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Women an untapped economic resource *LINK*

World Bank: Women an untapped economic resource in Mideast and North Africa

Canadian Press

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) - Women in the Middle East and North Africa are an untapped resource, with the potential to transform the region's oil-dependent and state-controlled economies, the World Bank said Wednesday.

But they are being held back from the labour market by conservative social norms and laws that favour men, the bank said in a report on the role of women in the region.

The report said women make up half the 325 million people in the Middle East and North Africa but account for only 32 per cent of the labour force.

"No country can raise the standard of living and improve the well-being of its people without the participation of half its population," said Christian Poortman, the World Bank vice-president for the Middle East and North Africa.

"Experience in other countries has shown over and over again that women are important actors in development. To hold them back is to hold back the potential for economic growth," Poortman said.

As countries in the region move toward private-sector growth, they will need to depend on a dynamic pool of skilled labour, said the report, which was released on the sidelines of an annual meeting of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

"With labour force participation largely characterized by gender inequality, women remain a largely untapped resource in the region, thus preventing economies in the Middle East and North Africa from drawing on their best talents," the report said.

Calculations for a number of countries in the region "show that if female participation rates reached their potential, per capita growth in gross domestic product could have been 0.7 per cent higher on average than the mere 1.9 per cent during the last decade for these countries," the report said.

Household earnings could rise as much as 25 per cent if female participation in the labour force increased commensurate with education levels and age structure, the report said.

"For many families, this is a ticket to the middle-class," said Nadereh Chamlou, senior World Bank adviser and principal author of the report.

Gains in women's health and education have not been matched by gains in employment. While the regional rate of female participation in the work force increased rapidly from 23 per cent in 1970 to 32 per cent in 2000, it still ranks among the lowest in the world, the report said.

It added that in the Middle East and North Africa, each employed person supports more than two non-working dependants, a burden double that of workers in east Asia.

A commonly held belief that greater female employment would result in greater unemployment for men was unfounded, the report said. It said experience showed that with better economic growth from female participation, there were greater employment opportunities for all.

The World Bank called on policymakers to work toward granting equal constitutional rights to women and to offer a supportive infrastructure that would include better child care and transportation.

Policymakers also should pay attention to women's education and reform labour laws to reflect the region's new realities, the report said.

Copyright 2003 The Canadian Press


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