Female education in the Middle East – successes, challenges and the future

The education of women in the Middle East is, by any standard, a sensitive and complex issue. Part of the complexity of the issue is demonstrated in the vast disparity in standards and outcomes in female learning across regions, countries, and even between neighbouring communities. What is true for Yemen or Syria might be very different for the UAE or Bahrain. In some parts of the Middle East women and girls are powering ahead in the education stakes – surpassing their male counterparts when it comes to school performance and higher education attainment. In other areas basic educational indicators for girls are painfully low, with severe consequences for her chances of independence, health and longevity. One significant commonality that we do see across the region at large, regardless of female educational performance, is the enduring underrepresentation of women in the workforce. So, even where education systems are working for females, workforce participation remains a problem. How do we address these issues? First, an understanding of the dynamics and complexities helps…

A 2014 UNESCO Report on gender imbalances in education around the world highlighted the plight of the 15 million girls globally who will never attend school. In the Arab states, this is true for almost two out of every three girls. The UNESCO Report found that 100 million young women around the world were unable to read a single sentence – and again, the Arab states features disproportionately. According to UNESCO, the share of females in the out of school population in the region is 60 percent.

You don’t have to look very far to see the disastrous impact failing to educate girls has on not only the individual, but the wider community in which she lives. According to UNESCO, educating women at a primary and secondary level can reduce the incidence of child marriage and child mortality by 49 percent and 64 percent, respectively. And by providing females with just a primary school education, all maternal deaths can be reduced by two thirds.

But the thing about the Middle East, as is so often pointed out in this blog, is that broad and sweeping generalisations can never be applied to the whole region. In those countries where female education is (largely) encouraged, girls are seizing the opportunities presented to them and outperforming their male peers when it comes to staying in school, academic success and qualifying for tertiary level institutions. A 2014 study released by the Brookings Institute found that the share of boys in school that do not meet basic learning levels is higher than girls in almost every country in the region with available data.

Girls, more than boys, see education as a means to become independent and a chance to experience the world - opening up opportunities unimaginable to women of their mothers’ generation. According to the American Embassy in the UAE, 95 percent of all Emirati girls who complete secondary education enrol in a higher education or tertiary institution, compared to just 80 percent of males. Measured at an institutional level, Emirati women account for close to 72 percent of students enrolled in government tertiary institutions and 50 percent in private tertiary institutions. A similar story is seen across the Gulf states, where female demand for university placement is strong. So strong, that in 2011 Saudi Arabia opened Princess Noura Bint Abdulrahman University, the world’s largest female-only university with capacity for 60,000 students.

What these encouraging statistics don’t reveal, however, is what these girls and women are doing with their hard won education. The unfortunate reality is that, even in countries where women are expected to finish secondary school and gain a degree, female workforce participation across the Middle East remains very low - some of the lowest in the world. The same Brookings study mentioned above found that in all Arab countries surveyed, despite gains in the education stakes, young adult women are much less likely to be employed than men. Labour force participation is particularly low for women, with an average of 24.1 percent compared with 77.2 percent for men. The low female participation rate, together with high unemployment, means that only about 18 percent of working-age Arab women actually have jobs.

Some commentators suggest that in some Arab states at least, this trend is reversing as populations come to understand the economic and social importance of better utilising female energies and talents in the workplace. The increasing number of women undertaking STEM based degrees (rather than studying humanities) is also likely to make females more employable. But, for the time being, gender imbalance in the workforce remains a significant issue for both gender equality and economic growth.

So – what does all this mean for us as educators, policymakers, private investors and parents? How can we build on the recent achievements for females in education and make good learning outcomes for females the norm across the region? Importantly, what more do we need to do to translate educational achievement into workforce success? Around the world, personal preference, cultural sensitivities, childcare responsibilities and a ‘glass ceiling’ hinder female advancement in the work place. So how do we address these challenges here, in the Middle East? What policies, qualifications and practical changes do we need to implement to encourage meaningful reform and to achieve the ultimate goal of education equity?

Let us know what you think by messaging us at thoughtleadership.me@pearson.com.