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Beyond the Arab uprisings: creating economic opportunities for women

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Maria Andrews
Director of Marketing and Communications
Women for Women International

A joint conference by Women for Women International (WfWI) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) took place in June at the EBRD’s headquarters in London.

The focus for the conference was on the economic opportunities for women following the Arab Spring uprisings and how partnerships with the private and NGO sector can create openings for women in North Africa.  

The conference brought together government officials, representatives of international financial institutions, experts in gender and equality issues, researchers and members of civil society. 

Participants discussed the impact of the Arab uprisings and creating a more enabling environment to enhance economic opportunities for women, along with the different factors that affect female employment in the private sector, such as labour legislation and employment policies.   

The conference opened with a presentation by Dr Naif Al-Mutawa, Founder and CEO of Teshkeel Media Group and Creator of “The 99.”  

He had a trailblazing and pioneering idea to break down prejudices using comic book superheroes characters born of Islamic archetype and bring them together with other iconic comic book characters to communicate to audiences around the world.   

Conference panelists included Erik Berglof, EBRD’s Chief of Economics, Rania Al-Mashat, Deputy Governor of the Egyptian central bank, and Manuela Ferro, Director for the MENA region in charge of the economic, poverty reduction and gender agenda at the World Bank. 

The sessions were expertly chaired by Roula Khalaf, Middle East Editor of the Financial Times, Hans-Peter Lankes, Managing Director of the Institutional Strategy and Executive Committee Management for the EBRD, and  Brita Fernandez Schmidt, Director of Policy and Development for Women for Women International. 

The afternoon keynote speech was made by the Founder of Women for Women International, Zainab Salbi, an Iraqi, activist and social entrepreneur who is changing the world one woman at time.  

Sharing the experience of WfWI in helping women survivors of war rebuild their lives through its market-tailored vocational training, she provided a practical insight in how women were setting up their own businesses, moving into formal employment and becoming economically self-sufficient. 

“At the EBRD we view gender as one of the factors that can impact upon people’s economic opportunity, but which should not,” said EBRD Chief Economist Erik Berglof.  

“In addition to fostering transition to market economies, through its work the EBRD contributes to the advancement of social reforms and creating equal economic opportunities among individuals.

“As the Bank expands its activities in the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean region, we will be capitalising on the lessons learned so far, while taking into account the specifics of the new region into which we are expanding.” 

Brita Fernandez Schmidt, Director for Policy and Development at Women for Women International, said: “Upheaval creates suffering and challenges, but also windows of opportunity for change, personally, socially and economically and through our work we seek to support women in difficult environments and help create positive change.

“We are here to identify the key challenges and solutions, opportunities and ideas to create greater equality between men and women and in access to money and opportunities globally.” 

Zainab Salbi, Founder of Women for Women International added:

“The Arab Spring has been an awakening and brings to light the livelihoods of women. There is a direct correlation between the full engagement of women and economic growth of a country.  For growth and sustainability it is crucial this proportion of society is part of the economic process.

“Otherwise ignoring the ‘revolution’ will impact on the economic development and freedom of all society.” 

To watch Zainab Salbi’s speech, listen to all the other talks and download the slides, please visit Women for Women’s website.  

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