Population and Gender in the MENA: Reflections From PRB’s Farzaneh Roudi

Farzaneh Roudi recently retired after nearly three decades with Population Reference Bureau (PRB). She started PRB’s Middle East and North Africa (MENA) program in 2001 through a partnership with the Ford Foundation office in Cairo. Roudi, who earned a bachelor’s degree in Sociology in Iran and a master’s degree in Demography from Georgetown University, is well known in the MENA region and beyond for her passion and dedication to expanding knowledge and generating policy discussion about population and gender issues. We asked her about her experiences working in the MENA region and her reflections on current trends.

Q: How did PRB’s MENA program get off the ground?

My first trips to the region on behalf of PRB were in 1993 when I attended a couple of regional conferences held in preparation for the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and in 1994 when I attended the ICPD in Cairo. What I learned early on from my interactions with people in the region was that while they had high regard for PRB publications, they wanted them tailored to their cultural sensitivities. Peter Donaldson, PRB’s president at the time, supported my idea of initiating a MENA program. We were able to get our idea off the ground and sustain it over the years with generous support from the Ford Foundation office in Cairo.

Q: You have spent many years working on population, reproductive health, and gender issues in the MENA region. Compared to when you started this work, what level of progress do you see on the ground? 

Progress in openness to address and deal with population and reproductive health issues has been significant throughout the region. This openness came about in large part because of two things that happened at the international level. One was ICPD’s Programme of Action that for the first time put women’s reproductive health high on the policy agenda for global development and the other was the HIV pandemic spreading to the region. HIV and AIDS helped break taboos about reproductive health being part of public policy discourse and the Programme of Action provided a comprehensive framework for such policy discussion and action. In particular, ICPD put to rest the debate regarding the legitimacy of states’ roles in the private affairs of families by providing family planning services to help women avoid unintended pregnancies.

Today, the majority of married women of reproductive age in most MENA countries practice family planning, using modern or traditional methods. Around 60 percent of women in Egypt, Iran, and Tunisia use modern family planning methods. And in Yemen, the least developed country in MENA, about 25 percent of women use modern methods, a significant increase from 10 percent in the late 1990s. Fertility has declined in every country over the past 30 years. A number of them have completed their demographic transition. In Bahrain, Lebanon, Iran, Tunisia, and Turkey, fertility rates are now around 2 births per woman. In Yemen, where the risk of maternal death is highest, fertility has declined from an average of 6.5 children to 4.4 children per woman over the past 20 years. Fertility decline in Egypt, the most populous country in the region, however, has stalled in recent years, even taking a bit of a U-turn to reach 3.5 births per woman—the same rate as it was 15 or 20 years ago.

On gender, improvement in girls’ education has also been significant. In a number of countries, there are more female than male students enrolled in universities. As a result, the number of educated women entering the job market has been increasing significantly. The unemployment rate among these women is higher than their male counterparts despite the fact that MENA has the lowest rate of female labor force participation among world’s major regions. The region’s cultures, which tend to limit women’s mobility in public places, are often blamed for women’s low labor force participation. Another factor is that many economies in the region are overshadowed by the oil industry that is male dominated, helping reinforce patriarchal attitudes.

Many women’s organizations across the region have been active in helping remove social and legal barriers to women’s economic participation and improve their life in general. Discrimination against women is a global issue. It exists in countries around the world in varying degrees. Except for Tunisia and Turkey, what distinguishes MENA countries from most other countries in the world is that discrimination against women is often codified in laws, especially the family law. But, there have been successes in modifying family laws in some countries, such as Lebanon and Egypt, to give women the right to pass on their citizenship to their children when the father is a foreigner, for example. Morocco completely rewrote its family law, giving equal rights to men and women in marriage, divorce, and custody of their children. Making family laws more egalitarian is necessary to change the region’s patriarchal culture. Altering gender relations within families is essential to spark democracy and progress in MENA.

Q: The region has seen dramatic political changes since the Arab uprisings known as the Arab Spring. In what ways has this affected efforts to improve the condition of women and children? 

The improvements have been on paper so far, if any. The new political actors in Egypt, for example, have adopted a new constitution, and women’s organizations were involved to ensure that women’s and children’s rights were protected—undoubtedly, an important step in the right direction, but a lot more needs to happen before this shift can turn into anything tangible. First, girls and women should know about and understand their rights under the new constitution and be empowered to act when their rights are violated. Second, the whole judiciary and law enforcement system must step up to enforce the laws.

The point to remember is that no issue specific to women was in the original demands of the demonstrators in the first place. I remember in the first days of the Egyptian uprising, Peter Donaldson (then head of the Population Council) organized a conference call and had Ragui Assaad, an expert in Egyptian affairs and the director of the Council office in Cairo, on the call to give an analysis of the situation on the ground. I asked if any women’s issues were included in the demands of people on the street, and he said no. So, I don’t find it logical when I see references to Arab Spring’s failure in changing women’s life this way or that way. Among so many slogans shouted on streets in Tunis, Cairo, or any other cities, there was none specific to women.

The Arab Spring does not seem to have generally changed people’s lives for the better. Many economies have deteriorated since and some of the uprisings have turned into civil conflicts. As a result, there are a large and growing number of women and children who are affected by the conflicts, requiring special protection because of their vulnerability to abuse and gender-based violence.

Q: Is there a role for the international community in changing things?

I am a believer of international instruments like ICPD’s Programme of Action, the Millennium Development Goals, and now the Sustainable Development Goals and the whole machinery that goes with them, to help countries understand what they call for and therefore take actions. International leaders and organizations can take advantage of such instruments to advance the lives of people everywhere. For MENA, these international frameworks help establish dialogue with nations and demand actions, without being labeled as “Western.” When then U.S. First Lady Hillary Clinton, at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, said famously that “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights,” it didn’t apply to specific countries or cultures. What she said is timeless and applies to all women all over the world, including those in MENA.

Let me give a more concrete example as to how the international community sometimes can easily help change on the ground for girls and women in MENA and beyond. In the 2012 Olympic Games in London, for the first time in the history of the Olympics, every country had at least one female athlete on its national team, mainly because Saudi Arabia and Qatar did so for the first time. What prompted these two countries to send their women athletes to the games was that if they hadn’t, their male athletes could have not attended! Prior to the London games, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had changed its regulations and made it mandatory for participating countries to have both male and female athletes in their national team—a simple move on the part of IOC, with everlasting impact on girls’ sport in the two countries and the region as a whole.

Q: You have also written recently about the situation in your native Iran. What is your prognosis for the country in terms of issues PRB follows?

Iran is a success story in the population field, but its isolation from the international community means relatively little has been known about it. At PRB, we published a policy brief on Iran’s successful family planning program in 2002 and its content is still fresh to many. I recently was contacted by the UNFPA office in Baku, Azerbaijan, asking me to visit and tell officials from the Ministry of Health, parliamentarians, and religious leaders about Iran’s family planning program. Azerbaijan has a low fertility rate—2.2 births per woman—and the majority of married women practice family planning, but they mostly rely on traditional methods. As a result, they have high rates of unintended pregnancy and abortion.

I remember once visiting the Minister of Health in Egypt in his office some years ago. While holding a copy of our policy brief on Iran in his hands, he said that “Yes, Tunisia also has a successful family planning program, but we want to know more about Iran.” He continued to say that the Iranian experience as an Islamic country was more relevant to Egypt than Tunisia’s, which was seen as having a “Western” style. But in my mind, the reality was that both countries were doing the same thing, making quality family planning services accessible to all married women through their primary health care system. The only difference that I could see between the two countries was that Tunisia was and still is more open to making family planning services available to unmarried couples.

Organizations like PRB should look for opportunities to disseminate information about how, in the 1990s, Iran went about implementing the ICPD’s recommendations to the extent that was possible for the country and explain its rural health network which was the key in reducing maternal and child deaths and closing the gap in modern contraceptive use between rural and urban areas. Countries in the region and beyond, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, and Central Asian countries and many African countries would benefit from such effort by learning from the Iranian experience.