Interview: Hala Mohammed Al Ansari

What progress has Bahrain made when it comes to executive-level opportunities for women? What more needs to be done in the broader economy?

HALA MOHAMMED AL ANSARI: With the high level of competence and efficiency that Bahraini women have shown over the years they have managed to attain leadership positions in various fields. Bahrain today is proud to have appointed women as ministers, judges, 11 women parliamentarians (27%) in the Shura Council, as well as ambassadors representing Bahrain in three major countries around the world: the US, the UK and China. Bahraini women have also gained the trust of the people, through the election of four women parliamentarians in the Council of Representatives as well as one woman in the Municipal Council. On an international level, Bahraini women are represented in many international and regional councils and organisations: notably, a Bahraini woman was elected as the head of the 61st session of the UN General Assembly, the first Arab woman and third woman world-wide to hold that position, in 2006. However, much is left to be done, like raising awareness about the importance involving Bahraini women at the board of directors’ level. It is equally important to encourage women to continue gaining the experience needed in a field to reach that level.

How has the Gulf region evolved regarding economic opportunities for women, and what role does Bahrain play in setting an example?

AL ANSARI: The economic empowerment of women is becoming more of a priority for the Gulf region. Each country has developed programmes for economic empowerment to decrease unemployment rates as well as create alternative opportunities for work that would increase women’s capability to become more financially independent. The SCW in cooperation with its partners has initiated a number of economic empowerment programmes and initiatives, such as capacity-building and additional funding opportunities for female entrepreneurs. The SCW has collaborated with the Bahrain Development Bank to establish the Development Centre for Bahraini Women. The centre serves as a business incubator for women and offers complete administrative, training and consultative services to entrepreneurs. It encourages women to start their own projects or inspires them to expand existing projects. Additionally, female entrepreneurs now have numerous funding opportunities to grow and develop their ideas thanks to several microfinance and commercial loans that are available in the market.

Given the limited data and research on women’s affairs in Bahrain, how can developments relating to women in the economy be tracked better?

AL ANSARI: Early on, the SCW recognised data collection and research as one of its areas of specialisation. Since its establishment, the Women’s Information Centre was tasked to collect and document information, statistics and existing research, as well as conduct new studies pertaining to Bahraini women. This centre serves as a reference for researchers and advocates of women’s affairs. In support of the council’s commitment towards data collection and research, the new National Plan for Bahraini Women (2013-22) has set a goal for the SCW to become a centre of expertise for women’s affairs.

How can women’s role in small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) serve the broader economy?

AL ANSARI: The percentage of Bahraini businesswomen as a proportion of total business owners in the country grew from 37.6% in 2007 to 40.2% in 2011. Despite Bahrain’s relatively low unemployment rate of 4%, over 70% of the unemployed are women, so it is crucial to strengthen the economy with more SMEs. This will create more job opportunities, contribute to GDP and increase per capita income. The SCW’s economic empowerment programme encourages Bahraini women to become business owners by giving them the skills needed to develop competitive businesses in a way that contributes positively to the national economy.