Egypt’s treatment of women is a social nuclear weapon

November 15, 2013

There was widespread dismay at a recent survey that ranked Egypt as the worst Arab country to be a woman. The poll, conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, found that an astonishingly high 99% of women and girls experience sexual harassment, and worst of all the perpetrators of this abuse often go unpunished. Egypt scored poorly in every category of the poll including violence against women, reproductive rights and their inclusion in politics and the economy.

The poll surveyed 366 respondents – aid and healthcare workers, policy makers, journalists, academics and lawyers – and asked their opinion on women across Arab League countries. Although this is a perception poll, it is useful to get an idea of how the outside world view women’s role in society, politics and the economy. Perhaps the most interesting finding is that three out of five Arab Spring countries were ranked at the bottom of the pile. Discouragingly, it looks like revolution has not brought women the freedom they campaigned for in Tahrir Square in 2011.

Instead  of bringing greater freedom, openness and giving power back to the people, the experts have noticed that since he Arab Spring patriarchal norms have been reinforced, in addition there has been an increase in violence generally, instability, political corruption and bribery and a lack of security. This is not the type of environment where women see their rights improve and their position in society respected and solidified.

Women are 50% of the population, and if they can’t get their voice heard, find a job, or even walk down the street without the threat of being attacked or harassed then an economy cannot thrive. Unless the situation improves, then Egypt will not be able to see economic, political and societal improvements that were at the heart of the Arab Spring protests.

An IMF staff discussion note on “Women, work and the economy: macroeconomic gains from gender equality”, published in September 2013, reported that GDP per capita losses attributable to gender gaps in the labour market have been estimated at 27% in certain regions. It also said that recent analysis found that raising the female labour force participation rate to country-specific male levels would raise GDP in Egypt by a whopping 34%.

Women in the workplace provide key benefits to society as a whole. For example, the IMF paper also reported that women are more likely than men to invest a large proportion of their household income in the education of their children, which has a far-reaching social benefit. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) women’s work, both paid and unpaid, is the single most important poverty-reducing factor in developing economies. Thus, by keeping women out of the work place, Egypt is doing the next generation, both male and female, as well as society a disservice.

Usually, overhauling the tax code to make it efficient for women to work, and greater welfare benefits such as child care costs etc., can help boost female labour market participation rates.  However, in Egypt, the problem runs deeper and more fundamental changes need to be made. For a start, violence against women should be banned and the perpetrators punished to show that Egyptian society will protect women. Unfortunately, the unstable political and security situation in Egypt could make this difficult to enforce.

If change on a local level will be hard to push through, then why can’t the international community step in? Stability in the Middle East is important from a global perspective, and women help to contribute to stability – for example, spending more of their income on education and volunteering in their wider community. So why not link aid to women’s rights? We put sanctions on countries with nuclear weapons, why not put sanctions on countries that discriminate against women, which is, in essence, a social nuclear weapon.

The outlook for Egypt is likely to remain bleak if women are not at the heart of society. The next step in Egypt’s development story has to be gender equality, otherwise the country will not be able to heal and reach its true potential.

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