INTERVIEW: Reflections on women and equality in Egypt and the Mediterranean

Ingy Deif, Wednesday 8 Jun 2022

Ahram Online talked to Anna Dorangricchia, gender equality expert in the Civil and Social Affairs Division of the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), on equality, capacity building and the challenges women face in society and workplace.

Anna Dorangricchia


On 18 May, UfM member states concluded their fifth Ministerial Meeting on Employment and Labour, hosted by Morocco.

Participants discussed pressing labour market challenges in the Euro-Mediterranean region and ensuring an inclusive, green, digital and sustainable recovery for the most vulnerable groups, especially youth and women.

Ahram Online spoke to Dorangricchia after the conclusion of the meeting via Zoom.

Ahram Online: What are the main psychological and deep-rooted misconceptions that are directly linked with the problem of gender inequality?

Anna Dorangricchia: Unfortunately, women are described and labeled as “vulnerable.” So the main stereotype is women as weak, thus they do not get equal rights and pay.

It leads to many challenges. When they ask for loans, the reaction is: women are not reliable; this is something other than violence in the work place, and harassment and such.

Also, the issue of “binding quotas” and obligations of including women in percentages in entities is debatable with supporters and opposers.

AO: Does gender equality stem from regulations and governments, or rather from society itself?

AD: Both together. Public policy should be mobilised, and there is much work to be done in regards to society and cultural education, including all sectors of society, to recognise that women’s rights are human rights.

In the conference, we discussed a recent UN study about Arab countries encompassing a survey of 11,000 men and women between the age of 14 to 24. 40 percent of male respondants said they took part at least once in online harassment, and when asked why, they said: because they could.

Women’s human rights should be acknowledged more, especially in younger generations.

AO: Can we pinpoint important challenges that face women when it comes to equality in labour that are specific to countries in the region?

AD: Gender equality is an objective yet to be reached by almost all countries in the world.

We always say that the situation is worse in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region, but actually that is not entirely true.

In MENA, women’s participation in the labour market is 20 to 25 percent compared to 40 percent elsewhere.

There is a big challenge in terms of mismatching between skills, because in the MENA we have many women who graduated from STEM (scientific universities), but cannot be present in the labour market because legislation does not tackle all the barriers that women face when they look for a job in the field, also because we still suffer from gender stereotypes, and lack of data that help empower women in that regard.

Women are the ones with less access to resources and capital and to bank systems, also they have less access to technology.

When we talk about green economy and agriculture, we are faced by the unfortunate fact that women in MENA rural areas have more complicated problems.

AO: What about strides and improvements already accomplished?

AD: There are a lot of improvements and strides already taken in terms of legislation.

Most countries in the MENA are working on a gender-equality agenda and strategy, like the case in Morocco, Jordan and Egypt.

Also there are improvements in including women on boards of private companies and government sector, and better legislation in terms of protection, but still women in the entrepreneurship sector have less access to capital because of gender stereotypes and banks giving them the lowest rates when they ask for loans.

Egypt is one of two countries, together with Jordan, to sign an agreement with the World Bank and the European Bank for Construction and Development to launch initiatives to close the gender gap.

It includes a bundle of initiatives in many fields that invest a lot of funds to support women through capacity building, training and financial aid.

There are plans undergoing, but unfortunately we have to recognize that MENA is going to suffer greatly because of Ukrainian war.

AO: To what extent was COVID a setback to efforts of equality, and how will the war further hinder the efforts?

AD: I always say that crisis are never gender neutral, and COVID and war are no exception.

In terms of COVID, the number of jobs lost because of lockdown were huge and impacted women foremost.

The UN and World Bank forecast that in the MENA during COVID about 700 million jobs were lost.

About the war, main impact is on food and energy sectors, and women suffer most because they feed families and are more likely to lose jobs.

Egypt and Morocco have robust economies so they may be less damaged, but women in all societies pay the biggest price.

AO: What testimonies from the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation’s (UNIDO) actions to empower women have been the most impressive and inspirational?

AD: UNIDO has been working in the MENA region for almost 15 years now based on a specific methodology.

They provide trainings, capacity building, mentoring and incubations. They provide networking capacity building as well.

In an initiative with UNIDO, we provided thousands with information and networks to improve their skills. We also provided women with help to improve in technology in an initiative called “symbol of water.”

In Morocco, we trained women to get jobs in their field as well as how to propose requests for loans and financial aid, which are hindered by stereotyping

AO: Finally, what gives you motivation along the way and what are your hopes and aspirations for the future in that regard?

AD: I always say that in my life I faced all obstacles a woman can face when it comes to problems of gender stereotypes regarding equality and labor.

First of all, I am a woman. I come from Sicily, meaning a southern part of Italy where macho culture is strongly present, and I am an immigrant because I moved outside of my native country to work.

I always say I am not a woman, but rather a person. I have been working with passion for that all my life, and it has not been easy.

I am 52 years old and still face stereotypes, especially in countries of the Mediterranean.

There is always bias, and if you are a woman you always have to prove yourself and do double the work.

But along the way I met amazing examples: a woman from Gaza in her twenties who, against all odds, succeeded in manufacturing bricks from solar energy.

In the conference, we met a young Moroccan lady in her twenties who invented a method to create leather from fish skin.

She started with a couple of women in her local village and now has a sustainable start-up against all odds. [Despite starting in a] small village in a rural area and among a specialised community of fishermen and no money or funds, but still she did it!

In Tunisia, young women in an artificial intelligence start-up got funding of of 100 million euros after five years from their onset.

This diminishes the stereotype of limiting women to jobs of services and education rather than technology, it closes the gap.

Each time I hear about such people I am impressed and filled with passion and pride to continue the path I started.

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