the four countries have played a crucial role in pushing forward legal reforms to support women’s economic empowerment. Preparing and seizing the right political momentum for reform is one of the biggest challenges in the four countries, despite their very different political systems and governance models.

Specific recommendations:

  • Build alliances across political parties and create momentum for high-level commitment to reforms in support of women’s economic empowerment

  • Continue the debate on gender equality where the current political climate makes recommendations on legal and policy reform difficult to achieve. The debate should be based on facts and held in a spirit of openness, involving different stakeholders.

Advocacy and lobbying have been essential for achieving legal reform for women’s economic empowerment. Civil society organisations in the four countries have used a variety of advocacy and lobbying approaches to push for reform throughout the legislative cycle. The best results have been achieved when a cross-section of actors have worked together to put pressure on governments. While Tunisia has made the most progress in including civil society organisations in decision-making processes, Jordan and Morocco have also made important headway.

Specific recommendations:

  • Refer to international and regional standards that countries have adhered to when pressing for different types of reforms in favour of women’s economic empowerment.

  • Use the regular international reporting mechanisms (e.g. CEDAW progress reports and SDG reporting) as a means to push the government to provide the evidence on the situation of women’s economic empowerment.

  • Provide funding and capacity building to national CSOs in order to ensure the continuity of their activities and given their crucial role in advocacy and lobbying.

  • Support the role of the media in disseminating and sensitising the wider public to legal reforms that support women’s economic empowerment.

Having more women in leadership positions in a variety of institutions can be an important factor for successful legal reform. More women in parliament and high-level government positions can help in setting priorities for reform and making reform happen. Better gender balance in workers and employers’ organisations can lead to more gender-responsive labour legislation. More women in the judiciary can support the implementation of these reforms. In the private sector, women leaders often champion successful gender initiatives. Giving more visibility to women leaders can influence public opinion in favour of women’s economic empowerment.

Specific recommendations:

  • Ensure that women have a say in reform processes that concern them and are represented in leadership positions in various parts of society, such as national and local government; private sector; parliament; media; workers’ and employers’ organisations.

  • Enhance gender balance in corporate governance through quotas and the inclusion of a gender equality provision in corporate governance codes.

  • Strengthen social dialogue processes in order to mainstream women’s economic empowerment in labour legislation as well as collective bargaining agreements.

  • Support male champions of change in order to push for legal reform and implementation in support of women’s economic empowerment.

Since reforms for women’s economic empowerment touch on so many aspects of women’s lives, their families and the community at large, it is necessary to undertake reforms in different areas of the law as well as to involve different types of stakeholders in these reform processes, including the private sector. Ideally, different types of laws that touch on women’s economic empowerment should be reformed in parallel. In reality, this has turned out to be challenging, in particular in the area of the family law.

Specific recommendations:

  • Involve different stakeholders, including civil society organisations, in reform processes.

  • Enhance public-private dialogue so that reform implementation by both the state and the private sector can be aligned.

  • Research and document private sector initiatives on gender equality at country and regional level and give more visibility to these initiatives.

  • Work with the private sector to encourage women entrepreneurs by making it easier to access financial services, microfinance, and business formalisation.

  • Include gender equality provisions in investment laws and follow up on their implementation so that women entrepreneurs can access and benefit from investment opportunities.

A range of skills are needed to make legal reform on women’s economic empowerment a reality and to make sure that these reforms are being implemented. The report indicates that capacity building is needed for the actors involved in different aspects of legal reform (such as advocacy, drafting and adopting legislation) as well as reform implementation. Peer learning among countries can also be a useful mechanism for exchanging experiences on how to make legal reform happen.

Specific recommendations:

  • Provide capacity building on women’s economic empowerment to actors that are involved in different aspects of legal reform, as well as its implementation. Tap into the existing local expertise of CSOs and national women’s machineries on women’s economic empowerment.

  • Encourage the set-up and facilitate the functioning of permanent parliamentary bodies that focus on gender equality to support parliaments in designing legislation for women’s economic empowerment.

  • Draw on international guidance to draft gender equality legislation that is in line with international standards.

  • Train state officers who are involved in decisions and procedures related to women’s economic empowerment (e.g. inheritance cases and VAW cases) so that they are aware of women’s rights.

  • Exchange experiences and good practices on reforms in support of women’s economic empowerment across the region, using platforms such as the MENA-OECD Women’s Economic Empowerment Forum.

The case studies show that the four countries are building evidence of what it means today to be a man/boy or a woman/girl in society and the types of restrictive social norms and stereotypes that exist. This can be an important step towards legal reform or implementing reforms for women’s economic empowerment. Countries are also taking concrete initiatives to address these restrictive social norms and stereotypes.

Specific recommendations:

  • Raise awareness of different aspects of women’s economic empowerment and how legal frameworks affect it. These awareness-raising efforts should target both women and men.

  • Support programmes that address restrictive social norms and stereotypes surrounding women’s participation in the labour market and men’s participation in unpaid care work.

  • Revise personal status laws so that women and men can participate in the labour market on an equal footing (e.g. abolish women’s duty to obey).

  • Revise nationality and marriage legislation, giving women equal rights to transfer their nationality to spouses and children. Full legal equality should be ensured, with no differences in transfer procedures for women and men.

  • Enshrine equality in inheritance in national legislation in order to align this legislation with the equality principles guaranteed in countries’ constitutions.

  • Issue a comprehensive law on VAW and/or align different national legal frameworks that cover VAW. Recognise economic violence as a form of violence against women in the legislation. Make sure that the legislation addresses violence and (sexual) harassment at the workplace.

Legal reform on its own only has value if it is implemented. The report can only give a limited overview of how countries are implementing recent reforms since most of these reforms have not been in place for a long time. However, from the case studies and interviews conducted for the publication, it is clear that mechanisms are in place that can facilitate implementation and compliance with these recent reforms. Raising awareness of the reforms, providing access to justice and the implementation of court decisions seem particularly important. Other mechanisms include reporting, labour inspection, complaint mechanisms and scrutiny by national human rights institutions.

Specific recommendations:

  • Ensure the dissemination of gender-responsive legislation in a form that is clear and adapted to the target audience.

  • Adopt policies, programmes and projects with dedicated budgets for the concrete implementation of reforms on women’s economic empowerment. The state budget laws of the four countries, which include an obligation for gender mainstreaming, can provide the necessary leverage.

  • In addition to mainstreaming at national level, ensure gender mainstreaming in local government budgets, policies, action plans and programmes.

  • Make sure that more development co-operation programmes and projects are implemented in remote areas in order to reach vulnerable rural populations.

  • Enhance co-ordination among the various state institutions that are responsible for implementing reforms.

  • Make regular monitoring and reporting on the implementation of the reforms mandatory. This could include analysis of how courts are implementing recent legislative reforms.

  • Improve labour inspections with a focus on gender equality so that legal provisions on non-discrimination and gender equality are enforced.

  • Provide legal assistance to women who wish to claim their rights.

  • Ensure enforcement of court decisions in favour of women’s economic empowerment.

  • Ratify the CEDAW optional protocol and set up national human rights institutions in line with the provisions foreseen in the constitution so that there are additional mechanisms in place to enforce women’s rights.

The case studies and interviews conducted for this publication testify to the numerous legal, policy and institutional reforms underway in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia to support women’s economic empowerment. However, they also underscore the complex matrix of factors involved in ensuring that reforms are implemented and lead to social change.

The precursor to this report – the 2017 OECD report Women's Economic Empowerment in Selected MENA Countries: The Impact of Legal Frameworks in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia – included a range of policy recommendations addressed to governments. This follow-up report shows that some of the 2017 recommendations remain valid. Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia can build on the progress already achieved to take further reform and implementation measures for women’s economic empowerment.

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