Countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) continue to face the challenge of generating inclusive and long-lasting growth in the environment of low oil prices, ongoing conflicts, and concerns regarding regional security. For the region’s oil exporters, the challenges are particularly acute as fiscal consolidation plans must be calibrated and structural reforms designed to diversify away from oil and promote private investment. For others, corruption and political struggle deprive their citizens of economic and social stability. It even affects their constitutional and human rights.
As economic growth is needed for any country‘s sustainable development, and closing gender gaps benefits countries as a whole, not only women, I invite you to look at the barriers to economic empowerment that women face in developing countries. These seem insignificant if we are shortsighted about what this independence means for them and how it can affect their families and communities.
Now, all countries stand to benefit from women’s increased economic participation. But the potential gains are particularly great across the developing world due to the extent of the constraints that so many women face on their ability to own property, access financial services, or work outside the home. Consider that women in more than half the world’s countries face limits on their ability to own or manage a property. In contrast, women-led small-to-medium sized firms in developing countries face an estimated $285 billion credit gap.
Furthermore, one of the primary sources of stagnant growth and unrest in developing economies is a lack of property rights and the resulting exclusion of workers, including women, from the formal economy.
These constraints directly harm women by preventing them from working, ensuring equality in inheritance and pay, and saving and controlling their own future. But they also harm economic growth and stability. In fact, many studies project huge gains to global GDP from increases in women’s economic participation.
Perhaps that is why, after de Soto helped reform the customary laws in his native Peru to make it easier for Peruvian women to work and own property, women’s formal labor force participation increased by 15 percent within a decade. As a result, Peru became one of the fastest-growing economies in Latin America.
We have reason to be optimistic that this type of success can be replicated. More developing nations are beginning to understand the importance of women’s economic inclusion – and are taking steps to reform their laws and address inequities.
The economic, humanitarian, cultural conservation and many other interests of any nation are better served when women are empowered, and economies are growing.
The security of any nation is mortgaged by the growth and stability of its economy. I am a strong advocate for the belief that low economic growth, high unemployment rate, and inflation are the perfect niches for terrorism.
Fortunately, new technologies make women’s economic participation more possible than ever, even in the most conservative countries in the Middle East, where women aren’t allowed to drive, travel, and be physically present in a heterogeneous environment. In recent years, an exciting array of financial technologies like mobile money has sprung up across the developing world. The virtual world with new opportunities like this presents a tremendous opportunity for impoverished communities and women in particular.
In decades past, microfinance loans were championed to combat extreme poverty. Initiatives like ENDA and Tamweel were very solicited in the Arab world. But microfinance is not a cure-all for those living in poverty, particularly those women who face so many additional challenges to their economic empowerment. The effort to track if the money is spent appropriately and make sure we are empowering women and not encouraging the males in their lives to take advantage of them is huge.
Women’s economic empowerment is a prerequisite for sustainable development, not only a fundamental human right or consequence we have to deal with. Although the United Nations assures that about two-thirds of countries in the developing regions have achieved great progress towards gender equality, by providing equal access to education, healthcare, and decent work, we still have much to work on when it comes to representation in political and economic decision-making processes. Sustainable, inclusive economies benefit societies and humanity at large.