Gender Equality in the Arab States

Safaa is one of Jordan’s few female plumbers. She runs her own company and was recently supported by the ILO and GIZ through training to help develop her skills and boost her employability. ©ILO
Gender equality is central to the ILO’s goal of decent work for all. ILO statistics show that the Arab region has the world’s lowest rate of female economic participation - 26 per cent compared to the global average of 56 per cent. By contrast, male labour force participation rates, at 76 per cent, are above the global average of 74 per cent. These numbers have remained stubbornly resistant to change despite increasing levels of education amongst women.

Women’s participation in paid, productive work is restricted by patriarchal norms which value men as breadwinners and women as homemakers. When women do work outside the home, they are often considered suitable only for certain professions, usually those related to their reproductive role. These stereotypes perpetuate the disproportionate burden of care work placed on women, and limits their ability to take up or remain in paid work outside the home. Lack of care facilities and safe transport further restricts women’s access to work. In addition, mismatches between skills and market demand, low wages, and a lack of attractive jobs often compound the problems women face in the world of work.

These constraints are exacerbated in conflict or post-conflict settings. For women in countries such as Yemen, Syria and Iraq, access to jobs is even more limited, safety issues are heightened, enabling structures diminished, and opportunities reduced – this despite the fact that in these situations many women suddenly find themselves in roles as primary earners, often without any prior experience or skills. In the Arab States, there has also been a reported rise both in female headed households, and people with disabilities who are often the most vulnerable groups requiring assistance.

In countries such as Jordan and Lebanon, refugee women can find themselves isolated by in unfamiliar communities, subject to legal restrictions on their ability to work and earn and income, compounded by lack of information and support to enter the labour market. In the more affluent countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, prosperity often has an inverse relation with female labour force participation, as societies place a value on women ‘not needing to work’. In these countries migrant workers play an important role in the labour market with female migrant workers making up a significant part of the domestic workforce, often in precarious conditions with little protection.

In addition, women in the Arab States face a plethora of other challenges from issues as diverse as technology, automation, climate change and demographics. Widespread discrimination including unequal wages and restrictive labour laws coupled with lack of social protection relating to unemployment, pensions, maternity, and sickness also hinder gender equality in the Arab region. 

ILO response in the Arab States

The ILO Regional Office for Arab States supports governments, workers, employers and civil society to develop social and economic policies and practices that promote gender equality and equal opportunities in the workplace. The ILO follows two approaches to achieve this: first to mainstream gender across all elements of decent work, whether it is the right to organise or occupational safety and health; and secondly, programmes that focus on women specifically, such as skills development and employment support to increase female labour force participation.

Focus Areas in the Arab States

  • Policy Development and Law Reform: The ILO works with governments, employers, workers and other stakeholders to mainstream gender in employment and skills development policies and surveys, and review and amend laws to promote gender equality in the workplace. See More
  • Gender responsive labour market governance:  The ILO works with the labour administration system to review tools used in labour inspection for gender gaps, build the capacity of labour inspectors to better capture and address the needs and experiences of women and men, as well as to promote the recruitment of female labour inspectors.  See More
  • Skills development: With gender mainstreamed across all programmes on skills development and employment promotion, the ILO works with government, employers, workers, NGOs and civil society – on both policy and project levels -- to strengthen both formal and non-formal provision of technical and vocational education and training (TVET) and ensure that the design and delivery of such programmes is gender responsive.  See More
  • Gender equal workplace practices: The ILO works with public and private sector employers to design workplace policies and practices that promote gender equality such as maternity protection, the provision of childcare for women and men with children, mechanisms to prevent and address harassment at the workplace, and leave policies and working arrangements that support workers with family responsibilities. See More
  • Organising and collective bargaining: The ILO works with trade unions to increase the membership and advancement of women through capacity building and awareness activities on gender equality in the workplace and female labour rights. See More