Opening Remarks: Women’s Economic Empowerment Forum

A successful mission to Cairo, Egypt on September 9 to open the Women’s Economic Empowerment Forum with Minister Sahar Nasr and discuss the OECD-Egypt Country Programme.

Minister Nasr, Ambassador Thesleff,

Excellencies and Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen.

I am delighted to be here today to welcome you to the National Consultation on Women’s Economic Empowerment in Egypt. I would like to thank Her Excellency Sahar Nasr, Minister of Investment and International Co-operation of Egypt, for hosting this meeting.

Minister Nasr co-hosted the launch of the MENA-OECD Women’s Economic Empowerment Forum (WEEF) here in Cairo two years ago and is co-Chair of the Forum, alongside Her Excellency Marie-Claire Swärd-Capra, Swedish Ambassador to Algeria.

I would also like to thank His Excellency, Jan Thesleff, Ambassador of Sweden to Egypt, for his strong personal support for this meeting and more broadly for Sweden’s leadership in the OECD’s gender equality work.

It is particularly fitting to discuss women’s empowerment here in Cairo. For centuries, Egypt has been called “Masr, oum el dounia” – the mother of the world. Indeed, its history has been shaped by powerful women.

Many of the women (and men) sitting in this room today are continuing in their footsteps! Over the centuries, Egypt has succeeded in blending many cultures and religions to become a dynamic, diverse society, and it has become one of the MENA region’s biggest economies. However, this pre-eminence also comes with growing expectations from its burgeoning, young population.

Egypt has taken important steps to further women’s rights. I am very glad that H.E. Ambassador Moushira Khattab accepted to be with us today and to moderate this afternoon’s discussion on the power of role models in achieving gender equality. During the 2000s, the remarkable work she led at the institutional level resulted in a range of reforms meant to put an end to early marriages, human trafficking, and female genital mutilations (FGM). Egypt played a leading role among African countries in the fight against FGM, and the law that was adopted to criminalise it in 2008 was taken as an example by many African countries.

Efforts to reduce gender-based discrimination continued. In 2014, Egypt prohibited gender-based violence in its constitution – which is not the case for all OECD countries – and formulated a National Strategy for combating violence against women.

In 2017, President Al Sissi declared the “year of Egyptian women” and released the “Egyptian Women Vision 2030: Women Empowerment Strategy”.  The same year, Minister Nasr helped champion Egypt’s Investment Law No. 72 to protect women investors from discrimination.

The National Council of Women, presided by Dr. Maya Morsi (in the audience), is leading a number of efforts, including a campaign to ensure that women are no longer denied the right to inherit. Most recently, at the G7 meeting in Biarritz, President Al Sissi reminded world leaders of the importance of boosting women’s empowerment.

Additionally, women in the MENA region are proving increasingly qualified to take advantage of opportunities. While in many Western countries, low female participation in STEM fields is a significant concern, the opposite is true in many MENA countries.

According to UNESCO, 34-57 percent of STEM graduates in Arab countries are women and one in three start-ups in the Arab World is founded or led by women.

Although these are just a few examples, they show the growing momentum in Egypt in support of greater women’s economic empowerment. But the fact remains that despite these efforts, gender equality remains a long way off in Egypt, as it does to varying degrees in countries across the world. 

In Egypt, as elsewhere, the challenges women face from economic, political and legislative barriers are compounded by deeply-held gender stereotypes. 

Sixty-three percent of Egyptians (almost two thirds) think that children will suffer when the mother is employed outside the home.[i] More than 70% of men and women believe that wives should tolerate violence to keep the family together.[ii]

Let me share with you a shocking statistic: eighty-seven percent of Egyptian women and girls aged 15-49 have experienced female genital mutilation, the highest in the world.[iii]  

These practices not only endanger people’s well-being and the social fabric, but they also threaten the economy: it is estimated that violence against women and families cost an estimated 2.17 billion Egyptian pounds (over € 115 million) in 2015.[iv] I hope very much to see Egypt represented at a global conference the OECD is holding in Paris on tackling violence against women on 5-6 February 2020.

We at the OECD are fundamentally convinced that gender equality is a pre-condition for building happier, healthier and more prosperous societies.  For this reason, we have made women’s economic, political and social empowerment a core pillar of our work.

Our 2017 publication “The Pursuit of Gender Equality: An Uphill Battle” shows that gender inequality still pervades all aspects of social, political and economic life, in countries at all levels of development. The OECD SIGI 2019 Global Report shows that at the current pace, it will take more than 200 years, or nine generations, to achieve gender equality and fully unlock women’s empowerment opportunities!

Side-lining women from the economy comes at a great cost. Our data shows that the impact of discrimination in laws, attitudes and practices costs the MENA region a staggering USD 237 billion.[v] So how can we move past these barriers to unlock the potential of women in Egypt? 

This was the question that we first asked in our 2017 publication Women’s Economic Empowerment in Selected MENA Countries: The Impact of Legal Frameworks in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia (hold up report).  As I have mentioned earlier, significant changes are underway to advance gender equality – including legal reforms and other grassroots initiatives – in Egypt and other MENA countries. 

To capture this progress, and gain greater insight into the drivers of change, the OECD is partnering with the Center of Arab Women for Training and Research (CAWTAR) on working on a follow-up publication to our 2017 report.

The purpose of today’s consultation is thus to listen and learn from our Egyptian partners about how they have succeeded in advancing legislative reforms in favour of women’s economic empowerment and pinpointing which challenges remain to be addressed.

This meeting provides an opportunity to brainstorm potential solutions together; solutions that could work for Egypt and perhaps also inspire change elsewhere.

But let us not making the mistake of thinking that the law is enough and is the only solution. I really hope that today’s meeting will also mark the start of a renewed commitment in setting the priorities for a successful reform process. Administrative tools and policy support are crucial for the legislative measures to be implemented and enforced. There can’t be effectiveness without implementation and enforcement. Let’s keep this in mind.

During today’s event, we will also have an important session on how role-modelling programmes can help combat engrained gendered stereotypes. I am proud that the OECD launched an initiative in Mexico – NiñasSTEMPueden – that has been very successful in using role models to encourage girls to enter the STEM field, and it has been chosen to be showcased in November’s Paris Peace Forum. 

I look forward to hearing from the inspiring women and men role models here about the innovative ways they have pushed the envelope for greater gender equality in Egypt. 

I look forward to the rest of the day’s discussions. Thank you


[i] OECD (2019), Gender Institutions and Development Database, https://oe.cd/ds/GIDDB2019

[ii] UN Women, Understanding Masculinities, 2017

[iii] Thomas Reuters Foundation, Egypt: The Law and FGM, June 2018, https://www.28toomany.org/static/media/uploads/Law%20Reports/egypt_law_report_v1_(june_2018).pdf

[iv] Based on the cost of the most recent severe incident of violence. UNFPA, CAPMAS and NCW, The Egypt economic cost of gender based violence survey, 2015.

[v]OECD (2019), SIGI 2019 Global Report: Transforming Challenges into Opportunities, Social Institutions and Gender Index, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/bc56d212-en.

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