Algeria deserves to be integrated into the Mediterranean region. While I have not visited the country, I have been to its borders and have met Algerians abroad in different strata of life who have impressed me with their desire to improve economic conditions in their country – because they want to have a future within their country. This analysis focuses on women’s participation in the economy, and includes qualitative and quantitative data and indicators on trends. Women’s economic participation mirrors the progress or setbacks in the socioeconomic dynamics of the nation and the ability of its leaders to grapple with market forces and developmental challenges. It would be a good sign for Algeria if the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) launches operations there; in this way, Algeria’s private sector could be integrated into the markets of the region and standards of governance could be improved, including enhancing women’s role in business. Equally important for women’s participation in the economy, and for governance practices more broadly, is the European Investment Bank’s (EIB) 2.1 billion-euro investment on projects in the transport, energy, water and industry sectors. But it will take bolder steps in domestic and EU-backed policy to help women claim their rightful place in the country’s economic future.
Bringing Algeria’s Women into the Workforce
Algeria’s women played a crucial role in the nation’s history, participating in the anti-colonial struggle and pushing for greater equality. Yet for decades they struggled to get on an equal footing with men. Their lot improved in 2005 after revisions to family law granted them stronger rights and protections. Two years later, a New York Times article spoke of a ‘quiet revolution’, with Algerian women advancing across several fronts – they now account for 70 per cent of lawyers and 60 per cent of judges, they dominate the field of medicine and surpass men in university enrolment. By 2013, there were fewer girls out of school than boys, which was all part of a nationwide plan to halve of the number of truant children between 2006 and 2013. Two years later, at a UN conference in Beijing, Algeria’s women’s minister, Mounia Meslem Si Amera, confirmed the steady growth of women in management roles, and noted that women held nearly a third of seats in the People’s National Assembly.,,
The Mediterranean Growth Initiative data tool, which draws from sources including the World Bank and the International Labour Organization, confirms these trends while also, through time series data, showing some more concerning recent signs. For instance, there was a steady increase in secondary school enrolment among girls, from around 50 per cent in 1990 to 100 per cent by 2010 – a vital precondition to their economic success but not synonymous with it. However, the data also shows that women’s economic empowerment may have peaked in the 2010–2012 period and has since slid back. Although the percentage of women in salaried work, as a proportion of the total number of women, increased from 58 per cent in the 1990s to 75 per cent in 2012, it had declined to around 64 per cent by 2016. Additionally, while the figure for women in vulnerable employment - meaning those working in the informal sector, or lacking securre and safety working conditions - fell from 40 per cent in 1990 to 24 per cent in 2012, it had risen to 34 per cent by 2016. Looking at time series data is crucial to understanding economic trends. Two isolated data points from different decades could make things look rosier than they are. Knowing the direction in which things are moving helps us identify emerging problems.
There are various reasons why women’s economic progress could be stalling or reversing in Algeria. Wider trends take a toll; Algeria suffered a sizeable GDP slowdown between 2014 and 2016 due to falling oil prices. But there are women-specific challenges to overcome too. Cultural factors are significant. Women are insufficiently recognised as economic actors, with their ‘unpaid’ activities, including their work in relation to agriculture, livestock and textiles, missing from labour market statistics and not considered economic activities at all by some, according to research studies., Other challenges include the fact that family lending for businesses – vital in a country with little in the way of entrepreneurial credit markets – tends to favour males, not to mention the view held by some that, in a context of high unemployment, the available jobs should first go to men. Algeria’s broader business environment constraints, such as the need for collateral to cover rental of commercial property for a year, also works against less advantaged groups and those without considerable financial capital.
The signs are that women want, and are agitating for, economic empowerment. There are pace-setting trailblazers such as former Olympic champion Hassiba Boulmerka, who won a 1992 gold medal against great odds – including threats to her life. Civil society groups and initiatives are advancing the women’s agenda; examples are Savior et Vouloir Entreprendre, which works to convene female business leaders, and the Algerian Network of Business Women. The Association of Algerian Women for Development (AFAD) has helped vulnerable women by providing microfinance loans, workshops and training. Companies are playing a role too. ArcelorMittal, for example, has supported AFAD, as do international institutions such as UNESCO, which runs a programme to train women journalists to cover more stories about successful female entrepreneurs.
Positive media narratives are vital in order to demonstrate the pathways open to women. These should connect up to the stories of other successful women entrepreneurs in the region, such as the Lebanese-American entrepreneur Aline Sara, whose company NaTakallam connects displaced Syrians with Arabic learners around the world for Skype-based language practice. Such stories and examples should help ensure women play a greater role in the economic life of North Africa and Middle Eastern nations.
Cleopatra Kitti was in conversation with Adam Green