Greater economic freedom—the key to better lives for women in the Middle East and beyond

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Recently, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pledged $170 million to advance women’s economic empowerment worldwide. This pledge, made last week just prior to International Women’s Day, is wonderful news as new research shows that increased economic freedom—the ability of individuals to make their own decisions about what to buy, where to work, whether to start a business or engage in trade—dramatically improves women’s lives around the world.

Economic freedom has been widely shown to promote more robust economies, higher levels of income, greater protection of civil liberties, reductions in poverty, and improvements in health and educational outcomes. Yet in many countries, particularly in the Middle East and Africa, the institutions that protect economic freedom are not equally shared between men and women so it’s more difficult (or sometimes impossible) for women to share those benefits.

For example, millions of women are barred from moving freely within their countries or travelling abroad. They face barriers to owning and inheriting property. They can’t register a business or enter into contracts the same way as men. And they’re unable to open bank accounts or obtain loans. Moreover, their testimony in court does not carry the same weight. They face restrictions on the number of hours they can work and type of profession they pursue. In 19 countries, women need the permission of their husbands to simply obtain a job.

A 2016 study, Gender Disparity in Legal Rights and Its Effect on Economic Freedom, introduced a Gender Disparity Index, which uses several measures to capture gender disparity worldwide including freedom of movement, property rights, financial rights, freedom to work and legal status.

Which countries rank near the bottom in rights for women relative to men?

Perhaps not surprisingly, low-ranking countries include Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar. And yet, many of these countries have typically ranked high in measurements of economic freedom. For example, Saudi Arabia ranked 64 out of 180 countries in economic freedom by the Heritage Foundation in 2017.

However, the Fraser Institute, which publishes the annual Economic Freedom of the World report, has incorporated gender disparity in its 2017 rankings. And tellingly, Saudi Arabia falls from 99th to 122nd (out of 159 countries) in economic freedom. Indeed, when women’s lack of access to institutions that protect economic freedom is properly accounted for, Saudi Arabia ranks among the world’s least-free countries.

And as my recent study, Women and Progress: Impact of Economic Freedom and Women’s Well-Being, finds, women’s lives markedly improve in several important ways when afforded higher levels of economic freedom (adjusted for gender disparities).

For example, in countries with higher levels of economic freedom for women, women live more than 15 years longer (on average), are nearly twice as likely to have a job, and have higher literacy rates. Crucially, in economically-free countries, more than 80 per cent of women have bank accounts compared to just 25 per cent in countries with low levels of economic freedom. And when women are more economically independent—that is, when they are not solely reliant on men for their well-being—their life options increase significantly.

And so, in Canada and beyond, let’s truly help improve the lives of women and girls everywhere by encouraging equal access to economic institutions that help protect economic freedom and allow women worldwide the ability to make their own economic decisions. Only when women are free to make these decisions will they live truly better, prosperous and healthier lives.

To see the full Women and Progress study, go to


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