May 2, 2023

How we work towards women’s economic inclusion in the Middle East

Gender equality is a goal in its own right but also a critical element for driving economic growth and diversity. Take a look at some of the ways SPARK works to include women in higher education and economic opportunities throughout Iraq, Jordan and Türkiye.

Gender equality is crucial for sustainable economic growth. Research shows time and again that advancing women’s labour participation and equality in society can add trillions of dollars to the global GDP and create millions of new jobs. The concept is simple: when women work, economies grow. Women in jobs help to drive innovation, economic diversification and boost productivity. The UN Secretary-general’s high-level panel on women’s economic empowerment found that businesses with more than two women in senior leadership positions do better in organisational performance. Right now, however, the gender gap is estimated to cost the economy 15% of GDP

Despite ongoing efforts of governments throughout the Middle East to provide employment and higher education opportunities to women, progress remains uneven. High economic instability and an underdeveloped private sector continue to deprive women of employment opportunities. This largely starts with education. In Iraq, for example, boys literacy rates are double that of girls and while 73% of men are working, only 14% of women are formally employed.

In an effort to improve gender equity throughout the Middle East, SPARK and our local partners are working to close this gender divide within higher education and jobs in a number of ways. 

Developing gender-sensitive academic curricula

One of the first steps needed for women is opportunities to succeed in higher education. SPARK’s Jobs and Perspectives programme, funded by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, improves gender-inclusive skills training and educational opportunities for women to enhance their digital and entrepreneurial literacy with the ultimate goal of fostering economic growth. In Iraq, we collaborated with the Iraqi Partner universities (Erbil Polytechnic University, University of Mosul, Ararat institute, Northern Technical University) and European universities (University of Twente, Hanze University Groningen, University of Antwerp and Utrecht University) to develop six gender-sensitive academic curricula.

As part of this programme, courses in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), a field that is globally dominated by men, have been adapted to international academic standards, local contexts and gender needs. Currently, 500 female students have received scholarships and completed these developed courses. Many of these women have been able to wield this knowledge to successfully carve career paths in STEM.

How we support the higher education system in Iraq

As part of this curricula development, professors from Iraqi universities took part in study trips to Türkiye and Europe to learn about best practices for the integration of refugee and women students into higher education. With guidance from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Chair, as well as two gender experts who provided Arabic-language training on gender inclusion, workshops discussed the role of language in teaching vulnerable groups and female students. This is part of SPARK’s process to ensure that all trainers and facilitators receive gender inclusion and awareness training. 

Strengthening university’s gender units

SPARK is currently working on supporting gender units in Iraqi universities to develop their policies to advance gender equality and women’s advancement. We have created a manual to assist our stakeholders and partners in designing and implementing evidence-based, gender-sensitive policies and programmes. The guide outlines key suggestions on how to establish an efficient gender unit at universities that benefit both the staff and students.

Linking women with internship opportunities 

Aside from investing in education, SPARK focuses on making female students more competitive candidates for the future digital job market by increasing their work experience. Thus, SPARK collaborates with our partner universities and the Iraqi Chamber of Commerce and Industry to support Career Centres (CCs) in Iraqi universities to implement a digital internship model, which was specifically created for female students. We create a pool of female candidates and then match them with local and international offline and online job opportunities. 

Through the remote internship program, young women like Rama Labbad from KR-I are gaining valuable experience and job opportunities. Rama lost her job as a translator and language teacher during the pandemic, but thanks to the program, she was matched with a remote position at Fanack, a media organisation in the Netherlands. “This internship gives me the opportunity to apply my theoretical knowledge,” she says. “Apart from the learning aspect, I truly enjoy being part of an international team with people from Europe and Africa.”

The impact of the internship programme has been promising. All in all, it has provided 70 female students with offline internships and 90 students with online ones in national and international companies.

How did Shang from Iraq get an internship at a Dubai-based company?

Bridging the digital divide for women

To prepare young women for today’s labour market, we work to improve their digital skills. In Iraq, we work closely with the career centres of our partner universities to implement digital internships tailored for female students. Through the career centres, we created a pool of 250 female candidates to match them with international and local companies that are welcoming digital interns. By introducing women to the digital world, we aim to have more women-led digital businesses in the future. In 2021, 160 female students in Iraq alone completed online and offline internships at local and international companies. 

In Jordan, 400 women took part in gender-sensitive, virtual entrepreneurship training. These courses increase entrepreneurial opportunities and digital literacy. With topics such as an introduction to women’s entrepreneurship, digital financial management, and online marketing, our female participants are well set on the path of entrepreneurship.

Supporting women-led businesses to grow

In today’s labour market, making connections and networking have become crucial parts of running a successful business. To scale up female-owned startups, we connected over 80 women-led businesses and cooperatives with e-commerce platforms such as,, and in Jordan and Türkiye. By incorporating coaching and mentoring, skill training, including gender-sensitive entrepreneurship training, career guidance, women can better access finance and market opportunities. 

Access to finance 

Access to finance is a vital need for all startups and small businesses. We have provided ‘Access to Finance Readiness’ training for 75 women-led businesses in Jordan to improve their perspectives on digital financing and how to approach potential investors, banks, and microfinance institutions. We connected with the Micro-Fund for Women, which has 98% female loan takers. This connection will pave new paths for women-led businesses to access finance and scale up.

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