Advancing Gender Equality in the Middle East and North Africa

Gender equality is a topic of intense debate, particularly in the context of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). States in this region are often under scrutiny as a result of legislation surrounding women’s rights. Feminism and gender equality are broad and multifaceted, and can therefore be measured in a number of ways. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) is a set of goals aimed at recognizing a society that meets the triple bottom line of sustainability: environmental, economic, and social. SDG 4 is centered around the insurance of quality education for all, a goal that exists in tandem with gender equality. In the scope of this entry, gender equality in the MENA region will be observed based on the accessibility of primary and secondary education for girls in the Middle East as compared with the rest of the world. These data are collected by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and available in the World Bank’s open data portal. Education is an important component of gender equality, as access to education is integral to creating opportunities. This entry delves into the intricate relationship between gender equality, education, and development while analyzing the progress made by MENA countries in achieving gender equality within their existing education systems. Furthermore, we conduct a comparative analysis of MENA’s efforts with those of other notable countries in promoting gender equality in education. The increasing commitment of MENA states towards enhancing education for women reflects a potential trend towards greater progress in achieving gender equality.

Sustainable Development Goal 4 seeks to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” (United Nations, 2023). The UN’s approach to the SDGs makes a distinction between achieving quality education and gender equality, however, there is substantial overlap between the two fields. SDG 4 includes 10 targets. This target, monitored by UNESCO and the World Bank, measures states’ strategies to guarantee equal access to primary and secondary education for all boys and girls by 2030. Access to education is a crucial proponent of gender equality, as women have historically been barred from education and, therefore, do not enjoy the opportunities and autonomy that come from having an education. In fact, according to Azza Karam: “Almost two-thirds of the world’s 775 million illiterate adults are women,” and on average, girls are more likely to not receive a primary education than boys, especially in developing nations.”

In the context of MENA, gender equality in the realm of education is often under-prioritized by legislators, leading to the neglect of educational reform. A UNESCO report finds that “Refugee girls are half as likely as their male counterparts to be in secondary school,” an important statistic given the large number of refugees in the region. In order to address the disparity in education, UNESCO developed a strategy to advance gender equality. The data collected includes information on the number of enrolled children in primary or secondary school, specifically the proportion of female students. Based on the World Bank’s 2018 report, the region had 45,409,468 enrolled students, with individuals under 30 comprising 55% of the MENA population (about 260 million people). Surprisingly, only 45 million (17%) of the under-30 population were enrolled in primary or secondary school in 2018, with girls representing only 48% of those students. The percentage of girls enrolled in primary or secondary school has consistently been lower than that of boys since 2000, although these values may be influenced by external factors, such as the presence of the Taliban in Afghanistan since 1996, as well as legislative and governmental inaction. Countries like Oman with smaller populations have higher relative percentages of girls enrolled in school, with a 50% enrollment rate in 2018. In 2018, most MENA countries either improved or stagnated in enrollment rates, with no countries showing significant declines. However, it is crucial to acknowledge that the data does not reflect class privilege and other intervening factors that may limit female students’ access to education.

It is relevant to recognize the ways in which many Middle Eastern governments, civil society organizations, and international organizations have implemented various policy initiatives and interventions to address gender inequality. This is utilized through various legislative measures and interventions which have been put into place to alleviate gender disparity in numerous Middle Eastern countries and international organizations. These programs include but are not limited to: affirmative action laws to advance women’s political representation, programs to advance women’s economic empowerment, and legislative changes to safeguard women’s rights. Through media engagement, education initiatives, and public awareness campaigns, extensive efforts have been made to combat existing cultural norms and prejudices. However, there are clear policy violations when it comes to meeting the social demands of the populace when they are sought through protest.

The 2022 Arab Human Development Report claims that the region’s educational system usually falls short in teaching students how to critically assess material or think creatively. The report issues a warning that the educational system may split into two levels, with a small, wealthy minority having access to exclusive high-quality private education and the bulk of people having access to subpar public education. This change would make education, rather than fostering social fairness, a vehicle for sustaining social inequality and poverty. The UNESCO strategy for gender equality in and through education (2019-2025) seeks to empower women by addressing the various forms of discrimination they face in education. The strategy outlines several key areas for action, including promoting gender-responsive education policies, ensuring equitable access to quality education for women, improving the quality of education and learning outcomes, and addressing the social and cultural norms that perpetuate gender inequality. The document also acknowledges that education is a powerful tool for promoting gender equality and ensuring women’s empowerment, beyond expectations of fertility and national economic promotion. In order to promote gender equality in education, the policy also highlights the significance of cooperation and partnership with governments, civil society organizations, and other stakeholders. The overall goal of the strategy is to develop a more equal and inclusive education system that gives both men and women the tools they need to realize their full potential.

UNESCO indicates, “Costed, gender-responsive education sector plans offer insights into system changes to advance gender equality and the requisite allocation of resources” as an effective method in the approach to gender-equal policy. Governments must give top priority to policies and efforts that address the structural causes of gender disparity if they intend to advance gender equality and meet the necessary SDGs. In order to track progress and find areas where policies are not being implemented effectively, there is also a need for increased data collecting and monitoring of gender-related discrimination. Essentially, it is crucial to make sure that women’s thoughts and viewpoints are taken into consideration when making policy decisions and that gender equality is given priority at all levels of governance. 

While progress has been made in promoting gender equality globally, there is a perceived notion that significant challenges remain, particularly in regions such as the Middle East. The region has made significant strides in improving women’s access to education, but employment and political participation remain challenged by the outstanding strides made by other nations. MENA’s women’s labor force participation rates are among the lowest in the world, and women’s representation in political decision-making remains limited. These factors connect to a woman’s access to education in the aspect of qualifying for significant roles in the future of their career or their livelihood.

In comparison, regions such as Europe, North America, and some parts of Asia have made significant progress in addressing gender inequality. In assessing data from the World Bank regarding the Middle East & North Africa (MENA), China, the United States, and India, the report provides insight into the investment in education in these regions, specifically government expenditures. According to the latest available data (2020), the MENA region allocated 12.3% of its total government expenditure to education. This figure is the third-highest among the four regions analyzed, after the United States, which allocated 12.6%. China allocated 10.5% of its total government expenditure to education, while India allocated 16.5%. 

As noted in Figure 2, investing in education is crucial for fostering long-term economic growth, decreasing poverty, and advancing social equality. This is because education spending has a direct impact on economic growth and development, regardless of perceptions of a gendered issue. To compare these countries is to hold accountability for the stalled progress of some over others. This view is not limited to countries in the MENA region but also countries like the U.S. which are showing a decline in spending, and countries like India, which have apparently prioritized education more. However, how well the money is allocated and managed will determine how much education spending has an impact on development results, which is of concern to many. While government spending on education is a key sign of investment in the field, it’s also critical to take into account how the money is allocated, how it’s being put to use, and if gender gaps in education are being properly addressed. Furthermore, investing in education is only one way to advance gender equality and give women more power to combat systemic barriers. 

Ultimately, establishing gender equality in education is a crucial part of sustainable development. The pursuance of gender equality and education are intricately intertwined. Using data gathered by UNESCO and the World Bank, this research analyzed gender equality in the Middle East in the context of primary and secondary education for females. The data revealed that despite advancements, there is still a sizable gender difference in enrolment rates in several MENA countries, particularly for refugee girls. In order to combat gender imbalance, the study also reviewed numerous policy measures and interventions carried out by Middle Eastern governments and international organizations. Among this, the data also provided a comparative analysis of the educational investment competency of several notable countries as compared to MENA. Even while progress has been made, the Middle East still has a long way to go before gender equality in education is achieved. This does not just mean creating an equal environment in policy and society, but also seeking an equitable solution for the current impact caused by gender discrimination. A discussion of this nature necessitates an exploration of global and regional events, such as the COVID-19 Pandemic, and the Arab Spring, and current events, such as the protests in Iran. It is necessary that governments and international organizations are responsible for coordinating to advance gender equality in education and give both men and women the tools they need to access their full potential.

About the authors:

Eren Jan is a senior majoring in Environmental Studies and Sustainability at Drew University.

Christine Joseph is a junior majoring in Political Science with a minor in Law, Justice, and Society & International Relations at Drew University. 

Editor’s note: This entry was written for Drew University's PSCI 229 Middle East Politics.