Equal rights and opportunities for girls and boys across the region
Gender equality is essential to realizing the mandate of UNICEF to uphold the rights of all children. UNICEF recognizes that gender discrimination begins before birth and impedes the realization of rights through childhood, adolescence and beyond. Investments in gender equality beginning in early childhood and continuing throughout adolescence are therefore integral to lifelong positive outcomes for children and their communities.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has been undergoing rapid and turbulent change over the past couple of decades. Many of these changes have been positive for women and girls, leading to advancements in health care access and services, increased opportunities for education and political participation, and changing cultural and gender norms that reduce violence and discrimination. Yet, women and girls in the MENA region still face serious barriers in their everyday life and the region is among the slowest in the world to show progress on gender equality across multiple indicators.
Girls and young women across the MENA region bear a double burden: they are not only restricted by their age, but also by gender norms, limiting their physical mobility, access to the labour market, and both household and public decision-making. In several countries, as well as within communities, in the region, mobility within and outside the household is restricted by patriarchal structures and men’s decision making. Adolescent girls across MENA countries are facing increased risks of triple burden of malnutrition - undernutrition, anemia and overweight and obesity.
Throughout the region, the most common out of school children at both primary and secondary levels are rural girls and adolescent girls. At a young age, girls face barriers to quality education, especially through their involvement in domestic work. Adolescent girls are at risk of early pregnancy and school dropout, and are more likely to work in precarious, informal jobs, shoulder a greater burden of unpaid care. When there is progress in access to primary and secondary education for girls and adolescent girls, this does not directly translate into participation in the labor force. Across the region, female youth are more than twice as likely to be not in education, employment, or training than male youth.
Adolescent girls represent one of the highest risk groups for gender-based violence in MENA and across the globe, including sexual exploitation and abuse, sexual harassment, trafficking, female genital mutilation, child marriage, and gender-related killing. The results of restrictive gender socialization as well as limited agency will be reflected in barriers to progressive realization of rights of girls and women, as well as negative impacts on national economies and society. Girls’ and adolescent girls’ empowerment can often go hand in hand with addressing negative masculinity that affects the lives of boys and adolescent boys.
Across all five Goal Areas of the UNICEF Strategic Plan, 2022–2025, the Gender Action Plan advances gender equality priorities throughout the life course and promotes targeted actions to advance the leadership and well-being of adolescent girls. This dual-track approach emphasizes structural and norms change – going beyond responding to the manifestations of gender inequality to tackling the underlying drivers.
With policy reform, capacity and access to institutions and services as well as community engagements around social norms, disrupting negative gender norms and promoting transformation toward equality and empowerment is possible. As part of UNICEF Adolescent Girl Strategy, we focus on:
- Centering adolescent girls’ Voice, agency and leadership in effectuating change
- Promoting multi-faceted, multisectoral, integrated approaches
- Generating quality data and evidence as a global good
- Strengthening partnerships, including with girl-led networks and organizations
The priority results for gender equality across UNICEF include improvement in the quality of maternal health care and nutrition, counselling and care; more gender-responsive education systems and equitable access to education for all; progress towards the elimination of violence and harmful practices; more equitable water, sanitation and hygiene systems; and gender-responsive social protection systems. Targeted actions for adolescent girls include promoting health, nutrition and pregnancy care, and the prevention of HIV and human papilloma virus; advancing girls’ education, learning and skills; ending child marriage and early unions; and promoting accessible and dignified menstrual health and hygiene services. To address gender-based violence, UNICEF will adopt a multisectoral strategy across all Goal Areas, using sector-wide and survivor-centred approaches. Integrating gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls into all humanitarian action is also a priority in the GAP.
The work of UNICEF on gender equality and the empowerment of girls and women is grounded in the human rights principles of non-discrimination and equality, upheld in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Climate change has a significant impact on adolescent girls, causing increased stress and pressure in their everyday lives. Climate change is exacerbating already existing inequalities, including gender inequality, and as such adolescent girls in MENA face significant impacts due to drought, rising temperatures, water quality decline, environmental degradation, and loss of biodiversity. This affects their mental and physical health and increases the risks of violence, exploitation, and other threats.
UNICEF works to address the challenges faced by adolescent girls due to climate change, ensuring the protection of their rights and promoting their sustainable development in affected communities. This includes empower and provide opportunities for adolescent girls and young women to participate in decision-making and achieve positive changes in their communities.