Women empowerment: A new agenda for socio-economic development in Saudi Arabia

Friday Okonofua, Akhere Omonkhua


Over the years, it has been recognized that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), an oil-rich country with a population of 34.3 million people, has had relatively insidious laws and practices relating to women, in part due to the strict application of the Sharia law. The 2016 World Economic Forum ranked Saudi Arabia 141st out of 144 countries in terms of gender parity1, and indeed, women were only allowed to vote in the Kingdom in 20152. However, since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman came into office in 2017, a series of positive reforms relating to women development began to surface in the Kingdom.  Most noteworthy of these reforms is the enunciation of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 reform program, a major part of which was devoted to increasing women’s participation in economic activities3. In consequence, several women empowerment measures were put in place, including those that relate to increased job mobility for women, prevention of sexual harassment in workplaces, pension reforms, and the enunciation of workplace rights. Within three years of the emergence of gender transformative political re-positioning in Saudi, it is gratifying to note that the World Bank ranked the country in 2020 as a top reformer in women’s rights at work4.

It is within this context that the African Journal of Reproductive Health (AJRH) is publishing this special edition that documents a series of papers that research the workplace experiences of women in selected Saudi’s tertiary educational institutions. To the best of our knowledge, this is one of the first publications that report data based on empirical research on women and workplace experiences with implications for gender mainstreaming in Saudi Arabia. The edition features six original research papers that report key domains of women empowerment including the elicitation of barriers that prevent women’s workplace empowerment5, how physically compromised women are being empowered6, assessment of self-esteem among University women7, and an assessment of the current level of empowerment among Saudi women in academics8. One of the papers also reports the validation of a novel women empowerment scale, which would be useful in similar studies in other settings9.

Although the papers capture in a nominative manner some of the most important determinants and endearing characteristics of empowerment among women in Saudi Arabia, a major drawback is that none of the papers compared the indicators with those of men, which makes it difficult to assess the gender disparity inherent in the presentations. Nonetheless, the studies provide deep insights for understanding the context and nuances relating to women empowerment in Saudi Arabia which would be useful for designing reform measures.

The AJRH decided to publish this compilation of papers for two principal reasons. First, the ongoing reforms for women development in Saudi Arabia are groundbreaking and hold considerable promise for rethinking the roles of culture and religion within the perspectives of women’s development. Given that the sustainable development goal 10 is devoted to reducing inequality and goal 5 to promoting gender equality10, the current efforts to promote women empowerment in Saudi Arabia aligns with these goals and will help the overall attainment of the goals and the SDGs globally.

Secondly, the current efforts at mainstreaming women into the development of Saudi Arabia has implications for the African region. Gender inequality index, a composite index for measuring inequality between men and women, used universally to measure countries’ performances in gender equality benchmarks have repeatedly shown African countries to be at the bottom of the scale. According to the UNDP report in 201311, among 198 countries surveyed for gender equality, several African countries including Niger, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Chad, Sierra Leone, Eritrea, Burkina Faso, and Burundi were at the bottom of the ranking. This suggests that several African countries have considerable work to do on women empowerment and gender mainstreaming if they are to catch up with the rest of the world. Indeed, the World Bank estimates that sub-Saharan Africa loses about 100 billion dollars in wealth because of under-representation of women in economic activities12.

Thus, we believe it was appropriate and relevant to field these series of papers in the AJRH to serve as an exemplar to African countries on similar steps that need to be undertaken to promote the development of women in the region.

In conclusion, this special edition of the AJRH provides evidence for efforts being made in Saudi Arabia to integrate women into the Kingdom’s future development. The papers cover various domains relating to empowerment metrics of women in academics who are expected to play key roles in future decision-making, research, and innovations in the Kingdom. We believe the results contained in the papers in this edition will be useful for designing policies and programs for enhancing the empowerment of women academics in Saudi Arabia, and in similar settings around the world.

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