Bolstering childcare policies can help unlock the colossal economic potential of increased female employment rates. An extensive analysis by consulting firm PwC reveals that an upsurge in female employment participation has the potential to boost the GDP of the MENA region by a whopping 57 per cent, amounting to an impressive $2.0 trillion in economic value.
Boosting female employment rates offers a range of benefits that contribute to individual well-being, economic growth, and societal progress. Economically, it diversifies the labour pool, enabling female talents to contribute their unique skill sets and spur innovation, creativity, and productivity.
Households benefit from supplementary incomes and expanded access to health care benefits, breaking poverty cycles and paving the way for a quality life for all family members. Collectively, these benefits make evident the vital role of female employment rates on both individuals and societies as a whole.
However, current female employment rates in the MENA region is capped at 22 per cent only, the lowest rate in the world, according to a report published by United Nations Women, the International Labour Organization, and the Economic Research Forum.
Primarily, care duties pressure females to forego employment opportunities as no viable alternatives are available in the form of affordable childcare services or accessible early childhood centers. At the same time, job demands necessitate workers to spend long hours at workplace settings, offering an all-in or no-go scenario that hinders their participation in the workforce.
Yet, many governments are recognising the advantages of increased female employment rates and three countries — Singapore, Japan, and Finland, in particular — provide useful examples in designing supportive family-friendly policies. In this year’s budget statement, the Singaporean government introduced a number of important policy measures to support marriage and parenthood.
The Baby Bonus Cash Gift of up to SGD 10,000, disbursed to parents, will be increased by SGD 3,000 for all eligible Singaporean children, across all birth orders, and will be disbursed at six-month intervals until the child reaches six-and-a-half years of age.
Moreover, in an effort to promote increased fatherly participation in parenting duties, policymakers are extending the Government-Paid Paternity Leave from two weeks to four weeks. Furthermore, each parent will be entitled to twelve days of Unpaid Infant Care Leave annually, previously six days, during their child’s initial two years.
Providing financial and childcare service
On the other hand, the Japanese government established the Children and Families Agency in April 2023, under the purview of the Cabinet Office, with the responsibility of improving the overall welfare of children. Functions include looking after their physical and mental well-being, providing financial and childcare service support for families, reducing bullying and abuse incidents, and developing safe environments for children to live, learn, and play in.
Among its initial suite of policies to be activated are extending child care allowances for families until children graduate from high school. Starting next year, tuition reduction, exemptions, and scholarships will expand beyond low-income households to include the middle class. This extension will encompass households with multiple children and students pursuing fields like science, technology, and agriculture — enhancing their opportunities for college entry.
A comprehensive care service should be widely available and at affordable rates, with the presence of qualified caregivers within childcare facilities. On this note, employers could also offer on-site childcare facilities to support their female employees
The government is also working on revamping childcare services and will begin to offer them to all parents, irrespective of their employment status. Moreover, as part of fostering co-parenting habits between both parents, policymakers are exploring ways to implement a system enabling flexible work hours for parents with children from the age of three up until they enrol in elementary school, which would encompass reduced work hours, telecommuting options, and adaptable work schedules.
Last year, the Finnish government reformed its various forms of family leave available to employees. New parents are able to avail a pregnancy leave, special pregnancy leave, in addition to parental leave. Other types of leave include childcare leave for caring for a child under 3 years of age or an adopted child for up to two years after adoption (until the child starts school).
Partial childcare leave is offered until the end of the second school year, extended until the end of the third year if the child starts school early, and up to the age of 18 for disabled or chronically ill children. Temporary childcare leave allows 1-4 workdays to care for a sick child under 10 years old. Temporary right of absence is granted for unforeseen and compelling family reasons, such as illnesses or accidents.
Additionally, an agreement-based leave of absence is available for caring for family members or close individuals, with no fixed minimum or maximum period. Furthermore, carers’ leave permits up to 5 working days annually for providing personal assistance or support to a relative or loved one living in the same household, under certain conditions of significant need for assistance due to a serious illness or injury.
In light of these exciting developments, MENA governments can introduce path-breaking solutions with regards to introducing the right combination of financial assistance and support services to help advance female employment rates in the region.
Reforming legislations to allow women to balance family and career duties is essential. Adjustments include offering generous family-friendly leave policies — chiefly, maternity, parental, and special childcare leaves. Additionally, it is important to offer female workers the ability to opt for flexible working hours, remote work arrangements, and shorter workweeks.
A comprehensive care service should be widely available and at affordable rates, with the presence of qualified caregivers within childcare facilities. On this note, employers could also offer on-site childcare facilities to support their female employees.
Implementing mentorship programmes, networking events, and counselling services within organisations can help women connect with experienced professionals that offer wise advice on navigating their careers. On the other hand, governments could also support women entrepreneurs to start and grow their own businesses by offering financial assistance, training, and resources.
By bolstering childcare policies in the region, Arab women can increase their active involvement in the labour market, ultimately promoting a more inclusive, equitable society.
Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and literature