Rethinking the Future of Women's Empowerment in Egypt: Economic Engagement & COVID-19

May 28, 2021

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 Photo credit: UN Women/Emad Karim

This blog is the first of a two-part series - co-produced by FHI 360 and MarketShare Associates - on Rethinking the Future of Women’s Empowerment in response to the global pandemic. The second part focuses on the challenges in the fight against gender-based violence.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused tremendous disruption in the lives of many around the globe. Women have been extraordinarily affected, in what can be described as the biggest setback to gender equality in a decade. The long-term implications of this global crisis on women’s lives will not be known quite some time, but we are slowly learning about the hardships confronting women as a result of the pandemic. During recent consultations with over 75 of FHI 360’s Gender Equality and Social Inclusion (GESI) champions and experts across 30 countries, every single one confirmed that women project participants are bearing a disproportionate burden of the pandemic. This is especially true for women with disabilities, older women, younger women, and those living in rural areas, bringing issues of gender equality, social inclusion and women’s empowerment to the forefront. The COVID-19 impact on women must be carefully monitored and discussed across multiple demographic groups. In this two-part blog series, we will explore the challenges and opportunities brought forth by the pandemic for women in Egypt, starting off with the impact on women’s economic engagement.

The State of Gender Parity in Egypt

Egypt is currently ranked at 134 out of 153 according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, making it one of the bottom twenty countries in terms of achieving parity between women and men in health, education, economy and politics. Growing evidence from around the globe suggests that the pandemic will continue to exacerbate gender inequalities. In recent decades, Egypt has made many promising strides forward in women’s equality, especially in education, where more women than men currently graduate with a higher education diploma, effectively closing the gender gap in education. Women’s participation in the economy, however, is lagging behind. According to the 2019 Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS) report, female contribution to the labor force is less than 21% as compared to 79% for men, and the percentage of women in the workforce averages at 18% as compared to 82% of men.

Between 2015 and 2019, FHI 360 supported USAID’s efforts to perform an analysis of 50 USAID projects around the world, including those in Egypt, in order to better understand existing approaches to women’s economic empowerment and equality (WE3). Around the same time, FHI 360 held regional Whole-System-in-a-Room workshops with WE3 stakeholders to help create a draft Women’s Economic Empowerment and Equality Framework. A key finding that emerged through these initiatives is that advancing women’s economic empowerment requires supporting access, agency, leadership, the enabling environment and risk mitigation, all important themes to consider as we think about women’s resilience during a crisis.

Beyond Private Sector Participation to Economic Engagement

Given the social and institutional norms in Egypt, supporting women’s access to work is not enough. Once Egyptian women enter the workforce, their retention rates are low, as evidenced by the young age of the women in the workplace: 48% of them are under 30, as compared to 30% of working men. There are various reasons for this, including a lack of women-friendly work environments, as well as social norms constraining women’s ability to continue work after getting married and having children. Women in Egypt report a lack of enforcement of anti-sexual harassment and discrimination laws, in addition to a long list of unsatisfactory working conditions for women such as negative attitudes towards women in the workplace and a persistent wage gap between women and men. Even before the pandemic, data showed that the average Egyptian woman spent 5 hours of her time each day on household activities, and 2.3 hours caring for family members, as compared to 1.7 hours and 1.8 hours spent by men on the same activities. Moreover, about 32% of working women in Egypt are considered to be in “vulnerable employment”, which constitutes of employment likely without formal work arrangements, decent working conditions, adequate social security and ‘voice’ through effective representation. Women in these situations are more likely to lose their jobs during economic shocks such as the one triggered by COVID-19. With this reality, women need more than job opportunities. They need system-level changes that can only be accomplished through wider initiatives promoting safe and women-friendly workplaces, challenging gendered social norms at a collective level and addressing formal rules and laws that do not currently support working women. FHI 360’s recent work on the USAID Jordan funded Local Enterprise Support Project (LENS) project for example, supported the passing of Home Based Business legal reform in Jordan, making it easier and less costly for women to register a home-based business and enter into formal contracts. This is the kind of system-level change women need.

Technology Will Empower Women Entrepreneurs

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, The Egyptian government has launched a number of economic initiatives to support women entrepreneurs, including the provision of technical and financial support to women-led businesses and microfinance beneficiaries, as highlighted in a recent OECD policy brief. Organizations supporting women’s economic empowerment will have an important role to play to ensure women are able to remain resilient during and following this crisis. As highlighted in a webinar focused on women’s economic empowerment in the time of COVID-19, some promising approaches might include provision of training in business strategies that focus on business resilience versus growth, building foundational skills such as digital and financial literacy that better equip women to pivot, and/or increasing access to financial services during times of crisis.

Given the high number of women entrepreneurs in Egypt who work from home along with the COVID-19 environment, the use of digital and tech-enabled solutions is critical for their empowerment. For example, digital financial services have accelerated their growth and e-wallets have proven to be a key channel for distributing financial aid to those most in need, while also allowing women to manage bills and payments remotely in the wake of movement restrictions. The DFID-funded Arab Women’s Enterprise Fund (AWEF) has worked with a number of e-wallet or e-payment service providers in both Egypt and Jordan to improve women’s access to and use of digital financial services. AWEF has also supported the development of female mobile money agent networks in both countries - and many of these agents have been able to continue earning an income tied to commissions on payments, even as other economic activities have slowed down.

We are hopeful that new and upcoming technology solutions will support working women and mothers through COVID-19 and beyond. Programs can help amplify their uptake and drive results through public awareness campaigns by demonstrating how tools can improve lives and livelihoods for millions of women around the globe. This is how we can ensure a wider, system-level impact.

Ania Chaluda is a Technical Advisor in Monitoring and Evaluation at the Global Education, Employment, and Engagement Unit at FHI 360, where she designs and implements monitoring, evaluation and research approaches for international development programs, with emphasis on gender and social inclusion.

Iman El Shayeb is an FHI 360 Senior Technical Consultant and an international development professional, designer and launcher of portfolios specializing in economic growth, gender and women empowerment and democracy and governance. Ms. El Shayeb directed high profile and multifaceted portfolios with the US government and private sector. Her work experience includes the U.S., Iraq, Jordan, Germany, Afghanistan and Egypt. She has an MBA and a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Business Administration from the American University in Cairo.