Sparking and catching fire

This post was written by Dr. Roksana Bahramitash

ERF workshop on “Women Economic Empowering the MENA Region”

ERF workshop on “Women Economic Empowering the MENA Region”

The world of politics and political campaign is consumed by women’s civil rights; from Quebec leading provincial campaign passing the Quebec Charter of Values, which bans hijab to defend women’s right, to Muslim Brotherhood conservative faction who is campaigning for more traditional role for women. Women’s civil rights remain at the center of attention.

Yet in a world where the poorest 40 percent account for less than 5 percent of global income and gender gap remains a serious issue throughout the world, so little is mentioned about women’s socio-economic rights. The issue is more acute in the MENA region, which has the lowest female labor force participation rates and the highest ratios of female to male unemployment rate.

As a woman from the region, I am always shocked when I travel through the region and make my way in an around the poor neighborhoods; where women walk in and out of markets and shops to buy their basic food. What shakes me is a simple calculation between the prices of basic food and that of the minimum wages, I am sure this calculation has to be behind what women can or cannot afford as they continue to be the one who puts food on the table. In those circumstances, calculating household income against the prices of basic commodities, food, rent, medical bills, utilities and transport seems like an impossible job. It just does not make sense; people’s income and the prices of their basics fails elementary math. The question is how does the household balance the budget. And of course many don’t and end up in absolute poverty.

We hear a lot about governments struggling to balance their budgets, but rarely see the huge difficulties women have to face to balance their budgets. And what hardly makes it to the headline is women’s right to basic human needs; this due to some multilateral organizations paying attention in response to women’s advocacy. Nonetheless, one rarely hears about political campaigns to improve women’s socio-economic rights. As millions of women’s daily routine is a struggle to make ends meet and balance their budgets when it just does not balance, salaries are local (South) and prices are global (North). It is that simple!

In the MENA region, women have alarming unemployment, they are entering the labor force at a slow rate compared to other regions and the political upheavals have worsened the situation. The issue is becoming more pressing as Cairo based Economic Research Forum announced a call for proposals this year on women’s economic rights in MENA. It is refreshing and energizing to see a regionally based international organization in the heart of MENA  questioning women’s economic rights and seeking solutions to the current problems. This is what is exciting about the ERF workshop on Women Economic Empowerment in the MENA Region, held on November 29 at London School of Economics Middle East Center. The event is a big YES to women’s economic rights, and a YES to we need to think, talk and brainstorm about economic justice for women in MENA. Let us hope this will be a spark with catching fire to bring much needed attention, stir and spearhead more attention among politicians and policy makers; towards more action to advance women’s economic rights in a region with the highest unemployment rate and one of the lowest employment rates for women.

Dr. Roksana Bahramitash is a sociologist who earned her PhD from McGill University and has focused on social justice and poverty from a gender perspective. Her first book is a critique of neo-liberal economic policy in Southeast Asia, Liberation from Liberalization: Gender and Globalization in Southeast Asia (Zed, 2005, reprinted in India 2008, translated into Persian). She is the winner of many awards, two of which were postdoctoral projects granted by the Canadian Social Science and Humanities Research Council; and has taught at McGill and Concordia University. Bahramitash has worked with international development agencies, including the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), and the World Bank. Bahramitash is the author of several refereed journal articles and books: Veiled Employment: Islamism and the Political Economy of Women’s Employment in Iran (Syracuse University Press, co-editor Hadi Salehi-Esfahani 2011); Gender in Contemporary Iran: Pushing the Boundaries (Rutledge, co-editor Eric Hooglund 2011); and Gender and Entrepreneurship in Iran: Microenterprise and the Informal Sector (Palgrave Macmillan Lt. 2013). She produced a documentary on women in Afghanistan, Beyond the Borqua. Bahramitash is currently a visiting scholar at the University of Montreal; she holds the Chair of Islam, Globalization and Pluralism.

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