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The Failure of IFI Policies to Address Gender Inequalities in the MENA Region

Middle East & North Africa

The close of 2023 brought the end of the consultation process for the World Bank’s 2024-2030 gender strategy.[1] Meant to signal the Bretton Woods twins’ dedication to gender equality and gender-responsive policymaking, the Bank’s final output built upon existing institutional commitments as well as on the gender strategy unveiled by the IMF in 2022.

As activists have pointed out, whatever gender-related commitments the World Bank and IMF now profess, they are negated in practice by the primacy that the institutions continue to assign to austerity. As is well established, austerity functions to intensify underlying inequalities, gendered ones in particular. Whether one speaks of income and wealth gaps, access to services, integration into the formal labor market, or the distribution of unpaid care work, austerity makes conditions unambiguously worse for women.

The gendered effects of austerity are abundantly apparent in the Middle East and North Africa. There, countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan have been faithfully applying IMF and World Bank loan conditionalities for decades. Despite their fidelity, little progress has been made when it comes to the economic empowerment of women and other vulnerable groups. To the contrary, women in the MENA region today find themselves juggling increasingly unaffordable basic services and disproportionate loads of unpaid care work. Their low labor force participation and high unemployment rates, meanwhile, have barely budged. Austerity, designed and installed as part of credit arrangements by the international financial institutions (IFIs), have not only failed to address women’s struggles, but in many instances aggravated them.

The majority of discussions on austerity-induced gender inequalities in the MENA region center upon questions of income and service access. Other gender-inflected inequalities—such as women’s exclusion from the labor market and responsibility for unpaid care work—are relatively marginalized, and in the case of the IMF and the World Bank, ignored altogether. Cognizant of these absences, this paper draws those latter issues to the foreground. In truth, never has the link between labor force participation, care work, and austerity policies been more pertinent than in our present moment. 

Austerity and Labor Force Participation

Women outside the job market

The MENA region has one of the highest gender gaps in labor force participation rates in the world. Globally, labor force participation rates for men and women were 78% and 53% respectively in 2022, which translates to a 25-point gap. In the MENA region, however, the gap that same year was an astounding 55 points, with men participating at a rate of 72% and women at a mere 17%.[2]

A number of factors can explain women’s persistent non-engagement with paid work in the MENA region. Playing a critical role, of course, is families’ increasing reliance on unpaid care work. This reliance stems largely though not exclusively from the privatization of public services, healthcare and education especially. What privatization has functioned to do is price out low- and medium-income households from accessing market-provided services. This, in turn, forces women, as the traditional care takers, to stay in the household to look after children, the sick and the elderly.

Also obstructing women from both joining and remaining in the labor force are difficulties in getting hired. Though globally speaking, men and women have the same unemployment rate of 5.8% (2022), in the Middle East and North Africa, women are unemployed at a rate of 19.3%, which is nearly ten percentage points higher than the regional rate for men.[3] Compounding matters further, women in the MENA region are also more likely to face longer periods of unemployment than are men. This is particularly so during periods of crisis, as the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and the region’s many bouts with political and economic turmoil have revealed.[4] The experience of fruitless job searches over sustained periods has significant attritional effects: With time, it leads a great many women to drop out of the labor force.

Systemic Discrimination

Furnishing additional headwinds to women as they seek a stable and rewarding position in MENA labor market are cultural mores and, relatedly, the discriminatory hiring practices of private sector employers. The salience of these variables may strike as counter-intuitive in view of the region’s successes in closing the education gap between men and women. In 2019, the gap in mean years of schooling for the MENA (8.5 years for men and 8.1 for women) was smaller than the global average[5], and forward-looking indicators are encouraging as well: In 2017, gross enrolment in tertiary education was higher for the region’s women than men.[6]

Unfortunately, achievements in education are not translating to better labor market outcomes for women. Worse, the effect of schooling on women’s employment is in many instances proving negative, and to a greater degree than is the case for men. In Tunisia, for example, where 13.2% of all men and 21.1% of all women were unemployed in the second quarter of 2023, amongst college graduates, the corresponding figures were 14.9% and 31%.[7]

As intimated, these discrepancies need be understood as deriving from both cultural elements and discriminatory hiring practices. Concerning the former, at the population level, 70.6% of people in Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt think men have more of a right to employment than women when jobs are scarce[8], and 73.4% believe a pre-school child suffers with a working mother.[9] As for discriminatory hiring practices, data from Tunisia is again instructive: There, 27.5% of employers express preference for male candidates in hiring for professional and managerial positions, where just 9.7% express preference for female candidates (62.7%, it should be said, express no gender preference). Discriminatory tendencies become more pronounced, moreover, when it comes to hiring for low-skilled jobs and jobs in productive activities. In these instances, 45.2% of employers reveal a preference for male candidates against 16% preferring female ones (38.8% have no gender preference).[10]

These underlying conditions pertain to the question of austerity and women’s labor force participation through an indirect though significant causal chain. To appreciate why, one need first grasp that in seeking to mitigate effects of discrimination in private sector hiring, many regional governments adopted public sector hiring practices that were either non-gender biased or favorable to women. Such well-intended policies led to women employees being disproportionately represented in the public sector. Evidence of this, in 2015, Tunisian women made up 26% of the employed population, but 36% of public sector employees.[11] In Jordan in and around the same time, women accounted for a mere 13.6% of all employees, but 21.3% of workers in the public sector.[12]

What is more, the benefits and protections provided by public sector employment, such as maternity leave, have also had the effect of keeping state-employed women in the labor force for longer. So has the public sector’s partial insulation from laws designed to “flexibilize” labor regulations. Pushed by the IFIs back in the 1990s, these laws afford employers greater discretion in hiring and firing. In practice, they have had a lesser effect on those working for state-owned enterprises and the civil service while in the private sector, they have often allowed bosses to dismiss women employees needing to deal with care work and family obligations. Testifying to just how important the public sector is to women’s labor force participation, surveys administered in Egypt show that 94% of women who were working in the public sector prior to marriage kept their jobs thereafter, whereas only 56% of those employed in the private sector did.[13]

Expectedly, MENA women’s cultivated dependence on the public sector ultimately renders them more vulnerable to austerity. Austerity, after all, requires declines in public sector hiring and the state’s more general retreat from the labor market.

Here we can double back to the IMF and World Bank. In pushing for the privatization of state-owned enterprise, freezes in civil service hiring, and caps on the public sector wage bill in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia, these institutions disproportionately exposed the women of these countries to labor market risks.[14] To take an emblematic example, in Jordan—where “more than 41.8% of working women […] are engaged in the education sector, 15.3% in health and social services”—disinvestment from the state’s wider care economy closed down the main points of entry through which women traditionally joined the labor market.[15] In failing to address matters of systemic discrimination in the private sector, these institutions then compounded this problem by helping ensure that new points of entry did not open. Indeed, where the IFIs have tried to help women’s plight in the private sector, it has been through either skill-development programs or microfinance-styled initiatives meant to boost entrepreneurship. The skill-developed programs underwhelm because they misdiagnose the problem at hand: Women’s unemployment is not a function of a lack of skills, but of discrimination in hiring and insufficient demand for labor in the private sector. Entrepreneurship-focused efforts, meanwhile, flounder because they disregard cultures of discrimination—business suppliers and product consumers are often biased against women-led businesses—and fail to account for beggar-thy-neighbor effects: As more and more microenterprises enter into the same locally-oriented markets, the viability of each individual business declines.

Privatization increases the load of unpaid care work for women.

Households’ loss of access to public services

In addition to pushing women out of the formal job market, the austerity policies that have been advanced on the back of IMF and the World Bank loans also directly contribute to women’s growing burdens for unpaid care work.

Care work encompasses cooking, housework, child rearing, and looking after the sick and elderly, amongst other things. These tasks are typically seen, in the MENA region and beyond, as women’s work. A portion of them had once been covered or reduced by the state via a network of public schools, hospitals, and long-term care facilities for the elderly. When privatization processes advanced as part of a wider regime of austerity, however—ultimately leading to the privatization of education and health services—the costs of market-provided care services swiftly became prohibitive for most lower- and middle-class families.

A number of data points can help provide a sense for the crisis of care currently unfolding. In Lebanon, where the private sector dominates in the domain of education, 72% of households express being unable to afford the cost of their children’s schooling.[16] In Egypt, where the Sisi regime has significantly advanced the reach of private education, tuition at private institutions has come to average at a third of a family’s annual per capita consumption, a price level far beyond what a household could reasonably pay.[17] On the healthcare front, meanwhile, Tunisia has seen private sector service providers grow at a much faster rate than public ones in recent times.[18] This is doubly problematic in that the vast majority of private investment and 90% of existing private clinics are located within the more affluent coastal areas, leaving poorer interior regions largely without services.[19] In Jordan, meanwhile, while 42.8% of households had at least one adult member with a chronic illness, more than two fifths of these households reported difficulty in accessing services. For a majority experiencing such difficulties, the reason is affordability.[20]

Women as shock absorbers

As more and more families find themselves unable to pay for privatized education, health, and care services, the effect has predictably been to require that women—mothers, grandmothers, daughters, wives and sisters—step into the breach. If childcare, pre-K or kindergarten becomes unaffordable, it is women who are expected to stay at home and see to the care and education of the child. To appreciate how deeply this expectation runs, consider that in Egypt, 98% of men believe that “changing diapers, giving baths to children, and feeding children should all be the mother’s responsibility”.[21] Likewise, if hospital treatment becomes inaccessible, it is women who are expected to take care of the sick and elderly and see to their needs.

With the state neither providing key services—nor attempting, as it did in many cases during the early post-colonial period, to advance women’s rights at a cultural level—the amount of care work Arab women are now providing is such as to stop many from pursuing a career.  If we again take Egypt as an example, there, we see 88.6% of women reporting that they are responsible for household work such as cooking, cleaning and, laundry, while only 4.4% of men report likewise. 64.5% of Egyptian women also report being responsible for caring for the young, sick or elderly, as opposed to just 9.3% of Egyptian men, just as more than 60% of Egyptian women (and only 34.7% of Egyptian men) report needing to take care of shopping for food and clothes and arranging transportation for a household member.[22] Add it all up and in total, Egyptian women on average must devote 30.25 hours a week to the tasks of social reproduction, while men need only allocate 4.19 hours.[23] Nor is North Africa’s most populous country exceptional in these regards. On average, Tunisian women spend 17 hours per week on care work, while men spend but three. And the numbers get more discrepant after marriage: Married Tunisian women devote 23 hours a week to care work, while married men devote only five.[24] (That said, note that these gender imbalances attain even amongst children. A study in 2017 showed that Tunisian girls must give 6.4 hours per week to housework, while Tunisian boys need offer only 4.9[25]).

Predictably, women’s care burdens only became more intense during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. With austerity and debt obligations limiting the role states could play, women, especially married women, saw their part in unpaid care work jump significantly. Surveys carried out at the time in Jordan documented 33% of unmarried women and 41% of married women reporting that their direct care work increased. In Egypt, the corresponding numbers were 27% of unmarried women and 41% of married women. In Morocco, meanwhile, 32% of unmarried women and 48% of married women expressed they had experienced an increase in their direct care work.[26]


The consequences of Arab women needing accept more and more of the burden of social reproduction are profound. Most pertinent to our concerns, they include exit from the labor force. Lest one think the causal link exaggerated, an ILO study on Jordan from 2018 found that “unpaid care work is the most significant reason for women’s inactivity in the labor force…with 77.4% of women citing this compared with 3.7% men.”[27]

But shouldering care work does not only impact women’s prospects in the workplace. It also leads women to suffer from what is called “time poverty”, or the lack of discretionary time for pursuing non-family related activities. The ravages of time poverty are multiple: They deprive women of the opportunity to seek employment, continue their education, participate in political life, and enjoy leisure.[28] Some studies have also discovered a link between time poverty and women’s health, with the causality being that women are left without the time needed to seek healthcare (prenatal care included) and to more generally invest in their well-being.[29]

Despite the unmissable impact that unpaid care work has on the life chances of women and girls throughout the Middle East and North Africa, the IFIs continue to pay it inadequate mind in advancing their gender strategies. The IMF, for its part, makes no mention of this factor in its country assessments and policy recommendations. In so doing, it regularly ignores demands put forth to it by feminist organizations which have called for an end to austerity and the construction of more equitable and inclusive care economies. The World Bank’s interest in care work, meanwhile, seems only to extend to the private sector solutions it puts forth: Where the Bank does engage matters of education, healthcare, and child and elderly care, it proposes privatization along with means-tested public subsidies for addressing “market failures.” This is so despite tomes of literature establishing how these two-tier systems end up being compromised by inaccessibility, unaffordability, and inequity. In its current draft, the institution’s 2024-2030 gender strategy simply ignores the deeper causes behind women’s responsibility for care work.[30] Whatever their stated objectives on decreasing gender inequalities may be, in remaining wedded to austerity, the IFIs and their partners in MENA governments end up entrenching and deepening these inequalities. In strangling the public sector and deregulating the private sector, these actors not only limit women’s access to services, but put them at higher risk of leaving the workforce, being unemployed, having more unpaid care work, and falling into time poverty. By extension, they contribute to the disempowerment of women and render them more vulnerable to poverty, violence, and exploitation. Until larger paradigms of work are altered to align them with feminist ideals, the truth is that the IFIs, like MENA governments, will merely be seeking the branding gains that come from the use of feminist language.

[1] World Bank Group. “World Bank Gender Strategy 2024 – 2030: Accelerate Gender Equality for a Sustainable, Resilient and Inclusive Future”, Brief, World Bank, December 1, 2023.

[2] World Bank, World Bank Open Data, accessed October 6, 2023.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Oxfam MENA, The Middle East and North Africa Gap: Prosperity for the Rich, Austerity for the Rest, October 2023, p. 13.

Mouldi Ben Amor, Le chômage des jeunes : déterminants et caractéristiques, Institut Tunisien de la compétitivité et des études quantitatives, Notes et analyses de l’ITCEQ, no 05-2012, 2012.

[5] Amna Puri-Mirza, “Mena: Gender Breakdown Mean Years of Schooling by Country 2019,” Statista, November 25, 2021.

[6] Amna Puri-Mirza, “Mena: Mean Years of Education by Gender 2018,” Statista, December 21, 2022.

[7] National Institute of statistics, Unemployment, ins.tn, Accessed 5 January, 2024.

[8] Christian Haerpfer, Ronald Inglehart, Alejandro Moreno, Christian Welzel, Kseniya Kizilova, Jaime Diez-Medrano, Marta Lagos, Pippa Norris, Edouard Ponarin & Bi Puranen (eds),World Values Survey: Round Seven – Country-Pooled Datafile, JD Systems Institute & WVSA Secretariat, 2022.

[9] Ibid.

[10] International Labor Organization, Transition vers le marché du travail des jeunes femmes et hommes en Tunisie : résultats de l’enquête auprès des entreprises, 2015.

[11] Sahar Mechmech, “The Impact of Austerity Policies on Women and Marginalized GroupsAswat Nissa, May 2023, p.  24.

[12] Abeer Dababneh, Salah Taher, Women’s Economic Participation in Jordan Reality and Challenges of the Private Sector, Phenix Center for Economics and Informatics Studies, March 2016, p. 8.

[13] Oxfam, Women’s Unpaid Work in Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia and Egypt, 2019, p. 36.

[14] Sahar Mechmech, “Crossed-Looks n°2 : Rebuilding Social Protection in the MENA Region in breaking out from IFI reformsPolicy Brief, no 13, Tunisian Economic Observatory, November 2023, p. 4.

[15] Abeer Dababneh, Salah Taher, Women’s Economic Participation in Jordan Reality and Challenges of the Private Sector, Phenix Center for Economics and Informatics Studies, March 2016, p. 8.

[16] Nehme Nehme, “The Cost of Education in Lebanon Treasury and Community Expenditure” Centre for Lebanese Studies, 2023, p. 46.

[17] Caroline Krafft, Asmaa Elbadawy, Maia Sieverding, “Constrained school choice in EgyptInternational Journal of Educational Development, Volume 71, 2019, p. 29.

[18] Tunisian Health Ministry, Carte Sanitaire 2020-2021, December 2022, p. 25.

[19] Cours des Comptes, “Supervision Et Contrôle Des Cliniques Privées,” courdescomptes.nat.tn, February 12, 2021, p. 212.

[20] Nirmala Ravishankar, Jewel Gausman, “Analysing equity in health utilization and expenditure in Jordan-with focus on maternal and child health services” ThinkWell /UNICEF, August 2016, p. 52.

[21] Shereen El-Feki, Brian Heilman and Gary Barker (eds), Understanding Masculinities: Results from the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES) – Middle East and North Africa, UN Women and Promundo-US, 2017.

[22] Oxfam, Women’s Unpaid Work in Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia and Egypt, 2019, p. 33.

[23] Ibid, p.  36.

[24] UN Women, The Care Economy in Tunisia: Towards Recognizing, Reducing and Redistributing Unpaid Care Work, December 2020, p. 2.

[25] Institut National des Statistiques, Enquête Nationale sur le Travail des Enfants en Tunisie, Tunis, INS, 2017, pp.  22-23.

[26] Caroline Krafft, Ilhaan Omar, Irène Selwaness and Maia Sieverding, Women’s employment and care work in MENA during the pandemic, The Economic Research Forum (ERF), August 2022.

[27] Oxfam, Women’s Unpaid Work in Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia and Egypt, 2019, p. 38.

[28] Elizabeth Hyde, Margaret E Greene, Gary L Darmstadt, “Time poverty: Obstacle to women’s human rights, health and sustainable development,” Journal of Global Health, 10, 2, December 2020.

[29] Usha R Ranji, Caroline Rosenzweig, Ivette Gomez I, Alina Salganicoff, 2017 Kaiser Women’s Health Survey, The Henry J. Kaiser Foundation, 2018.

[30] World Bank, World Bank Gender Strategy 2024 – 2030 : Accelerate Gender Equality for a Sustainable, Resilient, and Inclusive Future – Consultation Draft (English), Washington, D.C. : World Bank Group.