Baseline Study: Female Youth in the Middle East

girls singing

As an important building block in improving our understanding of the forces shaping the attitudes and behavior of young people in the Middle East, this currently ongoing study focuses on issues pertaining to female youth. This study:

  • creates a baseline overview describing the condition of female youth in terms of numbers, age distribution, education, health, family situation, legal status, and economic and political participation
  • looks for positive trends — indications that key difficulties as highlighted in the UNDP Arab Human Development Report are being overcome or at least earnestly addressed
  • identifies the policies and circumstances that appear to have made these positive changes possible
  • pinpoints incongruencies — areas where key statistical indicators would lead us to expect more gains than are in fact being accrued
  • identifies, on the basis of these incongruencies, topics and countries that require closer study to identify the underlying obstacles and impediments to progress.

Looking specifically at the situation of young women is useful because:

  • Issues related to gender have high political saliency in the greater Middle East;
  • Policies towards girls and women are a good litmus test of broader societal, ideological and political intentions;
  • Advances in the situation of girls and young women in terms of education, economic participation, and in the family, have been shown to produce direct and measurable gains to public health, economic growth, sustainable fertility rates and other core determinants of progress.

The Arab Human Development Report notes that:

"Gender inequality is the most pervasive manifestation of inequity of all kinds in any society because it typically affects half the population. There have been important quantitative improvements with respect to building women's capabilities in recent years. For example, Arab countries have shown the fastest improvements in female education of any region. Women's literacy rates have expanded threefold since 1970; female primary and secondary enrolment rates have more than doubled. However, these achievements have not succeeded in countering gender-based social attitudes and norms that exclusively stress women's reproductive role. . . As a consequence, more than half of Arab women are still illiterate. The region's maternal mortality rate is double that of Latin America and the Caribbean, and four times that of East Asia. Women also suffer from unequal citizenship and legal entitlements, often evident in voting rights and legal codes. The utilization of Arab women's capabilities remains the lowest in the world in quantitative terms, as evidenced by the very low share of women in parliaments, cabinets, and the work force and in the trend towards the feminization of unemployment. Qualitatively, women suffer from inequality of opportunity, evident in employment status, wages and gender-based occupational segregation. Society as a whole suffers when a huge proportion of its productive potential is stifled, resulting in lower family incomes and standards of living." 1

Richard Haas cited the equal participation of women as one of eight preconditions to democratic development in the Islamic world, arguing that

"countries cannot be successful democracies if more than half their population is denied basic democratic rights. The rights women enjoy are a key determinant of the overall vibrancy of any society. Patriarchal societies in which women play a subservient role to men are also societies in which men play subservient roles to men, and meritocracy takes a back seat to connections and cronyism." 2

This assertion is supported by empirical research. A World Bank study found that:

"the greater the representation of women in parliament, the lower the level of corruption. We find this association in a large cross-section of countries; the result is robust to a wide range of specifications."3

A study of six developing countries found the same to hold true for public sector institutions; more specifically, it found that corruption is highest when the presence of women is below 30%.4 It rises again when women form more than 70% of public officials in an institution;5 in other words, approximate gender parity is the optimum institutional ratio from the point of view of preventing corruption.

Our baseline study will advance this discussion by sharpening the focus on solutions and policy. Zeroing in on places where reforms are showing an effect, and on those where they are not, will allow an improved understanding of the real obstacles and indicate ways to overcome them.


1 p. 3
2 Richard Haass, "Towards Greater Democracy in the Muslim World," Address to the Council on Foreign Relations, 4. Dec. 2002
3 David Dollar, Raymond Fisman, Roberta Gatti, "Are Women Really the 'Fairer' Sex? Corruption and Women in Government, The World Bank, October 1999. See also Swamy Anand, Steve Knack, Young Lee, Omar Azfar, "Gender and Corruption," Journal of Developmental Economics, 64, 1, p. 25 ff.
4 Omer Gokcekus, Ranjana Mukherjee, "Public Sector Corruption and Gender," World Bank, June 2002,, viewed Sept. 4, 2003
5 apparently because when women dominate the institutional culture, female group dynamics begin to discourage the reporting of incidences of corruption.
6 Stephan Klasen, "Does Gender Inequality Reduce Growth and Development? Evidence From Cross-Country Regressions," The World Bank, November 1999; N. LagerlÖf, "Gender Inequality, Fertility and Growth," Department of Economics, University of Sydney, 1999; M. Murthi, J. Dreze, "Mortality, Fertility and Gender Bias in India," Population and Development Review, 21, 1995; J. Sachs, M. Warner, "Source of Slow Growth in African Economies," Journal of African Economies, 6, 1997
7 Eizabeth King, Andrew Mason, Engendering Development, World Bank 2003