Al-Hayat Newspaper - In the last two decades, the Arab world has witnessed major economic changes resulting from the implementation of many economic reform programs. These programs came in answer to the economic crises that shook many Arab countries. They sought market reform and a reduced state role in directing and managing the economy.
The programs included economic facets such as fiscal policy, trade liberalization, privatization of state institutions and reforming the public sector. In this framework, a specific question arises: to what extent do privatization and trade liberalization impact Arab women in the labor market as well as their social and economic rights?
Reaching a clear answer to this question begs the study and analysis of this impact in each individual country, seeing as each country has its own economic character. Each country's labor market has its own nature, legislation, rules, and social security bodies. However, a quick look at the sort of reforms implemented and the current state of women in the region brings to light the following effects on women and their social and economic rights:
First, the privatization of many public sector corporations has led to an increased presence of women in informal economic sectors. For example, available data from Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, and Tunis indicate an increase in informal jobs in both the public and private sectors that coincides with the implementation of economic reform. The majority of those affected were youth and women. In Egypt, the rate of women working for wages in the informal economy was 8.2% between 1998 and 2006 as compared to 5.5% among men during the same period. This transformation from a formal economy to an informal one resulted in women largely losing their job security and seeing their jobs turn, in many cases, into temporary positions or low-paying jobs that lack official contracts to guarantee their social and economic rights, and led to reduced maternity and child sickness leave, sick leave, and annual leave.
Women in informal economic sectors also suffer from the absence of social security programs such as pension and medical insurance. These social security programs do not cover all workers in the formal and informal sectors. In Lebanon, for example, only 50.8% of workers are covered by social security, with far fewer women (32.8%) in comparison to men (56.2%)
Second, trade liberalization had a big impact on sectors that include women, such as agriculture, handicrafts, and small and medium size enterprises. These sectors were no longer able to compete with foreign products, particularly those imported from China and Turkey. This undermined the role of women, particularly in rural areas, and diminished their sense of job and financial security. It impacted not only the income of women, but also their social status and the economic condition of the family. Many studies from Arab and developing countries indicate a strong link between women's income, their effective role in society, and the health and social condition of their families. The economic situation of women also influences the extent of the political role women play in society. The present situation of women, and the nature of reforms in many Arab countries, points to the necessity of rethinking current economic reform programs in order to bring them more in line with social policy and labor market policies. The negative repercussions, be they social or economic, are among the biggest obstacles to entering into serious economic reform programs that are capable of facing the economic and strategic challenges the region is going through, including poverty, unemployment, and a heavy reliance on foreign renter. It must be stressed that balanced and better-coordinated reform requires a partnership between all the major stakeholders, such as laborers, business owners, corporations and civil society, not a monopoly of reform by a few technocrats and decision makers. This partnership entails the membership and effective participation of all the stakeholders in planning, implementing and evaluating the economic reform programs. Promoting a partnership for economic reform will enhance the legitimacy of this reform and serve to empower segments of society to benefit from the returns of reform and tolerate its burden and negative effects both in the short and medium terms pending the economic transformation process.
Dealing with the negative effects of economic reform specially necessitates that women formulate a labor market policy that takes into account the changes taking place in the Arab economies, particularly the transformation of many sectors and formal jobs into informal ones. There must be labor laws that cover all economic sectors and clearly regulate employer-employee relations and protect the social, economic and legal rights of laborers. These laws ought to be based on the principles of decent work and equal rights for all laborers regardless of gender and social condition, as set out by the International Labor Organization (ILO). The ILO Regional Office for the Arab States is implementing many projects in the framework of the "Women and the Right to Work in the Informal Economy in Arab States" program. There is a need, here, to stress that social security programs encompass workers in the various formal and informal economic sectors.
The ability to formulate a labor market policy and social and economic programs to enhance the role of women in Arab economies will remain limited if Arab countries do not invest in improving the available data on women and the obstacles limiting their entry into the labor market. They also need to improve the data on business owners, their requirements, the work environment and the extent to which it favors productivity and is in line with women's rights. Many Arab countries need to rethink their educational system and its outputs in order to bring them in line with the market demands and economic changes these countries are experiencing. This would mean a transformation from economies in which the public sector plays a central role, particularly in terms of investment and employment, to economies spearheaded by the private sector.
* Sufyan Alissa is an economist and associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.