Exclusion by Gender in the MENA Region

April 15, 2019 news

While no country has achieved absolute gender equality, there has been tremendous progress made in a variety of contexts. Unfortunately, change has not occurred universally around the world today. 

This year, V-Dem collected data on a completely new set of survey questions on exclusion. The questions examine the extent to which exclusion occurs for different groups in society. This post looks into exclusion by gender in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).


Exclusion by Gender

V-Dem’s exclusion by gender index investigates the extent to which access to public services, state jobs, state business opportunities and civil liberties differ for men and women. It is measured on a scale of 0 to 1, where 0 indicates no exclusion by gender and 1 a high level of exclusion based on gender.

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Fig. 1 Exclusion by gender according to countries in the MENA region and top 4 countries in the GGI.

The V-Dem data shows declines in the level of exclusion by gender in the MENA region over time. However, these declines are extremely gradual. This is especially so when the MENA countries are compared against the top countries in the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Gender Gap Index (GGI). Fig. 1 shows that the bottom four[1] MENA countries experience more exclusion by gender today than the four countries at the top of the list experienced in 1900. 

The data collected by WEF suggests while gradual improvements have been made, regressions have also occurred – especially in the area of economic participation and political participation. V-Dem’s women’s political participation index also notes miniscule improvements in women’s participation over time, particularly when compared to other regions.


Fig. 2 Exclusion by gender according to regions in the world.

The WEF’s GGI rates countries according to the calculated gender gap between men and women in four areas – access to health, education, economic and political participation. Countries are then scored on a scale of 0% to 100% where 100% suggests full gender parity has been achieved. The global average for this index in 2018 was 68%. Western Europe scored the highest with 75.8% while the MENA region had the lowest score at 60.2%. V-Dem’s exclusion by gender index produces similar findings. Fig.2 shows that the MENA region fares the worst on the V-Dem index with almost gender-based exclusion almost twice as high as the global average in 2018.


Life for Women in the MENA Region

How do these statistics transpire in real life? 

According to the World Bank, women are not legally allowed to get jobs without permission from their husbands or a male family member in 18 countries. 9 of these countries are in the MENA region.[2] Other restrictions in several MENA countries include not being able to travel outside the country, to apply for a national identity card or passport without the permission of a men. 

Furthermore, laws passed to afford women basic rights are often not fully implemented. For example, women in Saudi Arabia were granted the right to vote and run for office for the first time in 2015. However, the barriers to women registering to vote, voting and participating in politics remain prohibitive. 

Single sex voter registration centers were set up in Saudi Arabia during the local elections in 2015, but only one-third of these centers were reserved for women. Additionally, due to the male guardianship system, the final decision-making power often lies with husbands, sons or other male family members. This gives men the power to prevent women from voting. These barriers to participation resulted in women making up less than 10% of the voting pool. Furthermore, candidates were not allowed to address voters of the opposite sex during the campaign period other than through a designated spokesperson. This disproportionately affected women as the majority of the registered voters and candidates were men. Only 20 out of the 2,100 or less than 1% of the contested municipal seats were won by female candidates. 


Skilled With No Opportunities

The V-Dem exclusion indicators showed women had somewhat greater access to public services in the MENA region, while access to state jobs and business opportunities lagged behind. This implies women already have the knowledge and skills to participate in society. But the state laws, perhaps supported by cultural norms and expectations within the region hinder this inclusion. While education is thought to be the ultimate social equalizer in most situations, this is not the case in the MENA region. In Oman, a UNICEF report found that 81% of females and 83% of males attended high school in 2011. The GGI for Oman showed more females (59.7%) attained tertiary education than males (32.8%) in 2018 with a parity score of 0.939. At the same time, the parity scores for economic participation and political empowerment were 0.586 and 0.223 respectively.

Similarly, according to the GGI, 16 out of the 19 MENA countries meet or surpass the global average in the education and health aspects. However, only one country (Israel) scored above the world average with regards to economic participation and opportunity and political empowerment. The disparity in these sub-indexes are so large that all MENA countries except Israel fare well below average in the overall score with Tunisia ranking the highest at 119 out of the 149 countries studied in the GGI. 


The Future

The World Economic Forum estimates that with the current trajectory, it would take 153 years to close the gender gap in the MENA region. Since access to education and healthcare is relatively egalitarian, resources should be allocated to improving the level of economic participation and political empowerment. Opportunities should be afforded to everyone. No one, least of all those already educated and skilled, should be denied access to these prospects based on their gender.


By Shreeya Pillai, shreeya.pillai@v-dem.net

15 April 2019

[1]Iqbal, Sarah. 2018. Women, Business, and the Law 2018 (English). Washington, D.C. : World Bank Group.

[2]Syria, Yemen and Iraq were not taken into account in this case due to instability within the countries. 

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