The North Africa and Middle East (MENA) region exhibits the world’s highest unemployment rate, with women unemployment up to 40% exceeding that of any other region in the world. According to the World Bank Enterprise Surveys, the MENA region has the lowest representation of women-owned formal SMEs, 12-15%, compared to 31-38% of women-owned formal SMEs in emerging markets. Women’s entrepreneurship in the MENA region represents an untapped potential of growth, prosperity and human rights improvements, particularly with regard to women’s economic and social empowerment. Creating more and better job opportunities would not only contribute to diversify economies with new ideas, technologies, and production methods, but it would give a more prominent role to women, and a recognition of their contribution to the economy. Arab women have also proven to be a reformist force seizing all the available opportunities to play a key role in the progress of their countries.

The urgent need to unblock the economic potential of women is central to achieve inclusive and sustainable industrial development. It is becoming increasingly clear that women are, and will continue to be, powerful drivers of development and economic growth. Studies reported that raising female employment to male levels can have a direct impact on GDP growth rates, increasing it by as much as 34% in some countries, and that countries’ productivity can increase by as much as 25% if discriminatory barriers against women are removed.

At the same time, women tend to have a smaller ecological footprint than men. Gender roles, including production and consumption patterns are often more resource-efficient, they are more likely to recycle and they make more sustainable decisions for their households and businesses. There is then increasing recognition of the role that women entrepreneurs can play as engines for inclusive and sustainable industrial growth. Women are in fact seen as the “rising stars” of economies in developing countries, and it is key to develop their potentials looking also at specific sectors. Sectors with a high potential for wealth creation, food security and green businesses can offer particular opportunities for generating entrepreneurial and employment opportunities for women as well as having an impact in reducing gender gaps and improving women’s empowerment.

In order to support women entrepreneurship development in the MENA region, and in response to the request of six MENA women business associations (Association for Women’s Total Advancement and Development-AWTAD Egypt; Business & Professional Women Amman – BPW‐A, Jordan; Al Majmoua, Lebanon; Association des Femmes Chefs d'Entreprises du Maroc – AFEM, Morocco, Business Women Forum-BWF, the State of Palestine; and Femmes et Leadership, Tunisia), UNIDO is implementing  the project Women economic empowerment in the MENA Region through Enterprise Creation and Growth and Investment Promotion”,  funded by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation .

As part of the project investment promotion activities, UNIDO, No Peace Without Justice, Women for Expo, and the six national MENA business women associations are organizing an International Conference on Women Economic Empowerment, at the MILAN EXPO, on 14 October 2015. The Conference will analyse two main topics, the policy and legal reforms and the importance of national, regional and international networks to empower women entrepreneurs. It will focus on six target countries: Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, State of Palestine and Tunisia.



The objectives of the Conference are:

1.      Establishing a policy dialogue and proposing recommendations, including concrete action points, through roundtable discussions, which will be based on the UNIDO report on women entrepreneurship in the MENA region;

2.      Sharing good practices on relevant topics for women entrepreneurship development in the MENA and European regions, such as investment challenges and opportunities facing women entrepreneurs, business support services, innovation, access to finance, and the development of policy options and partnerships for promoting sustainable investment to foster inclusive growth;

3.      Sharing of experiences at business women international level in order to support the promotion of a large network of women engaged in contributing to sustainable and inclusive development in their countries.


Morning session on the importance of national, regional and international networks

Participating in networks and holding regular formal and informal entrepreneurial linkages, positively influence the growth of a business fostering the creation of enterprises and their development. Especially for small and new businesses, cooperation among entrepreneurs plays a central role in their success as it contributes to reducing transaction costs and final prices of products; easing the process of procuring scarce resources; helping to mobilise finance; and facilitating the exchange of information and best practices. National women business associations have grown in the MENA region in the last decades, providing valuable support to women-owned businesses and contributing to draw Government attention to women’s human rights and their important role in economic development. However, for a number of reasons women still have less opportunities than men to participate in networking initiatives and events, and accessing key information, especially in the MENA region, and this limits substantially their ability to start and expand their enterprises.

This round table will start with a presentation on the current situation of existing networks, platforms and cooperation initiatives in the MENA region. It will also examine how to use them to foster business relationships, promote policy change through common advocacy and pool means and resources for women entrepreneurs. The panel will present best practices and lessons learned on networking in MENA countries as well as in other regions to identify concrete opportunities for creating new useful initiatives and solutions, and enhance existing ones.

Leading questions during this round table will be:

-          What is the current situation of existing networks and platforms available to women entrepreneurs in the MENA region?

-          What are the current gaps, challenges and constraints? What are the success stories and best practices in networking? What are the lessons learned?

-          What are the relevant changes that can help overcome current challenges in existing networks? How can they be enhanced to provide better services for women?

-          What new initiatives and platforms can foster women entrepreneurs?


Afternoon session on women entrepreneurship development in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, State of Palestine and Tunisia

Traditional social norms based on gender roles in the MENA region often circumscribe and constrain women’s capacity to equally exercise their authority, express their view and act accordingly within the household as well as in the economic and political spheres. Most legal frameworks in the region formalise unequal rights therefore reinforcing restrictive gender norms instead of combating them. The role of law in promoting change in social norms is crucial, and this panel aims to identify policies and legal reforms that can contribute to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment, and to create an environment conducive to women entrepreneurship.

The discussion will start with a presentation of the UNIDO report on the situation and challenges faced by women entrepreneurs in the MENA region, and will analyse best practices, policy and legal options contributing to promote gender equality in the economic sector. The first round table will focus on Jordan, Lebanon and State of Palestine, while the second will analyse the experience of Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. They will assess the institutional mechanisms that encourage women entrepreneurship and remove barriers and constraints that limit women’s access to specific services that are vital for their business. A number of legislations and regulations will also be examined, including constitutional guarantees on non-discrimination; legislations on ownership and inheritance; provisions on parental leave and childcare; marital property regimes; provisions on the value of evidence/testimony presented to courts; regulations on applying for passports, visas and in general travelling abroad; and rules on opening bank accounts and registering a business. These and other laws will be analysed to understand how they influence the business environment for women, and to develop concrete recommendations on policy and legal reforms contributing to enhance women entrepreneurship.

Leading questions during the discussions will be:

-          What are the legal and policy challenges and constraints for women entrepreneurs in the MENA region?

-          How are the legislations and rules on ownership, inheritance, marital property, parental leave, childcare, value of evidence/testimony presented to courts, passports and visas, bank accounts and access to finance, and registering a business? Do they limit the ability of women to create and develop their enterprise and how? What changes should be adopted to promote women entrepreneurship? At what level? How much do social practices coupled with lack of formal recognition and policies contribute to the situation of gender disparities?

-          What institutional policies can be adopted to encourage women entrepreneurship and to remove business barriers?

-          What incentives and mechanisms can encourage women to create and develop enterprises? 

-          What are the best practices on campaigning for legal and policy reform in the field of women human rights?

Bilateral Talks

  • Participants165
  • Meetings Requested1223
  • Meetings Accepted444


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