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Why WE Lead: Series Introduction

Women are the movers and shakers of the Middle East, North Africa, and Afghanistan. They are increasingly stepping forward, into jobs and leadership roles, to spearhead the future of their countries.

Article by Shannon Bradford and Farhat Popal July 9, 2018 //   5 minute read

Why WE Lead is the George W. Bush Institute’s policy and research that investigates economic advancement and the role of women’s leadership in the Middle East, North Africa, and Afghanistan. This body of work runs parallel to WE Lead, our women’s economic and leadership training program.

Turn on the television or read the news, and it seems like the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), as well as Afghanistan, are in a constant state of turmoil. Images of violence, displacement, hunger, and extremism dominate news cycles. Yet these images fail to acknowledge the hope in the region—the many changemakers, particularly women, who are doing the painstaking work of economic, political, and social advancement necessary for long-term prosperity.

There are plenty of women leaders to look to when illustrating this point:  Zainularab Miri, a beekeeper from Afghanistan featured in We Are Afghan Women: Voices of Hope, regularly shares her leadership skills and knowledge of running lucrative beekeeping businesses with other women in her province. Dr. Salma Nims, Secretary General of the Jordanian National Commission for Women, made history in Jordan by galvanizing activists to dismantle discriminatory sexual assault statutes in 2017. And Tunisian lawyer and professor Eya Bouchoucha advocates for women’s rights through her work in civil society, asserting that economic reform must factor in the unique challenges that women face in order to eradicate poverty.

They know that pushing for the economic advancement of men, women, youth, and refugees—including bridging the gap between education and employment prospects, tackling discriminatory legislation, spurring private sector development, diminishing barriers to the formal economy, promoting foreign direct investment, and advocating at the grassroots level—can benefit their communities in countless ways. And they are leading progress despite institutionalized practices, such as “protective” measures stipulating fewer working hours, restrictions to “female-oriented” professions, and unequal property rights, which limit their participation in society. Despite female educational attainment nearing parity with boys in many MENA countries, women’s labor force participation in MENA is the lowest in the world.

Beyond legal restrictions, their governments have undervalued them. The International Monetary Fund estimated that $1 trillion from 2000 to 2011 could have been realized across MENA economies had the gender gap been narrowed. However, with the shifting nature of the global energy market, countries once dependent on oil and gas have been forced to diversify their portfolios. The public sectors of these countries/regions, which have traditionally employed broad swaths of the population, can no longer accommodate workforce demands as a result of high fertility rates, large youth populations, and an influx of refugees. Under this intense strain and growing debt, inclusive growth stands as one of the most effective paths forward. Governments must face the music if they want to grow and look to one of their most important and underutilized assets: women.

Tides are slowly changing. The Egyptian government has increased funding for public childcare services so that more women can enter the workforce. In Morocco, government initiatives are encouraging entrepreneurship and internship opportunities for young people. In Saudi Arabia, recent legislation has granted women the right to drive. But further action is needed. The women leaders advancing economic opportunity in these regions need support.

This is why the Bush Institute has developed a leadership program for mid-level professionals. WE Lead will engage with rising leaders and encourage collaboration across countries to drive solutions for prosperity and progress. Participants will also contribute to the Bush Institute’s new policy and research work, Why WE Lead, centered on women’s leadership in the economies of these regions. Why WE Lead brings together thought leaders from the public and private sectors for insightful and intriguing Q&As, articles, and policy briefs.

Next time you read about MENA and Afghanistan, remember that women are increasingly stepping forward, into jobs and leadership roles, to spearhead the future. They are, and will continue to be, the movers and shakers that transform their regions.