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MENAFN - Khaleej Times - 02/05/2008

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(MENAFN - Khaleej Times) The economic status of women around the world needs immediate attention of the authorities concerned with national development. It is said that even though women make up half of the world's population they are burdened to perform nearly two-thirds of its work hours; receive only one-tenth of its income; and own only one hundredth of its property.

Any wonder then, why the United Nations initiated the global campaign for "women's empowerment" by centerstaging this burning issue in its Millennium Development Goals?

In the Middle East and North African region, it is estimated that by the year 2025 over 100 million jobs will need to be created to accommodate the influx of Arab youth entering the work force. It is also estimated that in spite of the heavy investment most Arab nations have made in women's education, working women in the region make up only 32 percent of the region's total work force — and within these unemployment statistics, highly educated women are known to be the most unemployed.

As for the unemployment situation of women in Saudi Arabia, one can only speculate with the absence of reliable data. But thanks to events such as the Saudi National Dialogues, and with the conclusion of the most recent 7th one, the general public knows that unemployment in general, and women's unemployment in particular, is a clear and present danger waiting to explode if there are no immediate interventions from the authorities.

Old news, repackaged once again. So what then can we, as a nation, do about it, aside from talking?

There is no better time than now for us to capitalize on the resourcefulness and contributions of women as major market-creators — but we can only do that if we work hard at dismantling the cultural stereotypes attached to women's employment that have been haunting us for the last 20 years. Dare we dream of the day when equal employment opportunities are readily available in Saudi Arabia to both men and women? Dare we dream of the day when our youth no longer need to migrate to neighboring countries in search of better employment opportunities and better living conditions? Dare we dream of a day where my country, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, becomes the "employer" of choice for our local youth as well as for job seekers around the world? I dare say that we can.

Savvy investors will be quick to notice that the first two paragraphs of my article describe a situation that seems catastrophic at first glance but beneath the surface lies a ripe investment opportunity waiting to be plucked. I think we all agree that it is high time that the private sector began to make its mark on our national economy by becoming more proactive in deciding who they can or cannot employ. After all, any — or all — current employment opportunities are made by them and as key stakeholders they have the legitimate right to make sure that their business objectives are met by those they believe are qualified and able to do so.

Women have tremendous economic and social power.

Recent surveys in a variety of countries show that women make up 80 percent of their families' purchasing decisions. By employing women, companies will have the advantage of acquiring first-hand insight into the decision-making process of their key client, "the woman consumer". Through the insight and perspectives brought on by women employees, managers, and CEOs, companies will be able to tap into new markets, develop new products and become better local and global competitors.

Even though I am advocating the integration of women into the work force, the core purpose of my argument is not only to do so for the sake of gender equality per se, but more for the sake of providing practical solutions for the benefit of all parties concerned: My country, our youth and our private sector enterprises. Toward this end, I will conclude with the following three points. First, integrating women into the national labor force is by default the reason behind the 50-year-old decision taken by our leadership to educate women; it is also by default the object of the 5-year National Development Plans initiated in the 1970s and still in progress today.

Secondly, based on that decision, it is payback time. The heavy investment of free education for Saudi women for over half a century needs to bear its fruits now — or else we will continue to add more women onto the backlog of unemployment that we are suffering from now.

And finally, and more importantly, the "second income" generated by respectable employment is to most Saudi women the critical dividing line between a lifestyle of poverty and the hope for a middle class one — and this fact alone is reason enough to convince all parties concerned that the ultimate benefits and prosperity brought on by the employment of women will fall on none other than on our nation itself.


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