How is social innovation empowering women in the Middle East and North Africa?

Ahead of our upcoming Wayfinder in Istanbul on the future of social innovation, we explored how social innovation is empowering women in the region of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

Challenges and opportunities for women in MENA

Historically, women face marginalisation and discrimination in much of MENA. This has resulted in the lowest female labor force participation rate in the world at 22%, which has seen little improvement in the last four decades. There is a high level of sexual abuse and violence against women, with a recent UN report finding 37% of Arab women have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime (although data is scarce due to sensitivity about intimate partner violence and the belief that it is a family issue). Historic and current challenges of male control over women, gender norms and stereotypes, women’s low socioeconomic status, and the absence of comprehensive national legislative and policy frameworks increase the vulnerability of women in the region.

Given the deep-seated societal and religious norms that underpin some of these issues, there is a need for innovative solutions to address women’s empowerment and inclusion. A growing number of social innovators and entrepreneurs are implementing creative solutions, directed at women and often founded and led by women from the region as well.  A 2018 World Bank article found that women are at the centre of the burgeoning start-up scene in MENA, and in particular are leading the SI field.

Spotlight on six innovative organisations empowering women in MENA:

Sakhrah Women’s Society Cooperative (Jordan)

Women in rural Jordan are often confined to the domestic sphere and farm work, preventing them from gaining independent work or access to education. Female agricultural workers only receive two-thirds to half the wages earned by men. Zeinab Al-Momani wanted to go to university, but was married at 19 and had a child. Knowing she could not study unless her child was cared for, she started a nursery school in her town, which grew into a kindergarten and then a school, employing women from the town. This initial success inspired Zeinab to create more employment, so in 2003 she established the first Women’s Agricultural Cooperative and the first Female Farmers union in the Arab world. The Sakhrah Women’s Society Cooperative promotes the economic, social, and cultural rights of rural women. Members cultivate, manufacture, package, and market farming and crafts products and share the profits, while their children are enrolled in the cooperative’s childcare programme or benefit from school and university grants given by the group, which now has over 700 members. Not only does the initiative reduce women’s economic vulnerability, but through the training and empowerment of women the cooperative is gradually bringing about a change in culture by raising awareness among men on women’s contribution to the household.

Thaat (Egypt)

Thaat works with marginalised artisan communities, especially women, to co-create feasible low-cost and innovative solutions related to craft design and production. Thaat was founded by Peri Abou Zied in 2012 out of a desire to empower local artisans and emerging designers. Thaat also provide consultancy and mentoring services to create more job opportunities for both artisans and designers, acting as a creative hub. They recently launched a craft school that teaches 90 underprivileged girls and women sewing, embroidery, printmaking and applique as well as entrepreneurship and social media marketing.

Glowork (Saudi Arabia)

Saudi Arabia has lagged behind other countries in MENA on women’s rights and inclusion. Promising steps have been taken recently that indicate things are changing, such as women being allowed to drive in 2018. An early leader in women’s rights in the kingdom was Khalid Alkhudair, who in 2011 founded Glowork, a company focused on reducing  female unemployment. The company has directly helped over 30,000 women find jobs in the Kingdom, and many more have benefited from advice and career fairs. It has been at the heart of a wider shift in Saudi Arabia; by 2015 there were eight times as many Saudi women working as in 2011. Glowork also tries to open up new sectors in which women can work and advises companies to hire women.

Nisaa FM (Palestine)

The way the media portrays women and men has considerable influence on perceptions and can shape cultural norms and power relations. If the media always presents womens as passive victims and subordinate to men’s or family’s decisions, society will tend to continue seeing this way. But if media presents positive role models and examples, it can shape aspirations in a positive way. Unfortunately, women in Palestine are rarely presented as capable, assertive actors in the media. Nisaa FM aims to inform, inspire, entertain, and empower Palestinian women, and men, through well-targeted and relevant programming, whilst also creating employment and training opportunities for women in media. It highlights women’s social engagement, successes, and creativity and has an audience of more than 630,000 in Palestine. Maysoun Odeh, founder and general manager, was recognised by the World Bank as one of the top ten female  entrepreneurs in the Arab world and the most influential woman in MENA.

HarassMap (Egypt)

A recent UN Women report found that 99.3% of all Egyptian women had experienced some form of sexual harassment in their lifetime. As such, HarassMap is working to build a future where neighborhoods, schools, universities, cafes, restaurants, shops, workplaces, and eventually all places in Egypt are safe spaces that do not tolerate sexual harassment. They are working to change people’s beliefs that sexual harassment is a crime and not the victim’s fault, and to ensure people act on that belief. Individuals can report an incident or an intervention to HarassMap, which are then mapped online and appear as a dot on a map, which can be opened to learn further information. This increases awareness and equips volunteers and partners with information to use in their campaigns and research.   

Jusoor (Libya)

Hala Bugaighis, a corporate lawyer, and Ekram El Huni, a humanitarian professional who has worked extensively in the UN, co-founded Jusoor, a “think and do tank.” Jusoor is committed to independent policy research on and human development projects for women with a focus on economic and social empowerment. It is the first think tank with a special focus on women’s issues in Libya. They produce publications in both English and Arabic, conduct capacity building programs, participate in activism, enable entrepreneurship and job creation, and recently hosted Ibtikar, the first Libyan social innovation competition specifically for women. Sixteen young women participated in learning how to use technological tools and design thinking techniques to find solutions for social problems.


Given the formidable challenges facing women in the region, there is still a long way to go to achieve gender equality. However, there are a number of creative and innovative women who are working to change their societies and communities across the region as identified in this piece. SIX is delighted to highlight their work here and work with some of them at the Wayfinder.

Photo credit: Al-Monitor