For centuries, women around the world have struggled for even the most basic rights. The fight for equality has been an uphill climb – one that is far from over. This is certainly the case in the Middle East, where the challenges women face are typically rooted in social norms, cultural systems, and religious doctrine, and can be enshrined in law.
In some Middle Eastern countries, women may not travel, work, or register to vote without permission from a man in her family. Even if it is not explicitly prohibited, joining the workforce is often very difficult for women, not least because of widespread resistance among the men who dominate these societies. Any woman who has sought to apply for a job knows just how vehement that opposition can be.
The result of these norms and structures is that women in the Middle East are often subject to discrimination, isolation, and frustration. They are unable to participate freely in their societies or contribute to their countries’ economic development.
But the world is changing fast. At a time of ever-deepening interconnectedness, people are more aware than ever of what is possible, and more motivated than ever to seek reforms – whether educational, economic, or political – that improve their lives. So which reforms are needed to advance gender equality?
A central area of focus must be education. First and foremost, schools give girls the knowledge they need to fulfill their potential in the future. But it is also vital to instill in both girls and boys an understanding of the need for social and economic equality, to reflect the fundamental equality of opportunity that all deserve.
Advancing gender equality also requires changes to policies and regulations. Beyond ensuring equal rights under the law, countries should work to boost the representation of women in politics and government. Women need to know that they can reach positions of genuine authority, even in domains from which they have historically been excluded – and they need encouragement to get there.
The same is true for the economy. Women need opportunities and support to develop and run their own businesses, to innovate, and to become financially independent. This would benefit not only women, but also their families, communities, and the economy as a whole. Even women who do not own or run businesses would have much to offer, if given the chance to enter the workforce and earn their own living.
To this end, training is crucial. Women need access to guidance, workshops, and longer-term training programs that prepare them to participate in the labor market, while ensuring that they know – and can defend – their rights.
An important initiative that could provide a useful model for such efforts is the Springboard Women’s Development Programme, developed by the British Council. The program aims to give women the confidence and capabilities they need to make a better life for themselves, both professionally and personally; to expand their role and influence in public life; and to help support open, stable, and inclusive societies across the Middle East and North Africa.
The key to the program’s success is its focus on empowering women to fulfill their potential. It helps participants explore and develop their abilities, and then apply them in practical settings, such as acquiring funding to start or expand their own businesses. It also prepares women to confront – and overcome – the obstacles they will inevitably face as they gain independence and influence.
Delivered by a network of licensed trainers, the Springboard Women’s Development Programme has already been used by over 230,000 women in more than 40 countries. In just four years, the program has trained more than 700 women in my country, Oman, through the Ministry of Education. And many more women are clamoring to participate.
Achieving gender equality in the Middle East will be a long process, requiring fundamental educational, social, and economic reforms. But giving women the right training now can kick-start the process, enabling half the population finally to reach their potential – to the benefit of all.
Arib Ali Al-Mandhari is a senior official at the Ministry of Education, Sultanate of Oman