Now is the time for Arab world to invest in women

International Development Secretary Justine Greening's speech at the G8 Deauville Partnership: women in business conference

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon Justine Greening MP

I would like to start by welcoming you all here to London for the Deauville Partnership conference on the Role of Women in Arab Economies. And, of course, acknowledging the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce for their efforts to bring us together.

Since coming into the role of Secretary of State for International Development, I’ve always been clear that the women and girls agenda is a key priority for my Department.

And I’ve been clear that investing in women and girls is not only the right thing to do – and it is – it’s also the smart thing to do.

I believe that no country can develop to its full potential if only half its population, i.e. men, are involved.

I’ve said it’s a question of choice, voice and control.

Choice over what happens to women and their bodies. Voice in terms of women’s participation and right to be heard. And control in terms of their ability to decide what they want to do in their lives, to have economic empowerment and independence.

It is fair to say that my focus really has been on low income countries – those that are developing and aiming for middle income status some time in the future.

But this issue of women’s economic empowerment is a real issue in many more countries further up the per capita income chain, and that’s what I want to talk about today.

Because I believe that this event is key to putting across the message that women’s role in Arab economies should be, and needs to be, an integral part of the Deauville agenda.

Yes, it is an issue of choice, voice and control, but for many Arab countries it goes broader.

Yes, it is a matter of equity, but it’s also a matter of productivity, of competitiveness and ultimately of growth.

I know that in business women tend to face greater challenges at every stage of the process, and that this is particularly the case in the Arab world.

You know those barriers better than I – and I will only touch on a few of them briefly today. But I also want to talk about what we as the international community can do about it.

There are a number of reasons for the low levels of economic participation in the Arab world. The difference between male and female rates of participation – what we call the ‘gender gap’ – is double the global average. This makes it the highest in the world.

So what lies behind these statistics?

To start with, the risks of running a business are much higher for women. Here in the UK, if someone is forced to declare bankruptcy, it means they lose their assets and that’s a serious matter. But in many places it can even mean imprisonment. The penalties are especially severe in countries where the testimony of a woman carries less evidentiary weight in a court than that of a man.

We also have to look at property law. In many countries, property obtained through marriage is on paper owned by the man. This makes it very difficult for women to get access to finance, as they’re unable to provide collateral.

In the workplace, women also regularly lose out on non-wage benefits, such as child and family allowances, which are paid to male employees. In Egypt, there is a 32% wage gap between men and women.

Even where there are pro-equality laws in place, they are often difficult to enforce. For instance, in 2004 Morocco rescinded the provision in its law which required women to get spousal permission before they could work. However, today less than 10% of married women in Morocco are in the workforce.

In spite of these barriers, we are seeing some remarkable women emerge from the Middle East and North Africa. The prominent role played by women in the protests of 2011 demonstrates their power in driving through change. Some push change through politics, some through journalism.

But I would like to pay tribute to those of you here today pushing change through business, who have overcome real barriers to lead businesses of your own. And I hope you will be an inspiration to the next generation of women.

This brings me to my next point: Why does this matter?

Investing in women’s economic participation is smart. It is the key to unlocking the economic potential of the Arab world – especially at a time when unemployment is rising and growth is falling in many parts of the region.

Just look at the global trends, and how the times are moving. The global marketplace is set to change irreversibly.

Nearly a billion women are projected to enter the global workforce in the next decade. Women already represent 40% of the workforce, and more than half the world’s university students.

Women are pioneering the development of new global markets and we are increasingly playing important roles at all levels of the supply chain as consumers, suppliers and producers.

Just take Britain’s own Jo Malone as an example. Growing up in a council house in Kent, and leaving school at just 13 to look after her sick mother, she went on to found a company selling fragrances over 20 years ago. After many years of hard work, she sold her business to Estee Lauder in 1999, and her brand is sold all over the world. She’s of course now started her next company which can create more employment, more products, more choice. This is one success story among many others

So Lord Green, The Foreign Secretary and I have a very clear message today: Businesses that fail to connect with women or nurture female talent will miss out.

Countries that want to fuel economic growth need to support the economic talents of their women to capitalise on these new opportunities. Failing to do so means ultimately falling behind in the global competition.

International development has a key role in developing markets globally. And these markets are essential to creating jobs and addressing poverty.

This is why we are here today. Because women are key to strengthening trade between Arab, G8 and other nations and when you increase women’s incomes it leads to development benefits too.

We know that when a woman generates her own income she re-invests 90% of it in her family and community and that’s better for their economies and countries.

Girls and women are telling us loudly and clearly that their priority is jobs; taking control of their lives through education and getting skills, having access to credit, land, supply chains, support for their farms and business so they can earn a decent wage and have control over how they spend their money. This is absolutely fundamental to giving girls and women more choice.

And so I believe firmly that we need to work together to address the barriers to women’s economic participation – as a means of growing all our economies.

So let me turn to what can be done about it, and what the UK is doing to support the region:

DFID is delivering a number of important initiatives, alongside our international partners.

Firstly we are delivering programmes to overcome barriers to women’s economic participation. One stand-out example is Al Fanar in Egypt, which is working to support widowed women establish businesses – but also to tackle real legal and financial obstacles. We are delighted that Laila Iskander is here to speak about Al Fanar’s work in more detail. And I’m sure you will be as impressed as I am with her commitment and drive to improve prospects for those who are particularly vulnerable.

Secondly we are supporting skills and mentoring for women. In Tunisia, DFID funding to Mercy Corps provides vocational training for two and a half thousand young people - 60% of whom are under 35. Earlier this month we launched FORSA, a new Deauville Partnership enterprise mentoring programme which will support at least 250 entrepreneurs from the Transition Countries. Half of which are expected to be women.

Thirdly, we are getting behind Business Development Services, and asking them to focus on women entrepreneurs. With DFID support, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has partnered with the Egypt’s Social Fund for Development to provide these services.

And finally, but importantly, we are improving access to finance. A recent IFC and Vital Voices report found that less than 10% of business women had access to a business line of credit. So DFID is also extending credit to women-owned businesses through supporting EBRD, and a World Bank/IFC Micro and Small and Medium Enterprise (MSMEs) Finance Facility. This Facility develops financial products for women who would otherwise be excluded.

But I am convinced that this agenda requires us to do more, if Arab women are going to be in a position to compete regionally and globally.

I have been really impressed by the work of large international companies such as Marks and Spencer, L’Oreal and Patagonia – registering female strawberry cooperatives in Morocco, and building capacity of garment factories in Jordan that employ women. These partnerships are a model for others – because in the end it is about developing links between businesses.

This is why I am today announcing that DFID will launch a new initiative, through our Arab Partnership, which has two parts to it.

Firstly, we will look to launch a Challenge Fund for Arab Women in Business to improve the competitiveness of women entrepreneurs and access to decent jobs.

The Challenge Fund will co-fund with the private sector, practical projects that are both commercially viable and which have a positive economic impact on women. DFID will make an initial contribution of £4 million and we want to invite donors and international partners to join us. The Challenge Fund will be open for business in early 2014.

The second part of this initiative will be to provide direct technical assistance to governments to make legal and regulatory reforms aimed at improving women’s economic participation. Justice systems do not always respond to the particular needs of women and girls. Laws and red tape can lock women out of business by denying them property rights or reinforcing discrimination through labour and family laws.

By working directly with governments, we want to help remove some of these barriers to unlock women’s economic potential.

As an example of practical action, I want to see the Deauville Partnership establish a Task Force of experts who can report to leaders on the key legislative barriers to women’s economic participation. Their report could outline clear policies which governments can address with donor support. And we then need to see those policy ideas taken forward wherever we can.

But we know that alone this is not enough, and we will all have to work collaboratively in developing these ideas. There are great opportunities for us to build on the experience of all the pioneering women in this room today.

And we know that the attitudes of men and boys are part of the change that needs to take place. That is no simple task. But as a start it means us all using the positive examples of what women are doing, what women can achieve whether in big business or small businesses to challenge the stereotypes and give encouragement to the next wave of women coming into business.

And the leaders of the Deauville Partnership must ensure that the momentum that we build today is maintained. They have to make sure that the voices of women in discussions about economic reform and transition are not only listened to but acted upon.

To conclude, we need women in business, women in the workplace in Arab economies. It’s a matter of equity; it’s a matter of economy. We all have a role to play. And I will make sure I do what I can in my own role, working alongside you, to ensure that our collective voices are listened to. Momentum is everything. Today gives us that. Let’s leave a legacy for other girls and women, a world with so much more opportunity.

Published 25 June 2013