Study digs into gender inequality, economic development, armed conflict in Middle East, North Africa

university of virginiaIn certain parts of the world – especially the Middle East and North Africa – countries in which women have the least economic power are more likely to be involved in armed conflict and lose 25 percent or more of their potential income, according to a new study from a University of Virginia sociologist.

Even in oil-rich nations such as Saudi Arabia, where females outnumber males in secondary and higher education, a lack of work opportunities not only holds them back, but holds back the country’s production of other goods, said Rae Lesser Blumberg, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Sociology.

By contrast, Southeast Asia, where women have had economic power at home and been valued members of the labor force for millennia, is currently the world’s fastest-growing region and is less prone to violent conflict.

In a paper to be delivered Aug. 23 in Seattle at the American Sociological Association’s annual conference, Blumberg examines gender inequality, economic development and armed conflict in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia. Based on about three decades of fieldwork and research, she asserts that enabling women to earn and control income is the “most important – though not the sole – variable affecting both gender stratification and gender and development.”

Moreover, she found, the seven nations with the lowest female labor force participation in the world, at roughly 15 percent (versus a global average of 53 percent) – Afghanistan, Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria – all are currently engaged in violent conflict. And when armed conflict is fought close to home, women’s economic activities are even further dampened; this “magnifies the extent to which a nation’s economy is distorted and masculinized,” she asserts.

Blumberg calls women’s economic empowerment a “magic potion for development.”

“Economic power has consequences that range from the micro level of the woman and her family to the macro level of the state. When women have economic power, good things result,” Blumberg writes.

“It increases their voice in household decisions, resulting in enhanced children’s schooling, nutrition and health, as well as the woman’s say over her fertility,” she said. “Education, nutrition and health are key aspects of ‘human capital.’ And human capital is linked to both national income growth and national indicators of well-being.”

Social scientists who focus on these topics have attributed low numbers of women in the labor force to the patriarchal culture of the Middle East and North Africa, where men control the economic system, including property and inheritance. But Blumberg, who has worked in 47 countries, researching or consulting on gender and economic development in many of them, says it’s more complicated than that.

Looking at the kind of traditional agriculture that emerged following the invention of the plow 5,000 to 6,000 years ago in the Middle East, from where it diffused widely, she distinguishes between “dry” (non-irrigated) agriculture, where men’s use of the plow predominated and women did not have a major role in production, and those areas where irrigated rice was cultivated in paddies, a system requiring more hands, including those of women, who played (and play) a crucial role in production.

In areas of the Middle East, North Africa and much of South Asia (for example, northern India), as well as northern China, “dry” agriculture developed along with male-dominated culture – meaning the kinship and property system, as well as business, favors men.

Blumberg divides irrigated rice societies into those with a patriarchal kinship/property system and those where it was, and is, more egalitarian. The former are found in East Asia (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, southern China) and in South Asia (for example, in many southern areas of India and Pakistan and in Bangladesh). The latter are all in Southeast Asia. In both kinship/property types, it was seen as “natural” for women to work in important production activities.

However, “in East Asia, the male-dominated kinship/property system traditionally used women as unpaid family labor; local markets, where women might have acquired resources by own-account trade, were male-dominated,” Blumberg writes.

The most gender-egalitarian irrigated rice societies long have been found in Southeast Asia, she says, including Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia and Thailand. (Vietnam is an outlier due to its long history of Chinese influence, she said.)

Those Southeast Asian cultures have continued to include women in the labor force. And women control at least some economic resources – such as income, credit, land and/or other inheritance. “Southeast Asian women long have been entrepreneurs and own-account market traders. This gave them economic power over and above what they acquired through inheritance via the generally woman-friendly kinship/property system,” Blumberg writes.

Where some might attribute women’s disempowerment to fundamentalist Islam, Blumberg said religion wasn’t the driving force. Muslim-majority nations such as Indonesia have kept their women-friendly kinship/property systems despite up to 700 years of Islam, she said. Rather, it was the combination of female economic dependency and the male-dominated kinship and property system, she argues, that has played a larger part. India is about 85 percent Hindu and Chinese culture traditionally was Confucianist, for example.

Those patriarchal countries with “dry” agricultural traditions continue to keep most women out of the labor force and don’t promote their income-generation via programs like microfinance. In that way, they are cutting themselves off from a significant proportion of national income growth, she said. As evidence, her paper quotes the president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, as noting that “women’s low economic participation created income losses of 27 percent in the Middle East and North Africa.”

“The data indicate that women’s economic disempowerment is bad for the women, their families and nations – and for development, peace and the planet,” Blumberg said.

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